New California Case Means Changes for Wrongful Death Claims

California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60 provides that a decedent’s putative spouse may bring a wrongful death action if he or she was dependent on the decedent. The statute defines a putative spouse as “the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have belief in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid”. 

The recent California Supreme Court case, Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. (2013) 56 Cal. 4th 1113, overturned long established case law requiring a putative spouse to have an objective, good faith belief that his or her marriage is valid to have standing to bring an action for wrongful death. The Court, in an unanimous opinion written by Judge Baxter, held that if a putative spouse has a subjective good faith belief of marriage, then he/she has standing to bring a wrongful death action. This is true even if the marriage was invalid and the putative spouse knew that the marriage was invalid. The Ceja court concluded that wrongful death statute, Code of Civil Procedure§ 377.60, contemplates a subjective standard that focuses on the alleged putative spouse’s state of mind to determine whether he or she maintained a genuine and honest belief in the validity of the marriage.

On September 19, 2007, decedent, Robert Ceja, was killed in an accident at a construction site. Plaintiff Nancy Ceja filed a wrongful death action against defendant Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. claiming she was the putative spouse of decedent pursuant to § 377.60. 

The following evidence was produced in discovery: the decedent and his previous wife, Christina Ceja, were wed in 1995. When decedent met plaintiff in 1999, he told plaintiff that he was married but separated. In 2001, decedent filed a petition for dissolution of his marriage to Christina and he started living with plaintiff. In September 2003, plaintiff and decedent filled out a license and certificate of marriage. The document was marked “0” in the space asking for decedent’s number of previous marriages and was left blank in the other two spaces asking how and when any previous marriages had been terminated. Although, plaintiff knew of decedent’s marriage of Christina, plaintiff signed the “Affidavit” box indicating that the contents of the completed document were “correct and true to the best of their knowledge and belief”. On September 24, 2003, a marriage license was issued to plaintiff and decedent.

It was undisputed that decedent was still married to Christina when he and plaintiff held their wedding ceremony three days later. On December 21, 2003, the Santa Clara County Superior Court filed a “Notice of Entry of Judgment”, stating that a judgment for dissolution of the marriage between decedent and Christina had been entered on December 26, 2003 and that the judgment was effective as of the date the judgment was filed. The notice also contained a warning, in a separate box and in bold, which read “[n]either party may remarry until the effective date of the termination of marital status.” The notice was mailed to plaintiff and decedent’s home and in January 2004, plaintiff faxed a copy to decedent’s ironworkers union so she could be added to decedent’s medical insurance.  

Defendant moved for summary judgment, contending plaintiff lacked standing to bring a wrongful death action as a putative spouse because she did not have the necessary “good faith belief” that her marriage to decedent was valid. Defendant’s motion was based on the fact that plaintiff and decedent were married before the dissolution of his marriage with Christina became final, rendering decedent’s marriage to plaintiff void; plaintiff falsely signed a marriage license in which decedent falsely represented that he had not been married before; and finally, the court document clearly indicated that decedent’s marriage to Christina was not dissolved until after his wedding with plaintiff.

In opposing the motion, plaintiff argued that she understood decedent had filed for “divorce in 2003 but did not know what happened after that because decedent would never discuss the subject.” Plaintiff claimed that she did not read the marriage certificate in detail and signed the document.  While plaintiff recalled faxing the court document to decedent’s union, she did not recall specifically reviewing the papers before she sent them. However, she “absolutely knew” that he was divorced from Christina when she faxed the court document and at the time of his accident.

Plaintiff further argued that following their well-attended marriage ceremony, she held herself out to the public as decedent’s wife, she changed her last name to Ceja and they both wore wedding rings, shared a joint checking account, lived together in the same house, and handled their taxes as married, although filed separately. Plaintiff claimed that she would not have had her wedding if she did not believe their marriage would be legal and valid, and that had she realized at any point that their marriage was invalid, she “would have simply redone the ceremony.”

The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court, consistent with In re Marriage of Vryonis (1998) 202 Cal.App.3d 712, applied an objective test for putative spouse status and found that plaintiff did not have an objectively good faith belief in the validity of her marriage to decedent.

The Court of Appeal reversed, disagreeing with the Vryonis objective approach; the court held 337.60’s requirement of a good faith belief refers to the alleged putative spouse’s subjective state of mind. In the court’s view, plaintiff’s claim that she believed and acted as if her marriage was valid and that she had not read the marriage license or the final divorce papers, if found credible by the trial court, could support a finding of a good faith belief and establish a putative spouse status.

The Supreme Court, in reviewing the issue, focused on the meaning of the statutory phrase, “believed in good faith.” The Court concluded that the good faith inquiry is purely subjective and evaluates the state of mind of the alleged putative spouse, and that the reasonableness of the claimed belief is properly considered as part of the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the belief was genuinely and honestly held.
The Court first looked to the ordinary usage and meaning of the phrase “good faith” and discussed its equation with “sincerity”, “honesty” and “a state of mind indicating honesty and lawfulness of purpose” or “absence of fraud, deceit, collusion, or gross negligence.” The Court next noted that before any California statute made a reference to putative spouses, the courts began developing the putative spouse concept as a means for enabling a party to an invalid marriage to enjoy the civil benefits of marriage if he or she believed in good faith that the marriage was valid. The courts made it clear from the beginning that the fundamental purpose of the putative spouse doctrine was to protect the expectations of innocent parties and to achieve results that are equitable fair, and just.

The Supreme Court next looked at the relevance of reasonableness. Since Vyronis was decided, the Courts of Appeal have been unanimous in holding the good faith inquiry is objective in nature. However the Court, disagreeing with Vryonis to the extent that “good faith” is tested by an objective standard, concluded:

…[T]he reasonableness of a party’s belief is a factor properly considered…Thus, a finding of whether a party’s belief was genuinely held in good faith will be informed, in part, by whether that party was aware of the facts that were inconsistent with a rational belief in the validity or lawfulness of a marriage.

The Supreme Court, affirming the holding of the appellate court, held:

In determining good faith, the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances, including the efforts made to create a valid marriage, the alleged putative spouses’ personal background and experience, and all the circumstances surrounding the marriage. Although the claimed belief need not pass a reasonable person test, the reasonableness or unreasonableness of one’s belief in the face of objective circumstances pointing to a marriage’s invalidity is a factor properly considered as part of the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the belief was genuinely and honestly held.

The impact of Ceja is that it is much more difficult to prevail on summary judgment against a putative spouse based on lack of standing. The putative spouse need only have a subjective good faith belief of marriage to the decedent to create a triable issue of material fact. The Ceja ruling may also make it more difficult to obtain a directed verdict or jury verdict on the issue of standing. In order to combat this situation, discovery and strategy should be tailored to determine the putative spouse’s state of mind regarding his/her good faith belief of his/her marriage with an examination of the “totality of the circumstances” including factors such as whether the couple held a wedding ceremony and conducted their financial affairs as a married couple and whether the putative spouse held himself/herself out to the public as the decedent’s spouse. It should also be borne in mind that the subjective test regarding the putative spouse’s good faith belief that he/she was legally married is subject to the reasonableness of the belief. Thus, the defendant should attempt to disprove the putative spouse’s alleged genuine and honest belief of his/her marriage.

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