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Unmarried Couples – Property Rights After The Breakup

Unmarried couples

These days, more and more couples are choosing to forego marriage and live together as unmarried couples. The question becomes — what rights do the parties have in the event the relationship terminates? Essentially, because there was never a legal marriage under California law, statutes under the California Family Code do not apply.

California abolished common law marriage in 1895 and the unavailability of common law marriage has influenced the development of the law regarding couples who live together but do not meet the formal requirements for marriage.

In the landmark decision of Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660, 134 Cal. Rptr. 815, 557 P.2d 106 (1976) involving the actor Lee Marvin, the California Court of Appeals found that the Family Law Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 4000 et seq., did not govern unmarried couple distribution of property, and the laws of community property do not apply, but there can be property rights for and unmarried couple through contract principles either by express contract or a contractual agreement implied through conduct.

For Unmarried Couple Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola – The Court in Marvin found:

… 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. Of course, they cannot lawfully contract to pay for the performance of sexual services, for such a contract is, in essence, an agreement for prostitution and unlawful for that reason. But they may agree to pool their earnings and to hold all property acquired during the relationship in accord with the law governing community property; conversely, they may agree that each partner’s earnings and the property acquired from those earnings remains the separate property of the earning partner.”

So, the result of this means that if unmarried partners have an express contract, they can recover from each other under the principles of contract law in terms of dividing property acquired during the relationship. The Court also found:

“The courts may inquire into the conduct of the parties to determine whether that conduct demonstrates an implied contract or implied agreement of partnership or joint venture (see Estate of Thornton (1972) 81 Wn.2d 72 [499 P.2d 864]), or some other tacit understanding between the parties.”

The Court Then Provided Additional Remedies

The courts may, when appropriate, employ principles of constructive trust (see Omer v. Omer (1974) 11 Wash. App. 386 [523 P.2d 957]) or resulting trust (see Hyman v. Hyman (Tex.Civ.App. 1954) 275 S.W.2d 149). Finally, a nonmarital partner may recover in quantum meruit for the reasonable value of household services rendered less the reasonable value of support received if he can show that he rendered services with the expectation of monetary reward.” (See Hill v. Estate of Westbrook, supra, 39 Cal. 2d 458, 462.) fn. 25

So essentially, provided the agreement between the unmarried couple does not include illicit meretricious consideration, the parties may order their economic affairs as they choose.

Additionally, an agreement will NOT be enforced if it impairs the community property rights of a legal spouse of one of the meretricious partners.

What About Alimony in the Case of Nonmarital Partners?

The same rules apply as above. A partner in an unmarried couple can enforce a contract for lifetime support in exchange for care and services of the other nonmarital partner, but again the contract may not contain illicit meretricious consideration. Additionally, the language of the express contract must be clear and unambiguous or an implied contract to that effect must be proven. For example, “he said he would take care of me forever”, likely would not give rise to lifetime support.

In Marvin, the plaintiff’s request for support was denied. She claimed they entered into an oral agreement and “plaintiff agreed to “give up her lucrative career as an entertainer [and] singer” in order to “devote her full time to defendant … as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook;” in return defendant agreed to “provide for all of plaintiff’s financial support and needs for the rest of her life.”

If you are considering a separation or divorce and live in Mendocino County, Sonoma County, or Lake County California, the Santa Rosa family law office of Beck Law P.C., may be able to help.

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