In 1977, California made legal history when one of its residents, Michelle Triola Marvin, filed a lawsuit for alimony against the Academy Award winning actor, Lee Marvin. Lee Marvin, famous for his leading role in the 1965 film “Cat Ballou,” made news headlines again -- this time, not for his Oscar winning role in “Cat Ballou,” but because his former paramour was suing him for alimony. What made this case unique was that Michelle Triola Marvin never legally married Lee Marvin.
Alimony is a spousal support payment by one spouse to another. Courts may award alimony or spouses may have entered into a property settlement agreement or prenuptial agreement voluntarily agreeing to provide alimony payments. Alimony payments typically terminate at the death of either spouse, and some states allow spouses paying alimony to stop paying if their former spouses remarry.
“Pal” (for unmarried cohabitants) plus “alimony” equals “palimony.” Not really a legal concept, but a colloquial term made famous by journalists and Marvin Michelson, the famous divorce attorney hired to represent Michelle Triola Marvin. Marvin Michelson devised a clever claim for alimony on his client’s behalf, although the Supreme Court of California did not rule in her favor. Since his client never married Lee Marvin, and since California does not recognize common law marriage, he based his argument on contract law. He alleged that Lee Marvin promised his former paramour that he would support her if their relationship ended.
California is one of the few minority jurisdictions that will award alimony to unmarried residents. To establish a successful case, you must prove the existence of a valid contract -- oral or written -- with consideration or a bilateral promise, or exchange, from each party. State laws establish what is necessary to create a legally binding palimony contract. In New Jersey, for instance, the family law courts will uphold palimony agreements if there is a written contract signed by both parties, an oral contract with evidence that the parties clearly intended to form a binding contract or an implied contract.
State of the Union
Since rendering the famous decision in Marvin v. Marvin, California courts have presided over similar cases; and although each case is unique, California courts seem to require clear and convincing evidence of a binding contract when the parties did not marry. For alimony, state laws determine when courts can award alimony, and some states bar alimony awards to parties who were solely responsible for the marital dissolution. Courts are generally more likely to award alimony temporarily or on a rehabilitative basis and for long-term marriages to help a spouse obtain economic independence.
Since state laws can frequently change, do not use this information as a substitute for legal advice. Seek advice through an attorney licensed to practice law in your state.