Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Cohabitation and the Law

Cohabiting couples may have many reasons for not getting married. Many say they do not need a piece of paper as proof of their love and commitment. For other living together without getting married helps avoid the legal issues that can arise if the relationship ends. While it is easy to generally terminate a cohabiting relationship, it is not always the case.

The best example of how it can be difficult at times to terminate a cohabiting relationship is the case of Lee Marvin, the famous actor, and his partner, Michelle who lived together for several years before deciding to call it quits.

All of the property that the couple had accumulated during this period was placed in Lee Marvin’s name; at the time of their separation, the value of the property was estimated at more than $1 million. Lee Marvin was a well-known Hollywood film star; Michelle, who had at one time been an entertainer, had not pursued her career. Instead she had acted as Marvin’s companion, homemaker, housekeeper, and cook.

After their relationship had ended, Michelle filed an action alleging that she was entitled to half the property acquired during the relationship and to support payments. The trial court granted judgment on the pleadings for Lee Marvin. An intermediate appellate court affirmed.

The California Supreme Court reversed, holding that express contracts between unmarried partners are enforceable unless the contract is explicitly and inseparably based on sexual services. The court also noted that an implied agreement may provide the basis for apportioning property.

On remand, the Superior Court of Los Angeles considered the question of whether Michelle and Lee had an express or an implied contract to share property; it found that they had not. Further, the court decided that there had been no mutual effort in the accumulation of property during the relationship. Although Michelle served as cook, homemaker, and companion to Lee, he spent $72,000 on her in less than six years. Moreover, on the occasions when Michelle had earned money, she had deposited it in her own separate account. Nevertheless, taking into account the fact that Michelle would be unable to resume a career in the entertainment industry, the court awarded her $104,000 for the purpose of rehabilitation.

You can avoid this kind of a situation by entering into a cohabitation agreement before moving in with your partner. The agreement should clearly specify the rights and obligations of the partners and must be fair to both partners. Seek the assistance of an experienced attorney to draft a cohabitation agreement.

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