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Do Unmarried Couples Have Community Property Rights?


When married couples end their union, California’s community property laws guide the allocation of their assets. The state’s guidelines take the property and assets acquired during the marriage and divide that value 50/50 between the spouses.

Community property rights afforded to married couples do not apply to partners who never wed. Instead, they can use a palimony suit to seek property or support.

History of Palimony in California

California is one of nearly 30 U.S. states with some form of palimony, but the practice had its origins here in the Golden State.

From 1965 to 1970, actor Lee Marvin lived with his girlfriend Michelle Triola. After their breakup, he paid her a monthly allowance until he stopped in November 1971. She took him to court in 1972, seeking financial support and property like what occurs in a divorce. She claimed he promised to support her for the rest of her life. The case ended up in the California Supreme Court in 1976.

The court ruled that Triola and other unmarried partners in California can sue for property division when the relationship ends. Common-law marriage had been abolished in 1896, but the state still recognized non-marital relationship contracts. These contracts can be express or implied, oral or written, but they must be provable in any case.

At the 1979 trial, the Los Angeles Superior Court ordered Marvin to pay his former girlfriend $104,000, which was equal to two years at her highest weekly salary. The sum was called “rehabilitative” and meant to pay for training to become self-sufficient. The court denied her claim for half of the $3.6 million he earned during their relationship.

Two years later, the California Court of Appeal found that she had not proven she had a contract with Marvin and overruled the financial award. The Supreme Court would not reinstate it.

Triola never received any money from Marvin, but the legal concept of palimony was born.

The Right to Property Is Not Guaranteed

Married couples have guaranteed legal rights under the state’s community property laws. Partners who never formalized their union are not automatically protected. Likewise, there is no obligation for spousal support. A property or support claim through palimony is only possible if the existence of a contract can be proven.

Property in the name of only one partner is assumed to be the possession of that one person. The other partner must file a palimony suit if they want to make a claim on any portion of the asset. Property bearing the names of both partners on the title is split evenly. Both partners will remain responsible for the debt in any jointly held credit accounts.

If a non-marital claim on property or support makes it to court, the judge will consider factors like married couples:

  • How long the couple lived together
  • The employability of the partner requesting support
  • The assets and income of both partners
  • The sacrifices one partner made for the other (often to support the other in their career)
  • The ages and health of the former partners

Regardless of whether a couple is married, California follows the same laws for child custody and child support determinations. An unmarried partner other than the birth mother must establish parentage through DNA or by both parents signing a Voluntary Declaration of Parentage.

Cohabitation Agreements Are Easier to Enforce

As Triola learned, oral agreements are significantly more challenging to prove than written contracts. If you are in a live-in arrangement with a significant other, consider a cohabitation agreement. Agreements drafted by a skilled attorney stand up better in a courtroom should one partner fail to live up to their obligations. These agreements, similar to prenuptial contracts, can outline how property will be divided should the couple split down the road.

Non-Marital Contracts Protects Each Partner’s Interests

After a relationship ends, the last thing most former partners want to do is fight inside a courtroom. They would rather move forward with their lives as soon as possible. Non-marital contracts clarify financial and property interests. If a breakup occurs, this agreement outlines who has ownership of what property and simplifies the legal process.

At Gille Kaye Law Group, PC, we provide a compassionate and targeted legal strategy for unmarried couples facing family law issues. Schedule a consultation to discuss your case by calling (626) 340-0955 or reaching out online.

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