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Unmarried Relationships in New Jersey
Is there a "common law" marriage in New Jersey?

There was a time when living together in a long-term relationship and acting as husband and wife was considered under the law to be equal to marriage. That was called common law marriage and it was abolished by statute in New Jersey in 1939. Since common law marriage ended, there are no longer any laws with guidelines for determining whether support should be awarded from one unmarried partner to another when their long-term relationship ends.

A common law marriage is one in which the parties have lived together for a long period of time, and they hold themselves out to the public as husband and wife. New Jersey does not recognize any so called "common law" marriage. This is a type of relationship wherein the couple lives together buy have no participated in a full ceremony. Unlike some other states, in New Jersey a couple cannot acquire marital rights and responsibility by simply living together for a particular period of time.

Although the social mores have changed greatly since common law marriage was abolished, neither the New Jersey Legislature nor the courts have re-instituted common law marriage. Unmarried cohabitants are treated differently from a spouse in a number of significant ways. They do not have the same status as a spouse in regard to the worker's compensation and insurance benefits of their partners, they cannot inherit by intestate succession, and they are not allowed to recover fro wrongful death under the Wrongful Death Act.

What is palimony?

Since the early 1970s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who live together without getting married. Despite this trend, unmarried couples do not have the same rights and protections as married couples. However, the courts have finally begun to recognize that, in certain situations, an unmarried person may have a right to get financial support from a former partner after their relationship ends.

In cases wherein a family court has issued a support order for an unmarried partner, they have found that one partner promised to support the other partner in return for being taken care of while they lived together. In all reported cases so far, the support has been provided by a male companion to a female companion. The New Jersey courts have treated these family-like situations as if the parties had a contract, not like marriage, where the right to support is based upon a support contract between the partners.

Palimony is the term that is used to describe the support that an unmarried person may request from his or her partner when the relationship between them comes to an end. Since living together without legally marrying has become more common, there have been an increasing number of cases dealing with the subject of palimony filed in the New Jersey courts.

What I am required to prove to obtain support from my former companion?

Because there are no written laws on the subject, the decisions made by the courts provide the only guidance as to how and when an unmarried person may be successful in getting support from his or her partner. The cases decided and reported so far makes it clear that:

  • To get support as an unmarried partner, you cannot base your request on a claim that your partner has a duty to support you.
  • You cannot get support money because your partner promised to marry you and then did not marry you. (This type of claim was outlawed many years ago in New Jersey.)
  • You cannot recover money from your partner if your relationship with your partner was based solely on an agreement to perform sexual services in return for money (because this type of agreement is like prostitution, which is illegal).
  • Most often, one of the cohabiting unmarried partners promises or agrees to support the other partner for life.
  • Usually one partner (generally, the male) invites the other partner (generally, the female) to perform a variety of "services" including homemaking, meal preparation, providing care when he is sick, and acting in the role of social assistant/partner for him. In return, he promises to support her for life.
  • Often, the plaintiff (the person asking for support) and defendant (his or her partner) lived together for a long time (usually between 15 and 20 years).
  • Usually, a condition of getting support for life is that the female partner must live with the male partner in a marriage-like relationship.
  • Usually, the plaintiff's primary goal in living with the unmarried partner is the promise of financial support for life.

Some of the plaintiffs seeking support in these cases continued to work after beginning to live with their partners. However, none of them made enough money to support themselves without the help of the other partner's income. The courts make it clear that the important consideration in palimony cases is not whether or not the financially dependent partner has a job, but rather whether or not that partner can support herself on her own. Not surprisingly, in all of the major cases where the courts ordered palimony, the financially dependent partner was suing a partner who had substantial wealth and income.

What are the rights of an unmarried person in a long-term relationship?

Unmarried persons are free to cohabit and engage in long-term relationships similar to married people. However, the rights of unmarried cohabitants differ significantly upon the termination of the relationship from those afforded to married people. New Jersey law does not protect the rights of unmarried cohabitants to the same level as it does married persons.

Upon a divorce, former spouses can seek alimony and equitable distribution of the property that was acquired during the marriage. Former unmarried partners, however, cannot seek alimony or equitable distribution of property accumulated during the relationship. Instead unmarried partners have to rely on common law concepts and equitable grounds of relief for any type of recovery. Unfortunately, in many cases the concepts of contract law and equitable jurisprudence are not well suited to solve family-type problems.

