Palimony refers to support payments that can be made to unmarried partners following a breakup. These lawsuits are often called “Palimony Actions” or “Marvin Action.” Such support payments have been permitted in California ever since a 1976 decision in the state Supreme Court which addressed premarital cohabitation. Requests for support based on premarital cohabitation are not made through the family law courts because it’s not part of a divorce proceeding – palimony lawsuits are not family law matters. Instead, these claims are filed as general civil actions, usually in conjunction with breach of contract or even implied partnership claims, among others.
California does not recognize common law marriages unless it was a common law marriage that was validly created in another state. California does allow one partner to recover under a palimony action or as a putative spouse.
Marvin v Marvin
Palimony law in California began receiving notice when the actor Lee Marvin was sued by his live-in girlfriend, Michelle Marvin. [Marvin v. Marvin (1976) 18 Cal.3d 660 [134 Cal.Rptr. 815, 557 P.2d 106]. In this case, the court ruled that Michelle must prove some other underlying basis for her claim, such as an express or implied contract.
The Marvin Decision
Michelle alleged that she and Lee Marvin entered into an oral agreement which provided that “while the parties lived together they would combine their efforts and earnings and would share equally any and all property accumulated as a result of their efforts whether individual or combined.” Further, that they agreed that Michelle would “render her services as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook.” Michelle filed suit based on a contract and property rights, and sought to impose a constructive trust upon one half of the property acquired during the course of the relationship.
A Contract Requires Valid Consideration
The trial court granted a judgment in favor of Lee Marvin, holding that the alleged agreement was unenforceable – Michelle lost. The California Supreme Court reversed, stating that “a contract between nonmarital partners is unenforceable only to the extent that it explicitly rests upon the immoral and illicit consideration of meretricious sexual services” – you cannot have a contract for sex. The Court held in summary, we base our opinion on the principle that adults who voluntarily live together and engage in sexual relations are nonetheless as competent as any other persons to contract respecting their earnings and property rights . . . . So long as the agreement does not rest upon illicit meretricious consideration, the parties may order their economic affairs as they choose, and no policy precludes the courts from enforcing such contracts – Michelle wins because their contract was not solely for sex.
The Supreme Court went on to address the issue of “the property rights of a nonmarital partner in the absence of an express contract.” Prior California cases had refused to enforce implied contracts between nonmarital cohabitants. The Supreme Court overruled that line of cases, holding that in the absence of an express agreement the plaintiff might be able to establish an implied contract or implied partnership, and might be able to invoke such remedies as constructive trust, resulting trust, and quantum meruit. In short, you can claim your interest in a property if you can prove an oral or implied contract.
Other Equitable Relief
In a footnote to Marvin decision, the Supreme Court stated that it did not “preclude the evolution of additional equitable remedies to protect the expectations of the parties to a nonmarital relationship in cases in which existing remedies prove inadequate.” The express intention of the Court’s opinion was simply to treat nonmarital cohabitants “as we do any other unmarried persons.”
Palimony as Spousal Support
A palimony action can be asserted for support, much like a spouse has a right to spousal support (alimony). However, a palimony suit is not a dissolution [of marriage]. The Supreme Court in Marvin expressly declined to treat unmarried cohabitants like married persons, overruling two prior decisions of the Court of Appeal which had applied the Family Law Act to unmarried cohabitants. California courts have held that trial courts in divorce proceedings do not have jurisdiction over Marvin claims arising out of premarital cohabitation. [In re Marriage of Johnson (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 57 [191 Cal.Rptr. 545]. (A Marvin claim filed in a civil action may, however, be consolidated with a dissolution proceeding. Id.]
Palimony Distinguished from Spousal Support
An award of spousal support may not be based on the parties’ cohabitation before marriage. [In re Marriage of Bukaty (1986) 180 Cal.App.3d 143 [225 Cal.Rptr. 492]]. Married couples cannot get spousal support based on pre-marriage considerations. It may be wise to assert a palimony action in lieu of a divorce action should the parties have lived together longer than they were married.
A Marvin case may not be processed in the superior court under the special family law rules. [Schafer v. Superior Court (1986) 180 Cal.App.3d 305 [225 Cal.Rptr. 513]]. Any palimony action must be addressed as a civil proceeding and not as a family law court action.
