Marvin actions and palimony rights for unmarried California cohabitants

Palimony standards were established in a 1976 landmark state Supreme Court opinion that has been cited across the country.

Lee Marvin was a character actor perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance in the movie "Cat Ballou" in 1965. But in California legal circles, his claim to fame is as the defendant in a palimony lawsuit brought by Michelle Triola, with whom he lived in a long-term relationship.

While ultimately (after further court opinions) Triola was not successful in obtaining property or support from Marvin after they broke up, the California Supreme Court opinion in the matter still stands, setting the standard in California for certain rights to financial support of unmarried cohabitants after their relationships are over.

Based on this case, actions in the Golden State for palimony are called "Marvin actions." Also, in an interesting aside, according to the Huffington Post, the word "palimony" ("pal" like a chum or buddy combined with "alimony") used to describe alimony-like payments for unmarried couples after they break up was crafted by one of the lawyers in the Marvin lawsuit.

California Supreme Court's opinion

In Marvin v. Marvin (Triola took her partner's last name), Triola alleged that they had had an express, oral agreement that she would get half of the property they accumulated (in his name) during the seven years they lived together as well as support payments after they broke up, in exchange for her giving up her career to be a homemaker and companion.

The Supreme Court said that while community property laws that apply to married couples do not apply, express palimony and property-division agreements between nonmarital cohabiting partners are generally enforceable so long as they are not based on a party providing "sexual services."

Even without an express agreement, the court should examine the relationship for indicia of another basis based on behavior to grant palimony or property rights, including:

  • Implied contract
  • Quantum meruit (similar to unjust enrichment)
  • Implied partnership
  • Implied joint venture
  • Constructive trust
  • Resulting trust
  • Some other kind equitable relief (based on principles of fairness)

Practical approach

Unmarried couples who live together may choose to enter into a formal, negotiated cohabitation agreement with each having his or her own legal counsel. Such an agreement could deal with a variety of issues, including whether palimony will kick in should they end their relationship and whether one partner agrees to give the other certain property rights such as a right to part of retirement accounts.

However, anyone who was in a romantic relationship of cohabitation and did not negotiate and sign a formal contract should talk to an experienced California family lawyer about whether the circumstances of the relationship may give rise to a basis for palimony or other rights. On the other hand, if your former live-in partner is seeking support from you, speak to an attorney about your rights and how to respond.

The California Supreme Court's opinion in Marvin v. Marvin is on Westlaw at 557 P.2d 106.

Family lawyer Mike Darlington of Redding represents unmarried cohabitants in matters related to property rights and palimony in Shasta County and across Northern California.