The New Jersey statutory law offers very little relief to unmarried cohabitants. Alimony awards are only limited to cases of divorce. There is no statutory framework to guide unmarried couples through support and equitable distribution issues.

Over the course of the last twenty-five years, the New Jersey courts have recognized the dramatic increase in the number of unmarried partner households living here. The courts have tried to reconcile the existing statutory law with the reality that there is an increasing amount of unmarried couples living in New Jersey. The courts have recognized that unmarried people face the same issues at the end of their relationship to those confronted by divorcing married couples.

In summary, when unmarried partners split up in New Jersey, there are various theories of legal liability can be asserted. These include palimony, breach of contract, or the request for the partition of jointly held assets.

What are the major cases that deal with cohabitant disputes?

There are three seminal cases that have been decided since 1979 that have carved out unmarried cohabitants rights. In the three landmark cases of Kozlowski v. Kozlowski, 80 N.J. 378 (1979); Crowe v. DeGioia, 90 N.J. 126 (1982); and In re Roccamonte, 174 N.J. 381 (2002), the New Jersey Supreme Court has created contractual remedies for some types of cohabitant family-type disputes. More specifically, these cases involve disputes that arise after one member of a couple breaks a promise to support or provide for the other member in some way.

As a result of these cases, the following principles are now well settled law in New Jersey:

  • agreements between unmarried cohabitants that are not "explicitly and inseparably founded on sexual services" are enforceable;
  • New Jersey public policy does not condemn unmarried cohabitant relationships as "meretricious;"
  • married cohibitants are entitled to seek relief from the court, and this includes temporary support from their former partner;
  • cohabitation or "palimony" contracts are enforceable against the estate of a deceased cohabitant.

When was palimony established in New Jersey?

The seminal and the most famous palimony case in the country is Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660, 134 Cal. Rptr. 815 557 P. 2d 106 (1976). This case involved the late actor, Lee Marvin. In the Marvin case, the California court held that adults voluntarily living together and engaging is sexual relations can contract, like other individuals, concerning their earnings and property rights. The Marvin case established the concept of palimony. In the Marvin case, the parties have lived together for seven years, during which time the movie star, Lee Marvin, earned substantial monies, of which his companion claimed was based upon his alleged promise to provide for her financially for the rest of her life. She sued for breach of contract. The California court held that it would not treat the parties as in any sense married but would nevertheless consider whether some equitable remedy, such as quantum merit should be applied to achieve a just result.

The seminal case that established palimony concepts and jurisprudence in New Jersey was Kozlowski v. Kozlowski, 80 N.J. 378 (1979). The Kozlowski decision was the first New Jersey case to recognize any right of an unmarried cohabitant to obtain support from a former partner under any circumstances. Here, the parties lived together as a unified family setting for approximately 15 years. During the cohabitation, Mr. Kozlowski's wealth increased. He amassed various assets, including real estate, all of which was titled in his own name. Ms. Kozlowski, whose surname was quite coincidently the same as Mr. Kozlowski's as a result of her prior husband's name, was generally ignorant of Mr. Kozlowski's business affairs and was completely dependent upon him for all her needs and support. She had no possessions other than some clothing, personal effects, and some furs and jewelry that was given to her as gifts from Mr. Kozlowski. While Mr. Kozlowski provided support for the couple and the children from prior relationships, Ms. Kozlowski performed traditional homemaker services such as housekeeping, shopping acting as a mother to the children, escorting and accompanying the defendant as her desired and serving as a host when necessary for his customer and business associates.

At one point during their relationship the parties separated, briefly. Mr. Kozlowski gave Ms. Kozlowski the sum of $5,000 after the separation. Moreover, Mr. Kozlowski had Ms. Kozlowski sign a release in consideration for which she acknowledged receipt of $5,000 in full satisfaction of all claims she might have against him. Apparently, within a week after the separation, Mr. Kozlowski sought Ms. Kozlowski out and pleaded with her to return. He promised that if she resumed living with him then he would take care of and provide for her for the rest of her life. Despite more than one discussion on the topic of marriage, Mr. Kozlowski responded that a marriage license is only a piece of paper and that "it's what is in the heart that really counts." Ms. Kozlowski succumbed to Mr. Kozlowski's plea and they resumed living together for another 10 years.

