March 26, 2020

When is a "Spouse" really a Spouse?

California law is very clear as to when 2 people enter into a valid marriage. 

Family Code § 350(a) states "Before entering a marriage, or declaring a marriage pursuant to Section 425, the parties shall first obtain a marriage license from a county clerk."

I was recently reading an unpublished appellate opinion that dealt with this issue. The facts are rather uncomplicated:

"On a Saturday in October 1996, Chandre' D. Shelton (Shelton) and Kennedy Mitchell (Mitchell) exchanged vows before friends and family at a ceremony held at the First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills in West Hollywood, California. Shelton and Mitchell had not gone to the Los Angeles County Clerk's Office to obtain a marriage license. They had not paid the chapel for any services relating to a marriage license. And the county has no record — public or confidential — that they ever obtained a marriage license.

In 2003, Shelton filed paperwork to adopt a child who was in the midst of juvenile dependency proceedings, and she was informed by the Department of Children and Family Services that there was no record of any marriage license. When Shelton asked the pastor who had officiated the 1996 ceremony about this, he replied simply that "God was the witness." Shelton took no further action at that time to obtain a marriage license, and adopted the child on her own.

In 2008, Shelton sued Mitchell for child support regarding the child she and she alone had adopted. Her claim was rejected, and she was again informed that there was no record of any marriage license. Again, Shelton took no further action regarding the marriage's legal validity.
On January 9, 2017, Mitchell died without a will."

If Ms. Shelton was Mr. Mitchell's spouse, she would have various rights regarding Mr. Mitchell's estate by virtue of being the surviving spouse. For example, she would have a claim to all of Mr. Mitchell's share of the community property and at the very least a portion of his separate property. Furthermore, Ms. Shelton would have the highest priority for being appointed the estate's administrator.

One curious argument offered by Ms. Shelton was "the possibility that the license got lost in the mail." The appellate court was unpersuaded. "Shelton's argument about losing the license in the mail misapprehends the process for creating a legally valid marriage because whether a license is lost in the mail after the ceremony has no bearing on whether a license was obtained in the first place."    

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision that Ms. Shelton was not Mr. Mitchell's spouse because no marriage license was issued by Los Angeles County.

Of note, Ms. Shelton did not raise the issue of a putative spouse in the trial court so she could not raise that issue on appeal. 

In the Matter of Chandre' D. Shelton And Kennedy M. Mitchell, Los Angeles County Superior Court, case # 17STPB00425.