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Judges cannot limit financial support for a widowed spouse simply based on testimony that the marriage was about to end, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday. Instead, Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for a unanimous court, judges must base their decisions on more concrete evidence that the marriage was falling apart � such as a separation or efforts to retain a divorce lawyer. “Although declarations of marital unhappiness and a desire to dissolve a marriage may be considered in corroboration of other evidence offered to prove a marriage is on the verge of ending,” Baxter wrote, “such declarations, standing alone, are insufficient to support a finding to that effect.” The ruling also clarified that judges have the authority to apportion settlements, such as the one reached in the underlying wrongful-death suit in Thursday’s case. Plaintiff’s attorneys had argued state statutes restricted judges to divvying up only jury awards. The ruling is a victory for Shaoping “Sherry” Corder, whose husband, Raymond, died in a construction accident in May 2001, eight months after the couple had wed. Corder and her deceased husband’s adult daughter from a prior marriage, Lisa Corder, had gotten $1.1 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit against Raymond’s employer, Morrow Equipment Co. In a subsequent apportionment battle between the two heirs, Orange County Superior Court Judge Randell Wilkinson awarded the widow only 10 percent of the damages, while giving the rest to the dead man’s daughter. The judge based his decision largely on trial testimony that Raymond Corder had told friends and relatives he planned to leave his wife, whom he suspected was engaging in prostitution behind his back. The wife’s witnesses denied a breakup was pending. Santa Ana’s Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld Wilkinson in a split decision. Dissenting Justice David Sills claimed the majority had ignored California case law dealing with wrongful-death damages. “There is something profoundly wrong,” Sills wrote, “in allocating 90 percent of a wrongful-death award to an adult child and only 10 percent to the widow.” Baxter found Sills’ reasoning persuasive. “In assessing wrongful-death damages,” he wrote, “a surviving spouse has a legally enforceable right of support that is not easily defeated or diminished by evidence that the marital relationship was strained or disaffected.” In the part of Thursday’s opinion holding that judges have the power to apportion settlements, Baxter said it simply “promotes judicial economy and efficiency” to have the same judge who hears evidence on damages decide who gets how much. “Case law is consistent,” he wrote, “with the conclusion that trial courts may complete the adjudication of all contested issues in a wrongful death by determining the appropriate allocation of settlement proceeds between competing heirs.” Thursday’s ruling remands the case back to the Fourth District for further proceedings. Neither El Segundo attorney John Heubeck, who represented the widow, nor Newport Beach lawyer Ronald Harrington, who represented the daughter, could be reached for comment. The ruling is Corder v. Corder, 07 C.D.O.S. 7968.

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