Understanding palimony

As a California resident, you already likely know that some spouses can receive spousal support when they divorce. But what if you were never legally married and instead have been living with someone without benefit of marriage? Can you receive spousal support if and when your live-in relationship comes to an end? The answer is yes, under certain circumstances, and the reason is because of California’s unique palimony law.

If you have never heard of palimony, you likely are not alone. The case establishing it in California dates back to the 1970s. In 1971 a woman named Michelle Triola sued famed actor Lee Marvin, her longtime live-in partner, for half of his property, as well as “spousal” support, when their relationship ended.

The Marvin case

The Marvin case wound its way through the California court system for more than five years, while tabloids splashed the latest developments all over the country. Triola claimed she was entitled to half the property and “spousal” support based on the oral agreement she and Marvin had made at the beginning of their relationship. Per the alleged agreement, she would give up her career and devote herself to him and his career in exchange for him promising to give her half his property and pay her “alimony” if and when the relationship ended. Marvin, naturally, denied the existence of any such oral agreement.

Triola won at the appellate court level, the court holding that two cohabiting adults can make an oral contract just as legally as any other two adults. The court likewise held that their relationship implied such a contract. The California Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s reasoning, but overturned its decision on the basis of finding that no such oral contract had been made in this particular case. Marvin therefore won and Triola had to walk away empty handed.

Cohabitation agreement

From that day to this, couples who decide to live together in California have found it in their best interests to sign a written cohabitation agreement, i.e., a written contract, at the beginning of their relationship. If you contemplate entering into a cohabitation arrangement, or already are in one, signing a written contract is your only protection against losing half your property and having to pay palimony or, conversely, getting nothing if your live-in arrangement ends. In other words, make sure your written cohabitation agreement sets forth not only the duties and responsibilities of each of you, but also the property settlement and palimony arrangements to which you both agree if and when your relationship ends.