The California appellate case of "Marriage of Andrew and Andrea Left" comes to us from the 2nd appellate district in Los Angeles. This appeal is fascinating because it deals with an issue rarely litigated in family law cases - whether a wedding ceremony by an ex-wife is a subsequent "marriage" such that it cuts off her spousal support that was ordered to be paid by her ex-husband. You may think the answer would be obvious but once you read the facts, you will see that the unusual facts of this case make the obvious a little bit murky. Enjoy the article. - B. Robert Farzad
Andrew Left and his ex-wife Andrea had a marriage of short duration - less than 5 years - and they had two children from that marriage. Andrew Left made good money and he was ordered to pay nearly $15,000.00 per month in child support and over $30,000.00 per month in spousal support. Meanwhile, Andrea Left found her new love of her life, a man named Todd. She ended the status of her marriage with Andrew so that she became an unmarried woman again while their divorce case was pending on the financial issues. This is permitted by the California Family Code and is called a "bifurcation" of the marital status. Andrea and Todd wanted to get married and even planned the wedding ceremony and invited guests but with the family law case dragging on, neither one of them wanted to formalize the marriage. Instead, they had the full wedding ceremony.
The celebration took place in Palm Springs. Was it a wedding ceremony? Andrea said no. She called it a "commitment ceremony" even though she wore her wedding dress, and even the children believed Andrea was getting married. Andrea and Todd signed a document called a "ketubah", which is the equivalent of a Jewish marriage contract. Andrea and Todd did not obtain a marriage license.
Andrew Left naturally thought that his ex-wife has remarried and the spousal support he has been ordered to pay should be terminated so he filed a formal request with the court to terminate spousal support. If the Court did not terminate the support because of a remarriage, Andrew argued that the Court should terminate it because (1) the marriage was less than 5 years and he had already paid for more than half the duration of the marriage, (2) Andrea had a law degree but she had not made any effort to support herself and (3) Andrea was living with Todd.
Courts in family law cases typically terminate spousal support once one-half the duration of the marriage is reached, so long as the marriage was not a long-term marriage (which is typically a marriage of 10 or more years). That was the basis for Andrew Left's first argument. His second argument was that Andrea, like any spouse, had a duty to become self-supporting and she had not done so. His third argument was pursuant to the Family Code 4323 which states that there is a presumption of a reduced need for spousal support if a supported party (in this case, Andrea Left) is living with a member of the opposite sex (update: the Family Code has now changed "opposite sex" to "non marital partner."
Andrew Left lost each of the three legal arguments at the trial court and he appealed. The appellate court also rejected Andrew's arguments.
The Appellate Court ruled regardless of what Andrea and Todd intended the ceremony to be, it was not a valid and legally recognizable California marriage. Therefore, Family Code 4337 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" did not apply.
Regarding the argument that the half way duration of the marriage was met, the Appellate Court ruled that the half way duration of the marriage is not a hard and fast rule and the Family Court can exercise its discretion to not terminate it. In this case, the Court lowered Andrea's support but would not terminate it and this was primarily because Andrew Left had been slow to pay Andrea the amounts of community property that he agreed he owed her but still had under his control. The Court held that Andrew Left could not "withhold money that rightfully belongs" to Andrea and then "argue his support should terminate." For this reason, the Court also rejected Andrew's argument regarding cohabitation.
The case is an unusual one but still teaches one very salient fact - with most family law issues, the Court has "discretion". That means the Court, so long as it does not "abuse" that discretion is not bound by hard and fast rules in every instance. It is beneficial for anyone who goes in front of the Court to do so in good faith and be prepared (better than Andrew Left was) because failing to do so could result in the Court exercising its discretion against you.
Do you have a complicated or unusual set of facts? Contact the lawyers at Farzad & Ochoa for a consultation.