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Spousal Support in a Bigamous Marriage

Aviles v. Vulovic, E076743 (filed June 9, 2022).

Facts: Plaintiff Husband married Defendant Wife in 2011. However, Wife’s previous divorce had not yet finalized. Wife’s first marriage ended in a separation, and in 2006 Wife filed a petition for divorce. Wife believed that a divorce would just materialize automatically six months after the filing of the petition. In 2007, Wife and Husband began dating. They married in Las Vegas in 2011. Wife later appeared for a child support hearing with her former husband, and the presiding judge informed her that she had not yet been divorced. Wife eventually finalized the divorce in 2012. Wife and Husband had two more wedding ceremonies in 2013, however they never received a marriage certificate from the court. Husband and Wife separated in 2020 and were in court for spousal support. Husband claimed that Wife was barred from seeking support because she was in a bigamous marriage. It was the trial court’s finding that Wife was a putative spouse and awarded her temporary spousal support. Husband appealed.

Issue: Was the trial court in error in finding Wife was a putative spouse?

Holding: No.

Rationale: Bigamous marriages are invalid, and do not confer the rights and obligations granted to spouses under California law. However, a putative spouse in an invalid marriage can be awarded with property, support, and the fees for dissolution of marriage. Under California law, a putative spouse is one that believed in good faith that the marriage was valid. It is a subjective standard. Wife testified that she fully believed that, six months from the filing of her divorce petition, she was going to be divorced. Husband attempted to attack her credibility, but the trial court ultimately found her credible and ruled that she was a putative spouse. Thus, despite not entering into a valid marriage, the support case was allowed to proceed.

Lessons: North Carolina currently does not recognize the doctrine of a putative spouse. So far, the only persons entitled to the same set of rights and obligations arising from marriage are married couples. That is not to say all is lost. There are some equitable principles that may still be applicable, notably in property rights. North Carolina voids all bigamous marriages. Also note that a putative spouse is not the same as a common law spouse. North Carolina also does not recognize common law marriages. If you have issues with how you entered your marriage, please contact your attorney to discuss.