When Non-Marriage is Marriage in California

Jesus Mendoza was killed in a car accident on Valentine's Day of 2001. Greg Alan Battle was the driver of the car that hit Mendoza, and Battle's employer was Johnson & Johnson Corporation. Battle was in work-status at the time of the accident, meaning his employer could be held responsible for Mendoza's death.

At the time of his death, Mendoza was a legal resident of the United States living in Vista, California. Flor Yolanda Peralta Rosales was a Mexican citizen living in Tijuana. She was the mother of four of his children.

According to Rosales, she and Mendoza began living together in 1997. He moved her into his family home and gave her a ring, but they never formally married nor even obtained a marriage license.

In April of 2001, Mendoza's heirs filed a wrongful death suit against Battle and Johnson & Johnson, and in December of 2001, Rosales asked to be included in the suit as his wife. The defendants objected claiming she was not married to Mendoza and was not entitled to heir-status as his spouse. The trial court agreed with the defendants and denied Rosales's request.

In 2002, the court system in Mexico determined that Rosales and Mendoza were in a family relationship and granted Rosales concubine status. This allowed her and her children to be legal heirs of Mendoza for the purpose of property rights. With this judgment, Rosales requested the California trial court reconsider its decision and declare her an heir of Mendoza. The trial court upheld its decision determining that Rosales was still not Mendoza's spouse by Mexican law, so she could not be a spouse by California law. If she were not Mendoza's spouse, she was not one of his heirs. Rosales appealed.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court.

California has no common law marriage code. Persons living together in California as if they were married never become married simply by acting married. However, some states – and some countries – do recognize common law marriages. And, if a couple is considered common-law married in one state, and that couple moves to California, California will treat the parties the same as any other married California couple and subject to community property principals upon divorce or legal separation.

In Mexico, concubine status is a legal term that allows a woman certain rights under Mexican law. However, Mexico does not recognize a concubine as a spouse, so California will not recognize a concubine as a spouse either.

In California, a couple living together may not establish a marriage, but they may establish other rights and obligations. Determining any rights and obligations can be quite difficult, and should be determined with legal assistance from someone knowledgeable, such as a family law attorney.

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