Whether or not one is actually married would seem to be a simple question. Occasionally, however, nuptial status is not as it appears to be. In such instances, Minnesota’s putative spouse statute comes into play. The statute provides that a person who lives with another to whom he or she is not married in the “good faith belief” that the couple is married is a putative spouse and acquires all the rights of a legal spouse, including the right to spousal maintenance and a division of property. Such rights continue to accrue until the person learns that he or she is not actually married.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently clarified the standard of belief necessary to claim putative spouse status. Choa Yang Xiong (“Yang”) and Su Xiong (“Xiong”) met while Yang was in high school, not long after she arrived in the United States as a refugee from Laos. The couple began living together shortly thereafter, but did not formalize the marriage because Yang was not of legal age. Once she turned 18, the couple got a marriage license. According to Yang, they went to “city hall” and the clerk asked her to raise her right hand and then sign something. After this, Yang believed they were married, referred to Xiong as her husband, and heard him refer to her as his wife.
The trouble began in 2006 when Xiong brought home a second wife. The couple argued and Xiong told Yang that she was “not even his wife.” After the argument, Xiong told Yang that he only made the statement out of anger and that he didn’t mean anything by it. Two years later, Yang contacted a lawyer in anticipation of divorce. The lawyer discovered that although they had obtained a marriage license, it had never been returned and no marriage certificate existed. When the lawyer told Yang that she was not legally married, she became very upset.
At trial, Xiong testified that Yang knew that they weren’t married. The district court disagreed and found that Yang was a putative spouse. On appeal, Xiong argued that Minnesota should apply and objective standard and require a reasonable belief that a party is married. The court of appeals rejected this argument, noting that the language of the statute requires a “good faith” belief rather than a “reasonable” belief. Accordingly, whether or not one is a putative spouse is judged by a subjective, rather than an objective, standard.