What If You Were Never Legally Married?

Often, divorce brings issues to light that you may not have otherwise considered. What happens if one of these issues is that your marriage was never valid to begin with? Whether your spouse deceived you intentionally, both of you were unaware, or both parties had made incorrect assumptions regarding documentation or the legalities, the special considerations that dictate ending a non-marital partnership are complicated.

What Circumstances Lead to an Invalid Marriage?

In the state of California, several situations can arise in which a marriage was never valid.

  • One spouse deceived the other and led him or her to believe a marriage was legal while failing to make it so. Often, the spouse chose not to file legal documentation of the marriage.
  • Both parties failed in some way to complete the legal documentation of the marriage.
  • One spouse was already married and deceived the other spouse into thinking the first marriage was void.
  • One spouse made a mistake during a prior divorce’s proceedings, so he or she was still married at the time of supposedly starting the current marriage.
  • One spouse did not understand divorce proceedings and he or she was still married at the time of the current marriage.
  • Both parties agreed to cohabitate but never legally married.

Most of these situations involve at least one spouse who believed the marriage was real, only to learn the marriage was never valid.

What If You Believed You Were Married?

In situations where an individual believes himself or herself married, only to find out later that the marriage was never valid, some division of assets may be due to that spouse. However, the division completely hinges on whether the person truly believed himself or herself legally married. We call this a good faith belief.

If the spouse has a good faith belief that the couple was married, it must be on reasonable grounds. In other words, a court must determine that any reasonable person would also believe himself or herself married in similar circumstances. The court determines the degree to which the belief is reasonable objectively.

Putative Spouses

If a spouse had reason to believe the marriage was valid, he or she may have rights as a putative spouse. A putative spouse is a person who had a good faith belief he or she was married on reasonable grounds. Putative spouses do not hold the same rights as legally married spouses, but may receive similar rights regarding the division of property, spousal support, and attorney fees.

California is a community property state. When divorce proceedings begin, most marital property is community property and the spouses divide it evenly. If the marriage was never valid, the court terms community property quasi-marital property and divides it between the two parties.

Put simply, if your spouse led you to believe you were married and a judge determines any reasonable person would have believed the same, you might be a putative spouse. In that case, you would divide the property involved in your partnership with your believed spouse in the usual way. It is your right to receive spousal support, if applicable, as well as attorney fees.

Unmarried Cohabitants

If a court determines your belief the marriage was legal was not reasonable, or if you simply entered into a long-term living situation with someone you considered a partner, you cannot apply putative marriage. Instead, you are unmarried cohabitants and must honor any contracts you entered into at that time. If there is no such contract, the division of property is subject to any contract you make while ending the cohabitation.

Questions about putative marriage or cohabitation? Contact a trusted, local divorce attorney to see which laws may apply to your situation.