Cohabitation and the Law: Lessons Learned

Cohabiting couples could cite many reasons not to marry. Some will say that they do not need a “piece of paper” to prove that they love each other and that there is a compromise between them. Others choose to live together without getting married to avoid the legal entanglements that arise when the relationship ends. Couples who base their decision on this last point should keep in mind that, although de facto relations dissolve very simply, that is not always the case.

The case of Lee and Michelle Triola Marvin is perhaps the most notorious example of the legal swamp in which a cohabiting couple can plunge when their relationship comes to an end. Lee Marvin, the famous actor, and his partner Michelle, lived together for several years before separating. When they did, Michelle claimed her right to support and an equitable division of the assets acquired during the relationship, but the actor did not agree.

Michelle assured that she and Lee had an oral agreement that stipulated that, during the coexistence, “they would combine efforts and gains, and that the accumulated assets resulting from such efforts and gains (whether individual or joint) would be shared equitably.” According to Michelle, the agreement also established that his contributions would be in the form of services, such as “roommate, housewife, housekeeper and cook.” Michelle sought help in the courts of California to comply with the alleged oral agreement, so that she was entitled to half of the property that the couple had acquired.

The first court that understood the case ruled in favor of Lee Marvin. However, Michelle appealed and the appeals court agreed with her, at least in theory. He concluded that adults living together are as competent as any other individual to make contracts on their earnings or property. The fact that a contract is not in writing does not make it unenforceable. The court established that even implicit contracts must be followed.

Once the court determined that an implicit contract related to the property rights of the cohabitants is also enforceable, it considered, in a separate process, whether or not there was a valid contract in the particular case. The court, again on appeal, concluded that Lee Marvin had not agreed to keep Michelle or share her property with her and, therefore, she was not entitled to a “maintenance allowance.”

Although it might seem that Lee Marvin was successful in this case, that freedom cost him more than five years of litigation and a lot of money, time and emotional energy. If the court had determined an oral agreement, the result would have been even more expensive for Lee Marvin, although possibly more fair for his cohabitant.

There is a lesson to learn from this story. Perhaps the best way to avoid the kind of situation the Marvin faced is to reach a cohabitation agreement before living together. The agreement may mandatorily establish the expectations of the parties, so that one of the parties does not end up with an unanticipated financial burden or, on the other hand, that the party to which the support was promised in the future may demand the fulfillment of said promise. A specialized lawyer can help you write a cohabitation agreement that protects your rights and interests and can advise you on how to deal with money and property issues so you can maintain your rights.

Cohabitation: How to get the help of a lawyer

If you are living with your partner and / or thinking about getting married, a lawyer specializing in family law can help you with a fair representation of the parties in the process. Your lawyer will work to get the best possible result. The first step is to find a lawyer specializing in family law in your area.


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