What Is the MARITAL PRIVILEGE in California Family Law and When Does It Apply to Testimony?

Marital Privileges Not To Testify Against Spouse or Domestic Partner

Sometimes married persons who are in litigation with third parties (i.e., former spouses and co-parents) are asked to reveal communications in deposition, through written discovery, or at trial between them that are protected from disclosure. It may help you to know when to assert an objection to such inquiries, and how to avoid answering such questions altogether.

California recognizes both a "testimonial privilege" and a privilege protecting "confidential marital communications". These privileges are codified in Evidence Code section 970, Evidence Code section 971 and Evidence Code section 980. They are distinct privileges, and the one that most often applies to family law are sections 970 and 980, where one's current spouse is embroiled, for instance, in litigation with a former spouse (or in paternity cases, the other parent). These privileges apply equally to registered domestic partners pursuant to the general application of Family Code section 297.5.

Limitations on the marital privilege are generally found at Evidence Code section 972.

These privileges serve two important public policy goals: 1) to preserve and promote marital harmony and 2) to encourage and preserve confidences between husband and wife. Essentially, the assumption is that society has more to lose from the disruption of the marital relationship that might be caused by encouraging spouses to testify against one another, or to disclose secrets, than it has to gain by learning what was said. This makes sense - however, unrepresented parties often lack an understanding about their rights and privileges, which can be waived if not properly asserted. Hence today's Blog.

The testimonial and confidential marital communication privileges require the existence of a valid marriage or domestic partnership. Keep in mind that they do not apply between you and the spouse or domestic partner whom you are litigating against - these privileges cease to exist as between parties to a dissolution or related family law proceeding. In addition, where no valid marriage existed (i.e., a marriage that was void at its inception (bigamous, incestuous, lack of proper solemnization and the like)), the privileges never arise. In contrast, where a marriage is voidable (minority, fraud, physical incapacity) the privilege exists unless and until a final judgment of annulment has issued.

Testimonial Privilege

Here are some rules and exceptions that should be kept in mind. They relate to the "testimonial privilege" only.

  • The privilege applies only during existence of valid marriage or domestic partnership
  • A married person has a privilege not to testify against his or her spouse in any proceeding. Evidence Code § 970.
  • A married person, whose spouse is a party to a proceeding has a privilege not to be called as a witness by an adverse party without the witness spouse's prior express consent. Evidence Code § 971.
  • Both testimonial privileges belong to the witness spouse.
  • The 970 privilege permits a spouse to refuse to answer questions requiring testimony about the other spouse, whether or not they are a party to a proceeding.
  • The 971 privilege only permits a spouse to refuse to answer (or be called) in proceedings where the other spouse is a party.
  • The 970 privilege belongs only to the spouse who has been called as a witness - in such cases (i.e., where the other spouse is not a party) the other spouse has no standing to prevent their spouse from voluntarily testifying.
  • The 971 privilege belongs to both spouses. Thus, even if spouse B is willing to answer questions about spouse A in pending proceedings involving spouse A, spouse A can assert the privilege to bar the testimony that otherwise might have been obtained.
  • Once the marriage is terminated by Final Judgment (for instance, even a "status termination" on bifurcated proceedings where other issues remain reserved and therefore open - like property division or custody), the privilege evaporates (but see the confidential marital communications privilege below).
  • The privileges do not apply to proceedings brought by one spouse against the other.
  • They do not apply to certain types of hearing, including competency or commitment/conservatorship proceedings (since alleged mental or physical condition may be in issue).
  • These privileges do not apply to juvenile court proceedings. [EC section 972(d)].
  • Trial courts are not required to inform spouses of their rights not to testify - being uninformed and then giving testimony that could have been avoided does not operate to permit the testimony to be stricken.
  • There are critical exceptions to the privilege that apply in family court proceedings [EC section 972(g)]. These include:
    • A married person cannot claim the testimonial privilege to refuse to answer questions about issues relating to income, expenses, assets, debt and employment of either spouse.
    • An action brought against the spouse by a former spouse to establish, modify or enforce a child, family or spousal support obligation arising from the marriage to the former spouse.
    • An action brought against a spouse by the other parent to establish, modify or enforce a child support obligation for a child of a nonmarital relationship between the parties.
    • In proceedings brought by a guardian of a child against a spouse relating to a child support obligation.
  • Note that the testimonial privilege in the exceptions above (disclosure of income and assets, etc.) remains intact if other information is sought beyond the scope of these finance related exceptions, as to the requested disclosure of such other information.
  • There are two exceptions in which a spouse may be deemed to have waived their marital privilege to refuse to testify or be called as a witness:
    • Unless erroneously compelled to do so, a married person who testifies in a proceeding to which his or her spouse is a party, or who testifies against the spouse in any such proceeding, waives their section 970 and 971 privileges in those proceedings for all purposes. 'Erroneously compelled' means under circumstances indicating "irresistible force", for instance where a judge orders the spouse to answer the question.
    • A married person cannot assert these privileges in a civil proceeding which they themselves have brought, or are defending, for the "immediate benefit" of his or her spouse, or both jointly. In such cases the privileges are effectively waived. [Evidence Code § 973(b)]. A common example would include an action for personal injury damages against a third party.

Confidential Marital Communications' Privilege

Absent a waiver or an exception, a married person, whether or not they are a party to proceedings, has a privilege to refuse to disclose confidential communications between the married person or their spouse made while they were married or domestic partners. Evidence Code section 980.

Here are some general points to understand as to the limitations of this privilege:

  • There must be a valid marriage or RDP at the time of the communication.
  • This privilege survives the dissolution of the marriage itself.
  • Each spouse or former spouse holds and can assert the privilege.
  • Only "confidential communications" are exempted from disclosure. A "communication" means a written or oral statement or act intended to convey a message.
  • As to the existence of assets and debts, it doesn't prevent disclosure of the fact of the existence of same - it only protects communications about those subjects.
  • The communication must have been made in a setting that reasonably implies a confidence. There is a presumption that communications between spouses were made in confidence, but that presumption can be overcome upon a proper showing.
  • If a third person was present, then there may not be a presumption that the communication was intended to be "confidential" or the presumption may be rebutted.
  • The privilege will not exist where the party asserting it is abusing the "mantle of confidentiality", for instance where it is part of an assault by one spouse upon the other.
  • It cannot be asserted where its application would serve to enable or aid a crime or fraud that is being attempted (although the privileges under EC sections 970 and 971 may apply).
  • It does not apply to proceedings against the spouses themselves, and there are other limited exceptions (juvenile court proceedings, for instance).

As with all my Blogs, this is intended to be informational only. Specific questions, or circumstances, may well require a more detailed analysis. My purpose here is merely to introduce you to the protections that the privileges may afford, so there is no inadvertent waiver on your part.

Thurman Arnold, CFLS