The Rights of People Who Live Together But Aren’t Married

By Richard A. Marcus, Esq.


In 1976, the Supreme Court of California decided the landmark case of Marvin v. Marvin, a case which determined that non-married parties living together have the right to enforce contracts regarding the pooling of earnings and holding of property. The facts were as follows, after two people that lived together ended their relationship, the woman claimed that she had an oral agreement to combine efforts and earnings and share equally any and all property accumulated as result. She claimed that the parties held themselves out as husband and wife, and that she gave up her career to render services as companion, homemaker, housekeeper, and cook in exchange for her companion’s financial promise to support her for life. The trial Judge that first heard the case threw it out. But the Supreme Court reversed holding that her complaint properly stated a breach of express contract claim, and could be amended to assert an implied contract or equity rights. “Marvin” recognized that express contracts between nonmarital partners should be enforced except to extent they were explicitly founded on “meretricious sexual services.”

What this means is that if parties living together agree that they will hold property a certain way and one party breaches that agreement, the other party can sue for breach of an express contract. The parties can also sue on an implied contract based upon the parties' conduct to, for example, share earnings and acquisitions or to provide support. A lawsuit can even be brought for declaratory relief, which means that the court determines the rights of the parties under a cohabitation agreement.

Suit can even be brought the reasonable value of services rendered. Those services can include, household, business or other legally-compensable services, less the reasonable value of support received, upon proof the services were provided with the expectation that the person providing them would receive money in exchange for the services. And, express and implied agreements between same-sex cohabitants are no less enforceable than those between “Marvin” claimants of the opposite sex.

Note that most of these “Marvin” agreements are breached, when the nonmarital relationship terminates by one party leaving the other. Then, the parties are usually left with a swearing contest. When the claim is rooted in contract, as a general rule, the party asserting the contract must prove the existence of the contract by “a preponderance of the evidence”, meaning that it "is more probable than not" that the agreement existed and its terms were those alleged by the party asserting the contract. There however is one very important exception. If a person is on “record title”, like on a deed to a house, there is a statutory presumption that the owner of legal title to the property is the owner of the full beneficial title. This presumption may be rebutted only by clear and convincing proof.