Mr. Kozlowski eventually dumped Ms. Kozlowski for a younger woman who was 30 years younger than him. Thereafter, Ms. Kozlowski sued on a number of equitable grounds. She claimed an entitlement to a share of the assets accumulated during the period living together based on a partnership and a joint venture theory. She sued for the value of services rendered based upon quantum merit, and for an express, implied contract. Finally, she also sued for the value of support for the rest of her life.

At trial the court rejected Ms. Kozlowski's partner and joint venture theories of liability. The court further found that there was no evidence that she exercised any control over Mr. Kozlowski's business. However, the court found an equitable remedy existed to compensate Ms. Kozlowski on her claims for payments for services rendered and for her claims for future support.

The case was then appealed. The New Jersey Supreme Court certified the case for review prior to it being heard by the Appellate Division. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the palimony award. The Supreme Court held that Mr. Kozlowski's post-separation promise to support Ms. Kozlowski for the rest of her life if she resumed living with him was an enforceable contract. On the issue of damages, the Supreme Court held that Ms. Kozlowski was entitled to a one-time lump sum judgment in an amount based upon the present value of the reasonable support Mr. Kozlowski promised to provide.

In summary, the Kozlowski case was the first New Jersey case to recognize any right of an unmarried cohabitant to obtain support from a former partner. This case opened the door for the legal acceptance of cohabitant relationships. Moreover, this case established the parameters for resolving disputes that arise from the termination of unmarried long term relationships.

I have lived with my companion for more than twenty years. He just recently dumped me for a younger woman. Can I now make an application with the family court for support?

Every case is different and stands on the particular set of facts in your given situation. However, in the seminal case of Crowe v. DeGioia, 90 N.J. 126 (1982), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that in some cases, an unmarried person in a long term relationship may seek temporary financial support from her former companion upon the termination of their relationship. The key issue is whether the parties had a support agreement between them.

In this New Jersey Supreme Court case the primary issue involved whether the family court had the authority to award temporary support when a long term unmarried relationship ends. The facts in the Crowe case concerned a long term relationship wherein the couple lived together for several decades. Ms. Crowe performed traditional homemaker functions such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for Mr. DiGioia when he was ill. She also helped him in his business ventures, and she accompanied him to social events. Meanwhile, Mr. DeGioia provided financial support for Ms. Crowe and her seven children from her prior marriage. Ms. Crowe was completely dependent on Mr. DeGioia, a wealthy man, for her and her children's support. Upon combining their household, Mr. DeGioia agreed to provide for the entire family.

In 1980, twenty years after the start of the relationship, Mr. DeGioia informed Ms. Crowe that he was leaving her to marry a women who was twenty-two years younger then him. Mr. DeGioia promised to give Ms. Crowe a good settlement so that she would not be troubled with financial concerns. The settlement never came to be.

Thereafter, Ms. Crowe brought an action against Mr. DeGioia seeking support, compensation for services she had provided to him, a share of his assets and counsel fees. In addition, Ms. Crowe sought temporary support as well. Mr. DeGioia responded that he never promised to support her for her life or agree to share his assets with her. Prior to addressing the pivotal contract issue, the court first granted Ms. Crowe's motion for temporary support and it awarded her $125 per week in support, and the possession of the home. Moreover, the court barred Mr. DeGioia from disposing of his assets pending the financial determination of the case.

The case was eventually appealed up to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Here, the state's highest court specifically held that a family court can award interim or temporary support in non-marriage cases. In the final outcome of the case, Ms. Crowe was awarded monetary damages based on a breach of contract theory. Moreover, the court ordered Mr. DiGioia to transfer title of the home to her. In summary, Ms. Crowe had a valid palimony contract claim against Mr. DiGioia.

I had a very long term unmarried relationship and my companion just recently died of cancer. I am entitled to make a claim for support against my companion's estate?

It is not uncommon for many middle-aged people to live together for years if not decades. Many men are very hesitant to get remarried especially if they have had a tumultuous divorce. Many people after they have experienced a bitter divorce realize that marriage is not a "bed of roses." Moreover, many men are financially ruined after a divorce, and many more are still "shell shocked" from their divorce. Nonetheless, many people still enjoy the benefits of having a live-in companion, but prefer not have all of the legal entanglements that marriage entails. Consequently, in my experience I have found that many unmarried relationships actually last longer many marriages.

