In California, a marriage is dissolved by (1) the death of a spouse, (2) a final judgment of divorce, or (3) an annulment. Alternatively, if spouses do not want to completely end their marriage but do want to terminate their marital rights, they can (4) file for legal separation. Here is a look into each one:
(1) Death of a Spouse
When a spouse dies, dissolution occurs automatically, as a matter of law. This can be significant in family law proceedings if the spouse dies after divorce proceedings have begun, but before a final judgment of dissolution. In this scenario, spousal status is not officially terminated and the surviving spouse will still be considered “married” for inheritance purposes. Additionally, any pending dissolution proceeding is rendered moot at the death of a spouse and the court has no power to hear any remaining unresolved issues.
Divorce is the proceeding that legally ends the marriage or domestic partnership. Under Family Code section 2310, the grounds for divorce may be either “irreconcilable differences” or “incurable insanity.” Most marriages are dissolved on the ground of “irreconcilable differences.” A dissolution granted on the grounds of “incurable insanity” requires evidence – including competent medical or psychiatric testimony – that your spouse is incurably insane. In fact, this ground is so uncommon that there are no known reported decisions defining “incurable insanity” in the dissolution context. Further, it offers no tactical advantage so even if your spouse is incurably insane, pleading irreconcilable differences is much easier.
The determination of whether “irreconcilable differences” exist is essentially a ministerial function and is rarely a matter of contention. California is a no-fault divorce state, which means that any evidence of specific acts of misconduct (such as cheating, gambling, or heavy drinking) is improper. Courts recognize that ending a marriage is an intensely personal decision and only need to be convinced that the marital differences are substantial. Thus, direct proof of objective reasons supporting the divorce is not required.
An annulment declares the marriage was not legally valid – it was never entered into – and like other defenses to contracts, an annulment can occur if one party was not of sound-mind at the time of the marriage or if the marriage was procured by fraud.
A famous example of an annulment due to lack of capacity is Ms. Britney Spears’ 55-hour marriage to her high school friend, Jason Alexander, in Las Vegas. Ms. Spears sought an annulment stating that she “lacked understanding of her actions to the extent that she was incapable of agreeing to the marriage because she and Alexander did not know each other’s likes and dislikes, each other’s desires to have or not have children, and each other’s desires as to State of residency.” In other words, she was drunk and this was a joke that went too far.
Marriages can be annulled for fraud, if the fraud relates to a matter that California deems vital to the marriage relationship and the fraud directly affects the purpose of the party deceived entering the marital contract. Usually, annulments based on fraud involve the sexual and procreative aspects of marriage, such as a secret intention not to live with the other spouse or a concealment of sterility. False representations about earning capacity, wealth, or social status are not the type of fraud that will warrant a nullity. Nor will a failure to fulfill wedding vows or commonly understood spousal obligations, such as being a loving and supporting partner.
(4) Legal Separation
The grounds for legal separation are the same as those for a divorce but it does not end the marriage. Legal separation is an alternative to divorce, where the spouses do not want to completely sever the legal status of the marriage. Otherwise, a legal separation operates similarly to a divorce, separating all finances and property.
Spouses often seek a legal separation for religious or other personal reasons, or to retain eligibility for medical insurance, veteran’s benefits, or social security benefits that would have otherwise been lost by a divorce.
If you have any questions about the proper way to end your marriage, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law proceeds and offer a free consultation.
Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.