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Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Cohabitation and the Law

Cohabitation and the Law Overview

There are many reasons cohabitating couples may cite for not getting married. Some may say that they do not need a "piece of paper" to prove their love and commitment to each other. Other couples choose to live together without getting married in order to avoid the legal entanglements that can arise should the relationship end. Couples basing their decision on the latter reason should bear in mind that although cohabitating relationships often dissolve fairly simply, that is not always the case. Let's explore a series of lessons learned the hard way and your rights under the law if you choose to cohabitate. 

Palimony: The Case of Lee and Michelle Triola Marvin

Perhaps the most notorious example of the legal quagmire that can surround the end of a cohabitating partnership is the case of Lee and Michelle Triola Marvin. Lee Marvin, the famous actor, and his partner, Michelle, lived together for several years before deciding to call it quits. When they did, Michelle claimed that she was entitled to support and an equal division of the property acquired during the relationship, but the actor disagreed.

Michelle claimed that she and Lee had an oral agreement that provided that while they 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." According to Michelle, the agreement also provided that Michelle's contributions would be in the form of her services "as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook." Michelle sought the help of the California courts in enforcing this alleged oral agreement, such that she would be entitled to half of all of the property the couple had acquired.

The first court to hear the matter held in favor of Lee Marvin. Michelle appealed, however, and the appellate court agreed with her, at least in theory. It concluded that adults who live together are just as competent as any other individuals to enter into contracts regarding their earnings and property. The fact that a contract is not in writing does not necessarily make it unenforceable. Even implied contracts, the court stated, are worthy of enforcement.

Once the court had determined that an implied contract relating to the property rights of unmarried cohabitants was enforceable, it considered, in a separate proceeding, whether there was a valid contract in that particular case. The court, once again in an appellate decision, concluded that Lee Marvin had not in fact agreed to support Michelle or share his property with her, and thus she was not entitled to "palimony."

Although it may appear that tough guy Lee Marvin got off free as a bird in this case, his freedom came at a significant cost-over five years of litigation and significant expenditures of time, money, and emotional energy. If the court had found an oral agreement, the result would have been even costlier for Mr. Marvin, although arguably fairer to his cohabitant.

Should I Enter into a Cohabitation Agreement?

There is a lesson to be learned from this story. Perhaps the best way to avoid the type of situation faced by the Marvins is to enter into a cohabitation agreement before moving in together. The agreement can set forth the expectations of the parties in a legally enforceable manner, so that one partner does not end up saddled with an unanticipated financial burden or, conversely, a partner who is promised future support can enforce that expectation. An experienced attorney can help you draft an enforceable cohabitation agreement that best protects your rights and interests, and can advise you on property and money management issues so that you preserve your rights.

Next Steps: Free Case Review from a Family Law Attorney

If you are living with someone and want to better understand your rights, now is the time to act. A well-written cohabitation agreement might be the right thing for your situation, or it might not. The key is to understand the laws in your state and if you have further questions, speak with an experienced family law attorney. You can get a free case review at no obligation.

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