Another important issue is whether a person can make a claim against their deceased cohabitant's estate. An illustrative case is In re Roccamonte, 174 N.J. 381 (2002). In this case the New Jersey Supreme Court held that agreements of support between cohabitants are enforceable against the deceased cohabitant's estate. In summary, this case held that if unmarried cohabitants should make contracts for support, then such agreements are enforceable against the estate. Therefore, the survivor cohabitant can file a claim against their deceased partner's estate.

These types of cases can be even more adversarial than a divorce case. The surviving cohabitant will most likely be battling with the children of their deceased partner. This type of case can become quite acrimonious. In all likelihood a probate judge will transfer a case to the family court if a deceased cohabitant files a claim against the estate.

The Roccamonte case stands for the principle that the right to palimony apparently survives the death of the partner who made the contract or promise. In the Roccamonte case the court held that an unmarried partner could recover money from the estate of her deceased male partner who died without preparing a will. The court further found that the promise that he had made to support her for life was to be honored with funds from his estate, just like any other unpaid debt left behind after his death.

I was involved in a long term relationship with my companionů

After living with my companion for more than twenty years he dumped me for a younger woman. I am aware that I am not entitled to all of the legal protections of a marriage. However, are there any other types of relief that I can pursue in court?

The New Jersey courts do not recognize unmarried partners for the purposes of support or equitable distribution. However, the courts have provided limited relief based on the theories of contract and trust law to the partners who dissolve a relationship. For example, there may be a legal obligation to provide support based on an express or implied contract. A family court may find that a contract existed to avoid any type of an "unjust enrichment" type situation.

New Jersey courts under certain circumstances will enforce express or implied contracts between unmarried parties who have lived with one another for a long period of time. The courts often seek to find some theory, such as implied contract, partnership, quantum meriut or constructive or resulting trust to provide some equitable relief to the dependent party when there is a long term unmarried relationship and it ends. However, it must be emphasized that te our courts still are not willing to treat these relationships as common law marriages to grant the parties to them all of the benefits if marriage.

Has any progress been made in the law with regard to protecting the rights of unmarried persons in a long term relationship?

Yes. Some recent legislative enactments have tended to create some balance between married and unmarried patterns. The amended New Jersey court rules provide that all family matters, including support actions between unmarried cohabitating adults, are to be decided in the Family Part of the Chancery Divisions. The comments to the amended rule 5:1-2 states:

It is the apparent intent of the Rule to include within this category of undefined family actions support and property claims among persons who constitute their relationship in a manner comparable to marriage but who are not married to each other. Presumably this category will include unmarried cohabiting adults whether or not of the same sex and children who are part of their households.

Therefore, the court rules now expressly provide that unmarried cohabitants can file support actions in the family court.

How can I file a palimony lawsuit?

A palimony lawsuit is really more like a lawsuit for the breach of a contract than a lawsuit for divorce. In contract lawsuits the plaintiffs are asking for money damages. Lawsuits for money damages are normally filed in the Law Division of the Superior Court. However, the family court is now the proper place to file a lawsuit for palimony. This is because a palimony lawsuit arises out of a "family-type" relationship, and it is considered best to have this type of a case decided by a judge with expertise in family law.

If palimony requests are made after a partner dies, then the case may need to be filed in the probate part of the Superior Court. This is where cases involving the estate of a person who has died are filed. If this happens, the judge assigned to the case has the power to simply transfer the case to the family court.

There are no specific court rules or statutes that provide directions as to what a written complaint in a palimony lawsuit should look like. However, the complaint should contain the following information:

  • Enough facts to show that the plaintiff and defendant have been living together for a reasonably long time;
  • A description of the living arrangements between the parties, including a list of the types of services that the plaintiff performed for the defendant;
  • A description of the promise or contract made to support the plaintiff for life;
  • An explanation of how the promise and/or contract was broken; and
  • A request for financial or monetary support.

At the trial, the plaintiff should be able to prove that there was a contract or agreement with his or her partner, based solely on his or her own testimony. The contract does not have to be in writing. In the major reported cases decided so far, the court most often relied on the testimony of the plaintiff and defendant. The fact that none of the plaintiffs were able to produce a written agreement as evidence that a contract existed did not prevent the court from finding that there was a contract between the partners.

The courts reviewing lawsuits for palimony have created some guidelines, but the factors necessary to prove a palimony case are still not completely clear. It is likely that, in cases with facts similar to those described above, the court may find an enforceable contract between the parties and allow an unmarried partner to recover money as compensation for the breach of contract that resulted when the relationship ended.

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