It is not all that uncommon for couples to live together without getting married, but what happens if they split up after living together for a long period of time, several years even? California does not recognize common law marriage, and parties do not acquire community property simply by living together, so how do the parties divide up the furniture and other property they have bought together over the years? Also, can one party be required to pay support to his or her former partner, similar to the way a divorcing spouse may be ordered to pay spousal support? The answers to these questions may surprise you.
The Supreme Court of California addressed these issues as far back as 1976, in a case involving a separation between the actor Lee Marvin and his longtime live-in girlfriend. In the case of Marvin v. Marvin, the court held that courts should enforce express contracts between partners regarding rights to share in property or the promise to support one partner financially. At the time, alimony was a popular term for what we call today “spousal support,” so this type of support between unmarried partners become known as palimony (pal + alimony = palimony).
An agreement between unmarried partners regarding the division of property, payment of support or other matters is called a Cohabitation Agreement, although it is often commonly referred to as a Marvin Agreement or just a Marvin, after the famous case. One caveat is that the contract cannot be based on a sexual relationship between the parties. This is known as a meretricious contract and will not be enforced. There can be an agreement to support a partner financially based on the provision of housekeeping, homemaking or other duties, but not based on the provision of sexual services. Also, like with a prenuptial agreement or other marital agreement, a provision regarding child custody or negatively affecting the right to receive child support would most likely not be enforced.
Express Contract Not Required
Not all contracts are expressly stated, and not all contracts are written. Courts often recognize oral contracts or a contract whose existence is implied by the surrounding circumstances. The things the parties say to each other or the way they conduct themselves regarding sharing of property or the financial arrangement between them, can give rise to an “implied Marvin” that the court will enforce just as though there were an express, written contract. This is one reason why it might be advisable to establish a cohabitation agreement if entering into a long-term, live-in relationship. Not only will such an agreement set out the expectations of the parties up front; it will also serve as proof of the intent of the parties so that one party cannot later assert the existence of an implied or oral agreement that was never intended by the other party. As with the drafting of all legal documents, legal advice and assistance is encouraged to make sure the end result accomplishes what the parties set out to do.