In this blog, we are going to review the Orange County divorce case of “In re Marriage of Andrew and Andrea Left”. This case is a unique one. The case concerned the question of whether a commitment ceremony of an ex-wife with her boyfriend should be considered as a re-marriage amounting to her spousal support being cut by her former husband.
FACTS OF THE CASE
The facts of the case are that Andrew and his wife, Andrea, had a marriage that lasted less than 5 years. The marriage resulted in the birth of two children. In the subsequent Orange County divorce that followed, Andrew was asked to pay $15,000 for child support per month and $30,000 per month for alimony support. Andrea, in the meantime, met “Todd,” and ended the status of her marriage with Andrew through a legal Orange County family law procedure known as bifurcation of the marital status. Andrea and Todd subsequently wanted to get married and had a wedding ceremony planned and went through with it, yet with the case going on they didn’t want to formalize the marriage. They had a full wedding ceremony.
DID THE COMMITMENT CEREMONY CONSTITUTE A VALID REMARRIAGE?
Now the question to consider in this case is that whether the ceremony that happened was actually a marriage ceremony. Andrea said no, and instead opted to call the ceremony a commitment ceremony. Todd and Andrea signed a document that is called Ketubah and is equal to the Jewish marriage contract. However, they did not obtain a marriage license. Andrew Left argued that California Family Code section 4337 applied in the case, which states: “Except as otherwise agreed by the parties in writing, the obligation of a party under an order for the support of the other party terminates upon the death of either party or the remarriage of the other party.” Andrew further argued that Section 4337 and its predecessors have been interpreted to include a ceremony that resembles a valid remarriage — regardless of whether the ceremony resulted in a valid marriage. In support of his position, Andrew cited three cases: Sefton v. Sefton (1955) 45 Cal.2d 872 [291 P.2d 439] (Sefton); Berkely v. Berkely (1969) 269 Cal.App.2d 872 [75 Cal.Rptr. 294] (Berkely); and Fry v. Fry (1970)5 Cal.App.3d 169, 170-171 [85 Cal.Rptr. 126] (Fry), arguing that these three cases show that it has been clear for decades that a ceremonial marriage, whether valid, void, or voidable, represents a “remarriage” as that term has been used in section 4337 and its predecessors.
The appellate court found that Andrew had provided no authority that the term “remarriage” as used in section 4337 means anything other than a remarriage carried out in conformity with the statutory requirements. Because Andrea and Todd did not meet those requirements, they did not marry, and Andrew’s obligation to pay spousal support did not terminate under section 4337.
ANDREW LEFT’S ARGUMENT THAT HE HAD ALREADY PAID SPOUSAL SUPPORT FOR ONE-HALF OF HIS SHORT-TERM MARRIAGE
Andrew further argued that the spousal support should be terminated because the marriage lasted less than 5 years and he had already paid the spousal support for half the duration of the marriage which is the general rule for marriages less than 10 years in duration. The appellate court found that the trial court had correctly noted that: “The code provides a guideline, not a hard and fast rule that support should be paid for half the length of the marriage.” This guideline is found in California Family Code section 4320, which provides numerous factors for the trial court to consider when determining the amount and duration of spousal support. Among the factors that the court must consider is the duration of the marriage. (§ 4320, subd. (f).) The section further provides that the trial court shall consider: “The goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. Except in the case of a marriage of long duration as described in Section 4336, a ‘reasonable period of time’ for purposes of this section generally shall be one-half the length of the marriage. However, nothing in this section is intended to limit the court’s discretion to order support for a greater or lesser length of time, based on any of the other factors listed in this section, Section 4336, and the circumstances of the parties.” The appellate court found that the trial court had not abused its broad discretion so as to fairly exercise the weighing process contemplated by section 4320, with the goal of accomplishing substantial justice for the parties in the case before it. The court noted that the trial court must consider the mandatory guidelines of section 4320, but once it does so, the ultimate decision as to amount and duration of spousal support rests within its broad discretion and will not be reversed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion.
DID EX-WIFE’S CO-HABITATION WITH HER BOYFRIEND ENTITLE ANDREW LEFT TO TERMINATION OF SPOUSAL SUPPORT?
Finally, Andrew argued that the trial court erred in not terminating the spousal support order because his ex-wife, Andrea, was co-habitating with Todd. The trial court had considered Andrea’s cohabitation with Todd, and exercised its discretion to continue the spousal support, at a reduced rate. The appellate court noted that the trial court had considered other factors, as well as the circumstances of the parties, as permitted under section 4320. Specifically, the court found that there was no competent evidence that Andrea could be self-supporting, and that Andrew had been slow to pay Andrea the amounts of community property that he agreed he owed her but still had under his control. Simply put, the court felt that Andrew could not “withhold money that rightfully belongs to [Andrea] and then argue his support should terminate.” Andrew presents no authority that the court’s consideration of the failure to turn over community property is impermissible, and the court upheld the trial court’s decision.
Andrew lost the case and all three reasons he gave were rejected. Andrew appealed the case. The appellate court upheld the decision of the previous Orange County family law court and rejected Andrew’s appeal. The basis for the courts’ decision was that under California Family Code section 4337, the marriage of Andrea and Todd was not a legal marriage and therefore the courts could not treat it as such.
The issue of spousal support can be a complex one in California, and it is advisable to seek the legal counsel of an Orange County divorce attorney in your divorce and when contemplating a possible motion to modify or terminate your spousal support order in the years after your divorce case has been finalized.
Gerald A. Maggio is an experienced Orange County divorce and family law attorney and family law attorney located in Irvine, California, serving the Orange County and Riverside areas. Mr. Maggio assists clients with legal issues including divorce, legal separation, divorce mediation, child custody, prenuptial agreements, stepparent adoptions, and other family law issues. Mr. Maggio has practiced law in California since 1999, and founded The Maggio Law Firm in 2005, focusing exclusively on divorce and family law matters.