I’m not married, but living with my partner. Do I have property rights?

In California, the division and distribution of property after divorce and death are governed by community property laws.  However, law has developed surrounding the application of the same laws and principles where the couple is not married.

Due to the growing trend of couples living together while not married, the courts have created an approach to determine whether there are property rights.  In two cases, In re Marriage of Cary (1973) and Estate of Atherley (1975), California Court of Appeals held that the Family Law Act (Civ. Code, § 4000 et seq.) requires division of the property for non-married couples according to community property principles.  A conflicting case was ruled on in Beckman v. Mayhew (1975) 49 Cal. App. 3d 529, where the Court rejected that non-marital gained the benefit of community property law.

To resolve the controversy, the Supreme Court in Marvin v. Marvin (1976) held that: (1) The provisions of the Family Law Act do not govern the distribution of property acquired during a non-marital relationship; such a relationship remains subject solely to judicial decision; (2) The courts should enforce express contracts between non-married partners except to the extent that the contract is explicitly founded on the consideration of sexual services; (3) In the absence of an express contract, the courts should look to the intent of the parties by their conduct to determine whether an implied contract, agreement of partnership or joint venture, or some other tacit was understood between the parties. The courts may also employ the doctrine of quantum meruit, or equitable remedies such as constructive or resulting trusts, when warranted by the facts of the case.

What are the Consequences of Marvin?

In Marvin, the Court referred to Vallera v. Vallera (1943) 21 Cal. 2d 681, 685 where the Supreme Court of California stated that “If a man and woman [who are not married] live together as husband and wife under an agreement to pool their earnings and share equally in their joint accumulations, equity will protect the interests of each in such property.”

The Court in Marvin reviewed numerous California decisions concerning contracts between non-marital partners and held that such decisions have established narrow and precise standard that, “a contract between non-marital partners is unenforceable only to the extent that it explicitly rests upon the immoral and illicit consideration of meretricious sexual services.”  Further the Court in Marvin stated that, “the fact that a man and woman live together without marriage, and engage in a sexual relationship, does not in itself invalidate agreements between them relating to their earnings, property, or expenses.  Neither is such an agreement invalid merely because the parties may have contemplated the creation or continuation of a non-marital relationship when they entered into it.”

Therefore, based on the decision of Marvin, non-married couples may agree to pool their earnings and to hold all property acquired during the relationship in accordance with the law governing community property or to agree to hold such property as separate property of either partner.  Accordingly, such agreements are enforceable so long as do not rest upon illicit meretricious consideration.

In addition to enforcing express contracts that are not based on unlawful meretricious consideration, pursuant to Marvin, 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, (Estate of Thornton (1972), or some other understanding between the parties. The courts may, when appropriate, employ principles of constructive trust (see Omer v. Omer (1974) or resulting trust. Finally, a non-marital 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)

What Are the Arguments for and Against Property Rights?

In a concur and dissent opinion by Justice Clark, he stated that the majority opinion properly permit recovery on the basis of either express or implied in-fact agreement between the parties.  However, Justice Clark believed that the opinion should have stopped there and not attempt to determine all anticipated rights, duties and remedies within every meretricious relationship.  Accordingly, Justice Clark stated that the majority broadly indicated that a party to a meretricious relationship may recover on the basis of equitable principles and in quantum merit, yet failed to advise of the circumstances permitting recover, limitations on recovery, or whether their numerous remedies are cumulative or exclusive.  Conceivably, under the majority opinion a party may recover half of the property acquired during the relationship on the basis of general equitable principles, recover a bonus based on specific equitable considerations, and recover a second bonus in quantum meruit.

Thus, according to the dissent, the strongest argument against Marvin is that the decision is too broad in some aspects.

What Does the Argument Against Marvin Aim For?

Essentially, Justice Clark’s dissent clearly establishes that when the parties to a romantic relationship show by express or implied agreement they intend to create mutual obligations, the courts should enforce the agreement. However, in the absence of an agreement, the courts should stop and consider the ramifications before creating economic obligations which may violate legislative intent, contravene the intention of the parties, and surely generate undue burdens on our trial courts.

As the legislature has failed to enact statutory law that conflicts with the State Court’s ruling, this area of law will likely stay on the books and protect the expectations of those who have a living arrangement outside of marriage.

37.9076894 -122.0557513