When entrepreneurs are in a relationship, marriage can seem like a risky step. Getting married without a strong prenup in California means that any property you acquire after the wedding is legally considered community property. That includes your stake in your business, any intellectual property you create, and any money you earn: it must all be split 50/50 with your partner during a divorce. As a result, many young Silicon Valley creatives are putting off marriage or even avoiding it entirely.
However, that’s not the whole picture. Avoiding marriage just to avoid splitting property during a divorce leaves you open to a unique feature of California law: palimony. While true alimony can only be awarded to a partner during a separation, that’s not the only time when you might be ordered to pay a partner money. In certain cases, the court can order you to pay money to a romantic partner even without a marriage or domestic partnership.
What Is Palimony?
In short, palimony is a court-ordered payment from one partner to another after a couple breaks up. The payment is intended to support the lower-earning partner while they find new housing and a job. A lower-earning partner can file a Marvin claim in order to request palimony.
Many couples move in together to share expenses, especially in places like the Bay Area. In many states, cohabitating with a romantic partner for long enough and mingling your expenses can result in the court system determining that you are in a common law marriage. In states with common law marriage statutes, these relationships are subjects to all the rights and obligations of any other marriage, including alimony in the case of a breakup. This is intended to protect couples who have been acting as married in every way except getting a marriage license.
California does not have a common law marriage statute. However, there are still laws and procedures to protect people In these types of long term relationships. Palimony is one of these procedures. It first was defined in 1973, after Lee Marvin was sued by his long-term partner Michelle Marvin after a breakup.
Essentially, if a couple is together for a long time, then the court may see the partners as having entered into a contract with each other. This putative contract often involves one partner providing financial support to the relationship, while the other partner provides domestic support. One partner earns money, while the other takes care of the home – the same dynamic that triggers many alimony payments. Most successful palimony cases involve cohabitating partners, because this strengthens the contract claim.
After a breakup, a lower-earning partner may be able to file a Marvin order lawsuit for palimony. If the court finds that the higher-earning partner was significantly supporting the other in exchange for services, then they may award the lower-earning partner a palimony payment to ensure their financial survival. The plaintiff needs to prove several things to receive palimony, including:
- Both parties provided “consideration,” or something of value to each other
- Was their any written or verbal agreement about this consideration?
- Was the ending of this agreement not mutual?
If all of these things are true, then the lower-earning partner may have grounds to file a Marvin claim for palimony.
The Differences Between Palimony and Alimony
Palimony sounds similar to alimony, and in many ways it fulfills the same purpose for unmarried couples. However, there are some important differences between the two types of orders.
First, alimony claims are handled through the family court system, but Marvin orders and palimony are heard in civil courts. Alimony is considered to be a family matter, while palimony is considered a part of contract law.
Second, unlike alimony, palimony is heavily connected to a relationship’s reciprocity. Palimony is largely awarded based on how much a person contributed to a relationship in exchange for monetary value. Alimony, on the other hand, does not take reciprocity into consideration nearly as often.
Finally, alimony is intended to help a person maintain their standard of living, while palimony is intended to help fulfill a contract. As a result, palimony payments tend to be smaller and shorter than alimony orders, though they can still be significant.
How to Avoid Risking Palimony Orders
The decisions surrounding palimony, including the original California Supreme Court case, rest on there being no explicit, written contract in the relationship. Many palimony cases rely on “implicit” contracts, or verbal contracts that were never clearly defined. As a result, it’s possible to avoid palimony by clearly outlining your relationship with a contract.
If you want to live with a partner, but do not want to get married, then a cohabitation agreement is an excellent idea. These agreements outline the expectations of both parties and can explicitly include the requirements for both parties after the end of a relationship. Instead of the court deciding anything based on an “implicit” contract, there is an explicit contract that can be presented to the court as evidence. When these things are clearly defined on paper, much of the basis for a Marvin order disappears.
If you wouldn’t mind marriage but you are concerned about your property rights, a prenuptial agreement can solve your problem. A prenuptial agreement can include clauses about alimony, property division, property ownership, and other post-divorce considerations. A good prenuptial agreement written by a qualified attorney can help make marriage legally safer for your property than simply cohabitating.
With or Without a Wedding, You Should Still Have a Contract
A long-term relationship is a big commitment, whether or not there is a marriage license involved. If you’re concerned about losing ownership of your real or intellectual property, you should always have a contract. Committing to your partner emotionally doesn’t mean you have to release commit to them legally, but a legally-binding contract never hurts.
If you’re interested in a cohabitation agreement, a prenuptial agreement, or you’re concerned about palimony, don’t hesitate to reach out. Having the right legal protection can help give you the peace of mind to fully commit to your relationship. An experienced attorney can help you understand your legal rights and obligations, as well as designing a contract that meets your needs.