Jurisdiction standards applicable to domestic relations cases do not apply to Marvin actions. [Kroopf v. Guffey (1986) 183 Cal.App.3d 1351, 1357-1358 [228 Cal.Rptr. 807]]. Residency requirements which must be met in a divorce are not applicable in a palimony action.
Palimony Discharged in Bankruptcy
The obligation to pay support pursuant to a stipulated judgment in a Marvin action is dischargeable in bankruptcy. [In re James P. Doyle (9th Cir. BAP 1986) 70 B.R. 106]. An order to pay spousal support is not dischargeable in a bankruptcy action. An order to pay support from a palimony action is dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Temporary Spousal Support
A former unmarried partner is not entitled to an award of pendente lite support. [Friedman v. Friedman 20 Cal.App.4th 876 (1993)]. Pendente lite support is also known as “temporary spousal support” and is support ordered during a pending dissolution. There is no such period in a palimony action and support is received once a final order is entered determining the amount of support.
Proof of an Express or Implied Contract
The Supreme Court’s decision in the first Marvin case reversed a judgment on the pleadings and remanded the case for further proceedings. Thereafter, Michelle Marvin’s claims were heard at a bench trial (before a judge) who found that the parties never agreed to share their property and that Lee Marvin did not agree to support Michelle. Nevertheless, the trial court awarded Michelle $104,000 for the purpose of allowing her to be rehabilitated or to learn new employable skills. [Marvin v. Marvin (1981) 122 Cal.App.3d 871 [176 Cal.Rptr. 555]]. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the award was improper because “there is nothing in the trial court’s findings to suggest that such an award is warranted to protect the expectations of both parties.” In a footnote, the court noted that while the Marvin decision spoke of the evolution of additional equitable remedies, a court of equity “may not create totally new substantive rights under the guise of doing equity.”
Right to Relief
Another “rehabilitative” award was reversed in Taylor v. Polackwich (1983) 145 Cal.App.3d 1014, 1021 [194 Cal.Rptr. 8], in which the court of appeal stated: “[W]hile a rehabilitative award is a proper means of enforcing rights which cannot otherwise be adequately enforced, an equitable remedy may not be employed to grant rehabilitation to one who has no underlying right to relief on any theory.” In short, the primary “right” granted by Marvin is simply the right every person has to seek enforcement of his or her lawful contracts.
Marvin Requires Cohabitation
In Taylor v. Fields, the plaintiff, Taylor, had a relationship with a married man, Fields, for 42 years. After Fields died, Taylor sued his widow, alleging breach of an agreement by Fields to take care of Taylor financially. [Taylor v. Fields (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 653 [224 Cal.Rptr. 186]].
On appeal, the Court of Appeal stated that the relationship alleged by Taylor was “nothing more than that of a legally married man and his mistress.” The alleged contract rested on meretricious considerations and was unenforceable. The Court of Appeal noted that in Marvin, and the cases cited therein, the courts “upheld agreements where the parties lived together and relied on agreements not based on meretricious consideration.” The court then discussed cases involving claims by cohabitants for loss of consortium or wrongful death, noting one case which had extended the right to sue for loss of consortium to cohabitants who engaged in “stable and significant” relationships. The “Fields Court ” then held that cohabitation is a prerequisite to recovery in a Marvin-type action and that “Taylor’s contract with Fields is unenforceable because there is no showing of stable and significant cohabitation . . . .” In so holding, the court stated: While Taylor avers she and Fields occasionally spent weekends together and registered as husband and wife, such claims are inadequate to bring their relationship within Marvin principles.
In another case, the court backed away from the absolutist language in Taylor v. Fields, stating: “Cohabitation is necessary not in and of itself, but rather, because from cohabitation flows the rendition of domestic services, which services amount to lawful consideration for a contract between the parties.” [Bergen v. Wood (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 854 [18 Cal.Rptr.2d 75]. The “Bergen Court” opens the door challenging the “cohabitation requirement” by holding that the only requirement is that the contract be supported by some lawful consideration severable from the sexual relationship (whether or not that consideration takes the form of “domestic services”). The correct rule on cohabitation was stated by the Court of Appeal for the Fourth District as follows: “[C]ohabitation is not a prerequisite to the finding of an implied agreement between unmarried persons concerning their property.” [ Milian v. De Leon (1986)181 Cal.App.3d 1185, 1193 [226 Cal.Rptr. 831]].
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