When a Marriage Isn't a Marriage, or is it...?

Patricia married Richard in 1973 and separated from him in January, 1987 when she began dating Henry. She met Jeffrey in January of 1988, and broke up with Henry in February, 1988. At the time, Jeffrey was married to Debra, but separated from her to be with Patricia. Lovelorn Henry tried to woo Patricia back with gifts and visits, but Patricia wanted Jeffrey. She even asked Jeffrey to help her get a restraining order against Henry (which he did), but ten days later, Patricia went to Nevada with Henry and eloped.

According to Patricia, when Henry was served with the restraining order, he went to Patricia's house and convinced her to go with him to Reno. She took along her sister for safety, but after several "tequila shots" Patricia and Henry married. The next day, they returned to California, and Patricia said she contacted an attorney in Nevada. He allegedly told her because she was still married to Richard, her marriage to Henry wasn't valid; she didn't need an annulment, but that she should double-check with an attorney in California. She said she asked Jeffrey (at law student at the time) whether she needed an annulment, and Jeffrey agreed with the Nevada attorney. Jeffrey disagreed with Patricia. He said he didn't know of Patricia's marriage to Henry until 1989, and advised her to get an annulment. He stated that Patricia later told him she had done so.

Patricia's marriage to Richard was dissolved in December, 1988, but she never dissolved/annulled her marriage to Henry. Patricia and Jeffrey married in June, 1991.

In November, 2008, Jeffrey filed for a legal separation from Patricia, and she responded by requesting the marriage be dissolved. Jeffrey amended his petition to request a judgment of nullity based on Patricia's marriage to Henry. If she were married to Henry at the time of his marriage to her, their marriage was not valid, and therefore, never existed.

The trial court granted Jeffrey's request for nullity based on Patricia's marriage to Henry. Even though in California the Patricia-Henry marriage was void (i.e., never existed), by Nevada law she needed to have it annulled before it would be voided. The trial court held it did not have jurisdiction over Henry to annul their marriage. The trial court also determined that Patricia was not a putative spouse for determining rights and obligations from her relationship with Jeffrey, if the marriage had been legal. A putative spouse is one who is not legally married, but believes in good faith that he/she is married, and would be entitled to the same rights as a legal spouse. The court did not believe Patricia's assertion that she thought she didn't need to annul her marriage to Henry because she had filed initial papers to do so in 1991 just before her marriage to Jeffrey.

Patricia appealed.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court finding that the trial court could have declared Patricia's marriage to Henry was invalid from the beginning, making her a single woman at the time of her marriage to Jeffrey. The Appellate Court did agree with the trial court that Patricia never attempted to nullify her marriage to Henry, but her deception did not affect her marital status to Jeffrey. Thus, she was entitled to the same rights and obligation as any other spouse in a dissolution process.

Whether an individual is married can be quite complicated and in need of a qualified family law attorney to determine whether a marriage is valid.

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