What is Palimony? How Does Palimony Work?

December 14, 2022

Everyone has heard about alimony for divorce proceedings, but for most, palimony is not a familiar term.

What is Palimony?

Palimony is a term that was coined in 1977 by celebrity divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson. Marvin’s client, Michelle Triola Marvin, had been in a relationship with the actor Lee Marvin. They never married, but when they split up Triola sued Marvin for the kind of compensation normally provided as alimony.

It was a landmark case, and during proceedings, Mitchelson combined “pal” (i.e. friend) and “alimony” to create a term, and precedent, for the alimony paid to former non-marital partners.

Understanding Palimony

In the Marvin v. Marvin case, Michelle Triola Marvin won the trial, but her right to receive support was overturned in the appeals court.

Today, palimony is an option for seeking spousal support in certain states. The courts of these states believe that verbal and implied contracts can be made between individuals in common-law relationships. But, the existence of a verbal, implied or written contract must be proven.

Historically, palimony was seen as an especially important source of potential support in states where gay marriage was illegal. Partners could have lived together for decades without the possibility of the protections that marriage affords, so palimony became a way of ensuring long-term partners could receive fair consideration.

How Does Palimony Work?

For palimony to be awarded, the parties must first prove or disprove that they were in a common-law relationship, so it’s important to understand what this signifies.

A common-law relationship is one in which there is no marriage contract, but the relationship can be legally recognized as a marriage. Every state has different standards for when a relationship is recognized as common-law.

Many believe that the common-law status is automatically given to couples once they have been living together for 7 years — however, that’s a myth.

The requirements to satisfy the definition of a common-law marriage (which dates back to English law) are that they’re eligible for marriage, that they cohabitate in a state that recognizes common law and that they “hold themselves out in public as a married couple.”

Only 10 states currently recognize common-law marriage to varying degrees, including:

  • Iowa
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Montana
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Rhode Island
  • New Hampshire (in limited circumstances)
  • Utah (in limited circumstances)

That said, even if your state doesn’t recognize common-law marriage, it’s still possible to sue or be sued for spousal support — the only difference is that it may be a little bit more challenging for the plaintiff to make their case.

What Everyone Should Know About Palimony

There are many reasons why a person might want to be aware of the caselaw regarding palimony. Most people have multiple serious romantic relationships over the course of their lives, and the idea of having to pay palimony to each of them, in the absence of a marriage, can seem excessive.

Luckily there are a few tips to know if you may be liable for palimony in the future.

  • Ensure you are ready for commitment before you move in together. One of the first factors that courts will consider is whether the couple lived together. In palimony cases, courts seek evidence of full-time cohabitation, where neither party retains a personal primary or secondary residence elsewhere.
  • Take note of when you begin to fit the qualification of common-law marriage. Common law marriage arises when a couple takes on the characteristics of a legally married couple, and therefore can obtain many of the same legal benefits as a traditionally married couple. The logic is that once you hold yourselves out as married, and are commonly recognized as married within a community, then courts may find cause to treat you as married under the law too. 
  • Once the couple starts commingling finances, investment portfolios, real assets and other property, what belongs to who can become very unclear from a legal standpoint.
  • Finally, in the absence of a prenuptial agreement, some couples draft an agreement that lays out how assets will be split in the event of a breakup. This type of arrangement is almost like a roommate agreement. You might even think of this as palimony insurance. While unromantic, this can be a practical conversation to have as a couple, and it serves the interests of both parties.

On the other hand, there are circumstances in which one may be looking for how to get palimony.

Who Qualifies For Palimony?

There are cases in which palimony was awarded. Examples include cases where there are children involved, or where one partner made personal sacrifices for the benefit of the other (such as supporting them through school or leaving work to raise a child or care for a family member).

There are, in fact, many situations in which palimony might be well warranted, especially in an era when marriage rates are declining, and more folks are opting to remain in non-contractual partnerships. In any kind of long-term relationship, futures are often built together and investments of time and money are intertwined, so it’s important to be aware of the outcomes. 

Palimony is most often awarded in cases where the courts can see that the partners lived together, or had children together, but there are many factors that will be considered, including:

  • The length of the relationship
  • The financial status of each party
  • Promises of support
  • Any written financial agreements
  • Sacrifices made by either party in terms of career advancement
  • Any new sources of support (e.g. a new marriage)

What is Palimony vs. Alimony?

While palimony is rooted in the concept of alimony, they are not the same. Alimony is court-ordered financial support awarded to one party who demonstrates financial need at the end of a marriage. Alimony is also separate from child support.

Palimony is only for unmarried parties, but as with alimony, who is entitled to palimony is determined largely by financial need. However, palimony is only viable in some states and may require the plaintiff to provide some evidence of a written or oral agreement, whereas no pre-existing contract aside from a legal marriage is necessary with alimony.

Palimony is a tricky business and quite often it is difficult to qualify for. However, there are cases where a palimony award is clearly warranted. If you believe you might find yourself on either side of a palimony case, seek advice from your financial planners and lawyers.

The Bottom Line

Palimony refers to alimony that is paid at the termination of a relationship where the parties are not legally married. Financial support in the form of palimony is determined separately from child support and alimony.

Different US states have different laws regarding palimony, alimony and common-law marriages. Some factors considered when determining palimony include length of the relationship, any previously written financial agreements and the financial situation of both parties.

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