Marriage vs. Cohabitation – Why it Matters in the Context of California Family Law

There is a misconception that if you live with a partner for a significant amount of time, you are married through a “Common Law Marriage” with the same rights and responsibilities of legally married couples; however, Common Law Marriage does not exist in California.  Rather, in California, a couple must receive a marriage license and exchange their vows in a ceremony – either civil or religious – in order to be legally married.  Once a couple is legally married, California Community Property law governs.  

California Community Property Law holds that a marriage or the registration of a Domestic Partnership makes two people one legal “community.”  Thus, property couples acquire during the marriage is considered “community property” and debt couples incur during the marriage is considered “community debt.”  At the time of divorce, each spouse is entitled to one-half of the community property and responsible for one-half of the community debt.  

Unlike marriage, in California, cohabitation is governed by contract law– meaning, without a valid marriage, couples who simply cohabitate together do not have an automatic one-half interest in their partner’s property.   However, although cohabitation is governed by contract law and not the family law community property principles, unmarried partners may assert some of the same rights as divorcing spouses when they end their relationship.

Marvin” Claims in California

Generally speaking, the California community property rights and obligations that would normally accrue for married couples do not exist for unmarried partners.  However, under the well-known Marvin v. Marvin case, unmarried couples who live together and meet certain requirements may make marital-type claims for property and financial support after they break up. These claims are often called “Marvin” claims and are governed by civil law, not family law.   

 

In Marvin v. Marvin, actor Lee Marvin was sued for financial support by his long-term girlfriend, Michelle Triola.  Ms. Triola sought financial compensation similar to spousal support and community property which married couples are typically entitled to receive in California.  In Marvin, the court expressly declined to treated unmarried cohabitants like married persons, but the court stated that agreements, including oral contracts, between unmarried partners should be enforced.

 

Thus, in order to succeed in a Marvin suit, the plaintiff-spouse will have to prove that both partners had a written agreement or implied understanding to share their property and earnings and/or that one person would provide financial support to the other.  Two common ways to prove a Marvin claim are (1) an action for breach of written contract and/or (2) an action for an implied contract.  

 

If a couple has a valid, written agreement to share property or provide support, that contract will likely control the outcome of the case.  If, however, the couple has an implied agreement – a contract found by looking at the parties’ conduct – it will be much more difficult for the plaintiff-spouse to prove.  

 

Child Support Obligation

Regardless of whether the couple lived as cohabitants or married partners, in California, parents have a mandatory legal duty to support their child.  The right to child support belongs to the child, not the parents; thus, even parents who cohabitated without legally getting married, and eventually ended their relationship, will be responsible for paying their agreed upon or court ordered child support.  

 

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