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In re Marriage of Manfer - 144 Cal. App. 4th 925, 50 Cal. Rptr. 3d 785 (2006)

Rule:

The date of separation occurs when either of the parties does not intend to resume the marriage and his or her actions bespeak the finality of the marital relationship. There must be problems that have so impaired the marriage relationship that the legitimate objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there is no reasonable possibility of eliminating, correcting or resolving these problems. All factors bearing on either party's intentions to return or not to return to the other spouse are to be considered. No particular facts are per se determinative. The ultimate test is the parties' subjective intent and all evidence relating to it is to be objectively considered by the court. The ultimate question to be decided in determining the date of separation is whether either or both of the parties perceived the rift in their relationship as final. The best evidence of this is their words and actions. The husband's and the wife's subjective intents are to be objectively determined from all of the evidence reflecting the parties' words and actions during the disputed time in order to ascertain when during that period the rift in the parties' relationship was final.

Facts:

Maureen and Samuel Manfer married on June 16, 1973. In June 2004, the couple quarreled, which resulted to Samuel moving out of the family residence. Maureen made up her mind that the relationship was over, but the parties agreed to hide their circumstances from family and friends until after the year-end holidays. To keep up appearances, the couple continued to have sporadic social contacts and take an occasional trip together, but they did not engage in sexual relations with one another, commingle their funds, or support one another. In early 2005, the couple told their family and friends that they were no longer living together. Subsequently, in April 2005, Samuel filed a petition for marital dissolution, alleging that the date of separation was March 15, 2005. Maureen contended the couple separated in June 2004, and her response to the petition alleged a July 1, 2004, date of separation. In an interlocutory order, the trial court found there was a preponderance of the evidence that the parties’ private conduct evidenced a final and complete break in their marital relationship in June 2004. Nonetheless, the trial court determined the date of separation was March 15, 2005, expressly utilizing an objective test standard, i.e., whether society at large would consider the couple separated. Maureen argued that the trial court’s determination of the date of separation constituted legal error under Fam. Code, § 771, subd. (a).

Issue:

Was the application of the objective test standard (also known as the  public-perception standard) to determine the date of couple’s separation proper?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeal reversed the interlocutory order and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appellate court concluded that the trial court erred as a matter of law in selecting March 15, 2005, as the date of separation, rather than nine months earlier. Although the trial court correctly found on the basis of substantial evidence that the parties’ private conduct demonstrated a complete and final break in their marital relationship in June 2004, it erroneously applied an outsider’s viewpoint standard to defer the date of separation to March 15, 2005, after the parties had revealed to the world their secret that the marriage was over. According to the appellate court, the parties had essentially disentangled their lives in all respects, save occasional social engagements, to carry out their mutual agreement to keep their separation secret so as not to spoil the holidays for their daughters and friends. The public perception standard utilized by the trial court was in derogation of the established subjective intent legal standard for establishing date of separation. In the absence of any factual findings of equivocation, ambivalence, or uncertainty, as a matter of law, the trial court could not defer the date of separation to coincide with the couple’s public revelation of their split.

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