I’m not married, but living with my partner. Do I have property rights?
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
In California, the division and distribution of property after divorce and death are governed by community property laws. 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 under the Family Law Act.
After competing cases in California held opposite rulings on the law, 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.
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.”
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, as long as the relationship is not purely for sexual gains.
In addition to enforcing express contracts, the courts may inquire into the conduct of the parties to determine whether that conduct demonstrates an implied contract, implied agreement of partnership or joint venture, or some other understanding between the parties (Estate of Thornton (1972)). The courts may, when appropriate, employ principles of constructive trust or resulting trust (Omer v. Omer (1974)). A non-marital partner may recover in quantum meruit for the reasonable value of household services minus the value of support received if he or she can show that he or she received services with the expectation of monetary reward (See Hill v. Estate of Westbrook).
According to the dissenting opinion in Marvin, the decision is too broad in some aspects.
Justice Clark’s dissent establishes that when the parties to a romantic relationship imply that 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 consequences on the law, the parties of the case, and the trial courts before creating economic obligations.
But, as there is no conflicting statutory law, those seeking community property protections in a case while living together unmarried will likely remain protected.
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