California’s system of family law is in place to provide protection to spouses and children and typically comes into play for divorce cases. Unlike some states, California does not recognize common-law spouses as legally married no matter how long they lived together as though married or whether or not they presented themselves as married to others. Because the courts always consider the best interests of children, the family court does decide on custody and child support issues for unmarried couples when they separate but it does not play a role in the division of assets.

When couples who’ve cohabited together without legal marriage separate, they must divide their own assets and debts, typically retaining anything in their own names without the protection of the courts. However, when one or both individuals believed in good faith that they were legally married and find out during separation that the marriage wasn’t valid, they become a putative spouse in the eyes of the California courts and enjoy the same legal protection as a legally married spouse.

How Does a Putative Marriage Occur?

While the issue of putative spouses isn’t common, there are cases when one or both parties in a relationship learn their marriage isn’t valid. When a person enters into what they believe in good faith to be a legitimate marriage it’s fair to provide them with the protection they believed they were entitled to under California law. Legally,

“Good faith” is what any reasonable person would believe in the same or similar circumstances. In some cases, one spouse may enter into a marriage with another who either knowingly or unknowingly never legally ended a prior marriage, making the new marriage invalid. If one spouse tricked the other into a false marriage they are guilty of fraud. In other cases, both parties may be punitive spouses if they both entered the marriage believing they were free to marry, only to later learn that a previous divorce or annulment was never finalized. Some putative marriages have occurred due to a ceremony that was performed by an officiate later found to be unqualified.

An individual may also learn they are a putative spouse if they discover their husband or wife willfully committed bigamy and entered into marriage while purposely hiding another marriage.

Finally, some marriage ceremonies performed in other countries or through religious ceremonies may not meet the legal requirements for a valid marriage in the United States. If one or both parties believed in good faith that the marriage was legal, the courts will treat them the same as a legally married couple, or as putative spouses.

Understanding Your Rights as a Putative Spouse

California courts examine the circumstances of a marriage relationship to discover if one or both parties qualify as a putative spouse. According to California’s family code section 2251, if the state court determines that one or both parties believed themselves to be legally married in good faith, they’re awarded putative spouse status and then enjoy the same protections as a legally wed couple during a divorce if they seek to end their supposed union. This means the court divides community property evenly just as they would for a legally married couple during their divorce according to California’s community property laws. A putative spouse may request spousal support when appropriate just as though they were lawfully married. A putative spouse also retains inheritance rights in the event of the death of the person they presumed was their legal spouse.

It’s important to seek legal standing as a putative spouse in any of these circumstances in order to petition for spousal support and to protect your financial assets. A family law attorney in Los Angeles can evaluate your case to determine if you fit the definition of a putative spouse in California.