California residents might run into the term “spousal privilege” at some point. Maybe you hear it on TV or while watching a movie with some courtroom scenes. But what does it mean, and when can it enter your life?


We’ll talk about this notion in the following article. A time might come when you want to claim spousal privilege or when your partner does.

Young couple telling their problems in the courthouse to getting divorced or premarital agreement in lawyers office, deciding on marriage divorce concept.

What Exactly Does Spousal Privilege Mean?

Spousal privilege means that if you communicate with your spouse, you don’t need to divulge what you said to one another in a courtroom setting. This applies to both civil and criminal cases. If you have a valid marriage with another person, you have a right to privacy when you communicate with one another, and this privilege reflects that.


You might also hear the term spousal immunity, which means more or less the same thing. A spouse may refuse to testify against their legally married partner, though they might choose to do so in some cases. Just because a spouse isn’t legally required to speak out against their partner if they don’t want to, they might still choose to do so if there’s bad blood between them for any reason.


Does Spousal Privilege in California Have Any Limitations?

Spousal privilege in California has some limitations, and you should know about those if you’re thinking about invoking this right or asking your spouse to do so on your behalf. If you’re divorcing your spouse, and part of that divorce involves both of you appearing in court to testify against each other, you’re both named parties in a civil matter. In that instance, you can’t claim spousal privilege.


You also can’t use spousal privilege when one partner tries to gain control of the other spouse’s property due to incapacitation. In other words, a spouse can testify against their legally married partner if they want to retain their property, and the other spouse wants to take it away.


With legal proceedings that determine a spouse’s competence, you can’t use spousal privilege. You also can’t use it if you’re trying to determine how much child support either of you should pay.


If you’re engaged in any legal action against a former spouse, you can’t use spousal privilege either. 

Once you’re no longer married and the divorce has officially gone through, you can’t use this tactic for any reason.


What About Spousal Privilege Limitations in California in Criminal Matters?

Civil matters are not the only instances in California where you can’t use spousal privilege. The legal system considers certain criminal matters exempted as well.


For instance, if one spouse commits a crime against another, that spouse can testify about the crime if they choose to do so. If a spouse commits a crime against the other spouse’s family, they can also testify. 


If one spouse fails to support the other, the law might consider that a criminal matter in some instances. Spousal privilege is not assured in those cases. 


If one spouse fails to support a child, that’s sometimes criminal, and spousal privilege might not apply. That all depends on how the child support failure manifests itself. Bigamy is a criminal offense, and you can’t use spousal privilege if you both have to appear in court for it.


What Can You Do to Find Out More About Spousal Privilege?

In some civil or criminal cases in California, you might not feel sure about whether you can claim spousal privilege or whether you can ask your spouse to use it. Sometimes, these situations get tricky, and you’ll have extenuating circumstances that further complicate them.


If so, you should probably talk to a competent, experienced lawyer who knows all about this kind of thing. You can explain the situation to them and ask them about spousal privilege. They can examine the facts and tell you whether it will apply.


Also, remember that even in civil or criminal cases in California where you can use spousal privilege, your spouse might not willingly do so if you did something to anger them. If you treated them poorly or they feel you did, they might not prohibit a courtroom proceeding by claiming spousal privilege. On the contrary, if they think you did something that harmed them, they might willingly and eagerly testify against you.


It’s helpful to know about spousal privilege in California. You can sometimes use it to shield yourself in a courtroom, but you must also realize that exceptions exist.