In September 2003, Nancy Cortez and Robert Ceja married in front of hundreds of friends and family at a Pentecostal church in San Juan Bautista. She wore a white wedding gown, and slipped on a wedding ring she would wear until the ironworker's tragic death four years later at his job for a Peninsula-based construction company.

After Robert Ceja's death, an obituary identified Nancy Ceja as his "beloved wife." By all appearances, the Cejas met every definition of marriage in California.

But sometimes "I do" is not as simple as it seems. And now Nancy Ceja finds herself in the midst of a legal quagmire over whether, in fact, she was truly married in the eyes of the law solely because she believed she was legally married. As it turned out, the ink had not yet dried on Robert Ceja's divorce to his previous wife when they exchanged vows -- and that may deprive Nancy Ceja of the right to sue his former company for wrongful death.

The California Supreme Court will address Ceja's unusual predicament on Wednesday, when it tackles a murky area of state law involving whether a spouse who has a "good faith belief" she is truly married can sue if it turns out that technically she is not.

Ceja, a San Jose woman, could not be reached for comment for this story, and her lawyer did not respond to repeated, detailed messages. But her circumstances are described in her now three-year legal battle, which has reached the state's high court.

Robert Ceja, a Del Mar High School graduate who was 39 when he died, had previously married in Nevada in 1995, but split with his first wife in 2001 and gained joint custody of their two children. He then began living with Nancy, and the couple married two years later, obtaining a marriage license and arranging their big wedding, according to court records.

However, Robert Ceja's divorce papers were still in California's waiting period and did not become final until three months after the wedding. As a result, lawyers for Rudolph & Setten, the construction company Nancy Ceja sued over Robert's accident, moved to dismiss her wrongful death claims, arguing she did not have a right to press them as a legal spouse.

A Santa Clara County judge agreed, but a state appeals court two years ago reinstated Nancy Ceja's case, saying she is entitled to take her claims to trial if "she honestly and genuinely believed her marriage was valid."

Rudolph & Setten asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The company's lawyers declined to comment.

But in court papers, the company's lawyers argue that allowing such a subjective standard as "good faith belief" to stick would be "poor public policy," warning "married parties would no longer have to trouble themselves with California's marriage prerequisites."

"Merely believing that one is married would have virtually the same legal effect as actually being married," company lawyers wrote in one brief.

Ceja's attorneys called those concerns "overblown."

"Had Nancy doubted the validity of her marriage to Robert," she told the Supreme Court, "they would have simply redone the ceremony. After the wedding, she took Robert's last name, held herself out to be his wife at all times and believed that they were validly married up to and after the day on which Robert was killed."

Grace Ganz Blumberg, a UCLA law professor who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Ceja's side, said the case boils down to common sense. She said the Supreme Court simply needs to make it clear that someone in Ceja's circumstance is treated as legally married.

"People who get married aren't lawyers," said Blumberg, a family law expert. "We don't want people to jump through legal hoops for something that is very basic."

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.