The Date of Marriage: Not always a simple issue

We have written several blogs about the date of separation and its importance to a dissolution action. In some cases, the date of separation can be the most critical issue in a case. The reason is the date of separation can be a significant factor in determining how long spousal support will last , or whether a particular piece of property is separate or community. If you Google “date of separation,” your web browser will retrieve dozens, if not hundreds, of articles on this topic.

Your results page would look very different if you Googled “date of marriage.” You would probably have to go through 10 pages of wedding announcements and bridal registries before you saw anything that resembled a legal analysis. The reason for this is a couple’s date of marriage is not nearly as contested of an issue as the date of separation, because couples have no problem remembering what day they were married.  That does not mean that date of marriage cannot  be a huge issue in any given case. After all, subject to certain exceptions discussed below, the rights to spousal support and community property do not begin under the law until the marriage starts.

What are the requirements for a valid marriage?

Family Code section 420 et. seq. outlines the requirements of a valid marriage. These include 1) consent to the marriage 2) the issuance of a license; and 3) solemnization of the marriage by an authorized officiant.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, the Court of Appeals in the Marriage of Left case was tasked with resolving the definition of a valid marriage in a spousal support case. In Marriage of Left¸ the parties divorced and Husband paid Wife spousal support. Wife, probably with the understanding that spousal support would terminate automatically on her remarriage, had a marriage ceremony with her new partner but consciously chose not to get a marriage license. Husband argued that even a marriage ceremony that did not meet all the requirements of the family code still counted as marriage for the purposes of terminating spousal support.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. They found that despite the fact that Wife and her new partner had a marriage ceremony, that marriage ceremony could not terminate spousal support unless all the requirements of a valid marriage were met. Since no marriage license was issued, Husband’s argument had to fail as a matter of law.

The country of marriage can be just as important as the date of marriage

Although the requirements outlined in Family Code section 420 are required for marriages inside California, these requirements can be quite different for marriages contracted outside of California.

Pursuant to Family Code section 308, a “marriage contracted outside” of California “that would be valid by laws of the jurisdiction in which the marriage was contracted” is valid in California.

In Alabama, for example, a common-law marriage can occur without a marriage license if the parties are cohabiting and if certain other requirements are met. In the Marriage of Left example, it is very possible that if the same ceremony took place in Alabama, Husband would have prevailed and Wife’s right to receive spousal support would have been terminated.

Putative Spouse Rights

In certain circumstances, parties can have the same rights as spouses, even if there was no valid marriage. If a party has a subjective, good faith believe in the validity of a marriage, they can be considered putative spouses. Under California law, they are treated the same as spouses.

The date of marriage impacts many issues in a case, and the resolution of those issues is a very fact-driven analysis.  If you believe your case involves a contested date of marriage, it is important that you discuss your rights with a qualified family law attorney.

Please contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding the validity of a marriage. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.

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