What’s a Putative Spouse in California?

by Staff Blogger | January 18th, 2023

Filing a wrongful death claim in California can be a complicated and confusing process, made worse by simultaneously grieving the loss of a loved one. Usually, wrongful death lawsuits are filed by surviving spouses with the assistance of California wrongful death lawyers.

But in some cases, surviving spouses find out after their spouse’s death that their marriage may never have been legally valid due to a defect or technicality.

When these unfortunate situations occur, California law provides an avenue for recourse through the putative spouse doctrine. In this blog post, we’ll explain what a putative spouse is under California law, and how the putative spouse doctrine can assist families of wrongful death victims.

California Wrongful Death Lawsuits

A wrongful death lawsuit is filed after a person dies due to another person’s negligence. Filed by the victim’s surviving family members, wrongful death claims are designed to compensate surviving family members for the loss they have suffered.

During a case consultation with our team of wrongful death lawyers, California families can explore the types of damages that may be available in their specific case, as damages vary from case to case. The types of damages that may be available in a wrongful death case include the following:

  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Loss of future earning potential
  • Loss of love and companionship
  • Loss of expected gifts or inheritances

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?

In California, the law first permits a victim’s surviving spouse to file a wrongful death lawsuit. If a victim is unmarried, then the lawsuit may be filed by other surviving immediate family members, such as children, parents, or siblings.

In some cases, a surviving spouse may find out after their spouse’s death that they were actually never legally married. In these situations, California law labels the surviving spouse as a “putative spouse” and allows them to file a wrongful death lawsuit if they meet certain conditions.

What is a Putative Spouse in California?

Under California law, a putative spouse is a person who holds a reasonable belief that they are married, when in reality, their marriage is legally invalid. Putative spouses in California are allowed to file wrongful death lawsuits if they genuinely believe that their marriage to the victim was true and valid.

Most often, the putative spouse issue arises in cases of second marriages, where one spouse’s divorce may not have been actually finalized, accidentally leaving the first marriage legally intact.

Putative Spouses in California Wrongful Death Lawsuits

The California Supreme Court most recently addressed the putative spouse issue in a 2013 case titled Ceja v. Rudolph & Sletten, Inc. In that case, the deceased victim filed for divorce from his first wife, but it was not finalized until three months after the victim and his second wife married. Because the divorce was not finalized when the second marriage occurred, the second marriage was never legally valid.

But despite that, the second wife changed her last name, wore a wedding ring, and otherwise held herself out as the victim’s legally wedded wife. Four years later, the victim was killed in an on-the-job accident at a construction site. The victim’s employer tried to dismiss the lawsuit, but the court disagreed, holding that the putative spouse doctrine applied because the surviving spouse held a genuine belief that her marriage to the victim was valid.

Rights of California Putative Spouses

Putative spouses in California hold the same legal rights as any other surviving spouse. In short, the putative spouse doctrine provides a solution for spouses who may be surprised to learn that their marriages are invalid. Experienced wrongful death lawyers in California, such as our team at Berg Injury Lawyers, are knowledgeable about the putative spouse doctrine and its applications.

Why You Need a California Wrongful Death Lawyer

If you and your family find yourselves grieving the loss of a loved one caused by another person’s negligence, you should contact a wrongful death lawyer as soon as possible. Our team at Berg Injury Lawyers has been representing California families for more than 40 years, including in wrongful death lawsuits.

We’re proud to offer free case consultations to prospective wrongful death clients, and we’re ready to hear from you. Contact us today to set up an appointment.