Marriage of Left: A commitment ceremony, even if guests thought it was a marriage, was insufficient to constitute remarriage under the Family Code.
By Garrett C. Dailey, Family Law Specialist
FACTS: Parties married in 2001 and separated in 2006. W was a practicing attorney, but did not return to work after birth of first of two children (Cs), now ages 8 and 7. Parties stipulated H, a stock trader, would pay monthly temporary child support (c/s) of $14,590 and spousal support (s/s) of $32,547. In June 2008, marital status was bifurcated and terminated, with other issues reserved.
Believing the other issues would be resolved, W became engaged to Todd and set wedding date for 5/09. W made all customary arrangements. When it became clear they would not be able to resolve their issues by date of wedding, W and Todd decided not to proceed with wedding but, since they had spent money planning it, they wanted to proceed with a celebration, participating in a “commitment ceremony.” W wore her wedding dress, and wanted Cs to believe she was getting married. They signed a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract, but did not obtain a marriage license. The Rabbi arrived thinking he was performing a wedding, but was told they had problems obtaining their license. Guests all thought they were attending a wedding. The following month, W informed H that she had not actually married Todd.
Marriage of Left: Marriage, Commitment Ceremony and Spousal Support
H filed a motion to terminate s/s in 10/09, alleging W’s remarriage. He also argued that W was a lawyer, the marriage was of short duration, he had paid s/s for ¾ the length of marriage, and she was cohabiting with Todd. W responded by seeking writ of execution for $248K in past due support and contempt. H was found guilty of 9 counts of contempt. It also found, in a subsequent hearing, that the “non-marriage” ceremony had no effect on s/s, but s/s reduced commencing 5/10 to $20K/mo. based on W’s cohabitation with Todd. Court denied H’s request for retroactive modification to date of commitment ceremony because H had not filed an updated I&E until 5/10. C/s increased to $19K/mo. H appealed, arguing CA does not require the ceremony be legally recognized to constitute a “marriage” for the purposes of terminating s/s. Court of Appeal affirmed.
HELD: “Commitment Ceremony,” which participants knew not to be a marriage, insufficient to constitute remarriage under Family Code section 4337, even if guests and family thought it was a marriage.
REMARRIAGE: Relying on annulment cases such as Sefton v. Sefton (1955) 45 Cal.2d 872, H argued Family Code section 4337 includes a ceremony that resembles a valid remarriage—regardless of whether a valid marriage resulted. However, in those cases, the statutory requirements for marriage (FC §300, FC §400, FC §420) had been met and the support recipient made a decision to terminate her support from previous spouse by remarrying. Here, W made the decision not to legally marry. Parties did not intend to legally marry, did not obtain a marriage license, and purposely did not carry out the legal requirements of marriage. “Her commitment ceremony was not a void or voidable remarriage—it was not a marriage at all.” (In re Marriage of Left, supra, 208 Cal.App.4th at p. 1147.)
In re Marriage of Campbell (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 502 is closer to the facts of this case. There, W’s entering into a patently void marriage was held insufficient to terminate H1’s s/s.
Since W did not remarry within the terms of section 4337, her right to spousal support continued.
Applying Estoppel in a Family Law Context
ESTOPPEL: H argued that by voluntarily participating in a marriage ceremony, W should be held to have relinquished her right to further support. Evidence Code section 623 provides:
“Whenever a party has, by his own statement or conduct, intentionally and deliberately led another to believe a particular thing true and to act upon such belief, he is not, in any litigation arising out of such statement or conduct, permitted to contradict it.”
Although estoppel has been applied in a family law context, it has never been applied to prevent a person from denying the validity of a marriage. Estoppel requires:
“ ‘(1) The party to be estopped has engaged in blameworthy or inequitable conduct; (2) that conduct caused or induced the other party to suffer some disadvantage; and (3) equitable considerations warrant the conclusion that the first party should not be permitted to exploit the disadvantage he has thus inflicted upon the second party.’ ” (In re Marriage of Left, supra, 208 Cal.App.4th at p. 1149.)
H made no effort to show that the elements of estoppel had been met. Instead, relying on In re Marriage of Campbell, supra, 136 Cal.App.4th 502, he argued that his was a case of “quasi-estoppel” under which actual reliance and disadvantage need not be shown. Although the Campbell court did interpret previous opinions to apply “what is essentially an estoppel analysis” (Id. at p. 509), this court held that Campbell did not intend to create a new concept of “quasi-estoppel” as to marriage.
Spousal support in <4½ yr. marriage properly continued beyond half length of marriage; H’s failure to turn over c/p a proper factor to consider. Retroactive modification limited to date H filed his I&E, not his motion.
In re Marriage of Left (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1137 [146 Cal.Rptr.3d 181] (08/23/12) Chavez, J. DCA2
FACTS: See Facts discussed above. H argued the trial ct. failed to give sufficient weight to the fact that H had been paying s/s for more than half of their short marriage. Trial ct. acknowledged the guideline, but held that W still had need for s/s. It also noted that H had been slow to turn over W’s share of the community property c/p to her. Trial ct. felt H could not “withhold money that rightfully belongs to [wife] and then argue his support should terminate.” Court of Appeal found no abuse of discretion and affirmed.
H next argued that trial ct. erred in limiting his retroactive modification to date he filed his updated Income and Expense Declaration (5/10) rather than date he filed his motion (10/09). H argued that since he was not relying on his income as a factor in modifying support, his delay in filing was irrelevant. Trial ct. reduced W’s support from $32K to $20K/mo. Thus, H argued, the 7 mos. delay resulted in a “windfall” to W of $84K. Court of Appeal disagreed and affirmed.
Garrett C. Dailey is a Certified Family Law Specialist focusing on appellate issues and consultations, a Fellow in American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and publisher/co-author of ATTORNEY’S BRIEFCASE® CALIFORNIA FAMILY LAW, California’s oldest provider of self-contained legal research software. BriefCase is available online and through the Attorney’s BriefCase iPad® app. For more information visit them at www.atybriefcase.com. Also check out their FREE legal education log at www.MyLegalEducationLog.com.
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