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Under the Putative Spouse Doctrine, when a marriage is legally void, the civil effects of a legal marriage flow to the parties who contracted to marry in good faith. That is, a putative spouse is entitled to many of the rights of an actual spouse.
In 1973, appellant Richard E. Williams underwent a marriage ceremony with respondent Marcie C. Williams. At that time, respondent believed that she was divorced from John Allmaras. Appellant and respondent believed they were legally married and lived together, as husband and wife, for 27 years. In March 2000, appellant discovered that respondent was not divorced from Allmaras at the time of their marriage ceremony. Subsequently, appellant and respondent permanently separated, and appellant filed a complaint for an annulment. Respondent counterclaimed for one-half of the property and spousal support as a putative spouse. At the time of the annulment proceeding, the parties held various items in their joint names, including bank accounts, vehicles, life insurance policies, a Sparks home, a radiator business, and a motorcycle. Concluding that both parties believed that they were legally married, the district court granted the annulment and awarded respondent one-half of all the jointly-held property and spousal support. The district court did not indicate whether its award was based on the Putative Spouse Doctrine or an implied contract and quantum meruit theory. Appellant challenged the district court’s decision, arguing that respondent was not entitled to one-half of their joint property because their marriage was void. According to the appellant, the application of the Putative Spouse Doctrine and quasi-community property principles was improper. Moreover, the appellant argued that the district court erred in awarding spousal support since there was no basis in Nevada law for awarding compensation for services rendered during the marriage under a theory of quantum meruit.
Since the record did not reflect the basis for the district court’s decision, the resolution of the appellant’s contentions required the Court to address the Putative Spouse Doctrine. The Court noted that under the Putative Spouse Doctrine, when a marriage was legally void, the civil effects of a legal marriage flow to the parties who contracted to marry in good faith, i.e., a putative spouse was entitled to many of the rights of an actual spouse. According to the Court, the Putative Spouse Doctrine has two elements: (i) a proper marriage ceremony was performed; and (ii) one or both of the parties had a good-faith belief that there was no impediment to the marriage and the marriage was valid and proper. In this case, the Court held that the respondent wife, who entered into the new marriage in good faith, qualified as a putative spouse. Applying the Putative Spouse Doctrine in the division of the property acquired during marriage, the Court held that the district court properly treated the parties' property as quasi-community property and equally divided the joint property between the parties. As putative spouses believed themselves to be married, they were already under the assumption that community property laws would apply to a termination of their relationship. However, the doctrine was not a valid basis for awarding equitable spousal support. Nevada's annulment statutes did not provide for an award of support upon annulment.