Marvin v. Marvin

Decision Date27 December 1976
Citation557 P.2d 106,18 Cal.3d 660,134 Cal.Rptr. 815
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesPreviously published at 50 Cal.App.3d 84 50 Cal.App.3d 84, 18 Cal.3d 660, 557 P.2d 106 Michelle MARVIN, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Lee MARVIN, Defendant and Respondent. L.A. 30520. In Bank

Marvin M. Mitchelson, Donald N. Woldman, Robert M. Ross, Los Angeles, Fleishman, McDaniel, Brown & Weston and David M. Brown, Hollywood, for plaintiff and appellant.

Jettie Pierce Selvig, San Francisco, Ruth Miller, Foster City, and Suzie S. Thorn, San Francisco, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and appellant.

Goldman & Kagon, Mark A. Goldman and William R. Bishin, Los Angeles, for defendant and respondent.

Herma Hill Kay, Berkeley, John Sutter, Doris Brin Walker and Treuhaft, Walker, Nawi & Hendon, Oakland, as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and respondent.

Isabella H. Grant and Livingston, Grant, Stone & Shenk, San Francisco, as amici curiae.

TOBRINER, Justice.

During the past 15 years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of couples living together without marrying. 1 Such nonmarital relationships lead to legal controversy when one partner dies or the couple separates. Courts of Appeal, faced with the task of determining property rights in such cases, have arrived at conflicting positions: two cases (In re Marriage of Cary (1973) 34 Cal.App.3d 345, 109 Cal.Rptr. 862; Estate of Atherley (1975) 44 Cal.App.3d 758, 119 Cal.Rptr. 41) have held that the Family Law Act (Civ.Code, § 4000 et seq.) requires division of the property according to community property principles, and one decision (Beckman v. Mayhew (1975) 49 Cal.App.3d 529, 122 Cal.Rptr. 604) has rejected that holding. We take this opportunity to resolve that controversy and to declare the principles which should govern distribution of property acquired in a nonmarital relationship.

We conclude: (1) The provisions of the Family Law Act do not govern the distribution of property acquired during a nonmarital relationship; such a relationship remains subject solely to judicial decision. (2) The courts should enforce express contracts between nonvarital partners except to the extent that the contract is explicitly founded on the consideration of meretricious sexual services. (3) In the absence of an express contract, the courts should inquire into the conduct of the parties to determine whether that conduct demonstrates an implied contract, agreement of partnership or joint venture, or some other tacit understanding between the parties. The courts may also employ the doctrine of quantum meruit, or equitable remedies such as constructive or resulting trusts, when warranted by the facts of the case.

In the instant case plaintiff and defendant lived together for seven years without marrying; all property acquired during this period was taken in defendant's name. When plaintiff sued to enforce a contract under which she was entitled to half the property and to support payments, the trial court granted judgment on the pleadings for defendant, thus leaving him with all property accumulated by the couple during their relationship. Since the trial court denied plaintiff a trial on the merits of her claim, its decision conflicts with the principles stated above, and must be reversed.

1. The factual setting of this appeal.

Since the trial court rendered judgment for defendant on the pleadings, we must accept the allegations of plaintiff's complaint as true, determining whether such allegations state, or can be amended to state, a cause of action. (See Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 12 Cal.3d 710, 714--715, fn. 3, 117 Cal.Rptr. 241, 527 P.2d 865; 4 Witkin, Cal.Procedure (2d ed. 1971) pp. 2817--2818.) We turn therefore to the specific allegations of the complaint.

Plaintiff avers that in October of 1964 she and defendant 'entered into an oral agreement' that while 'the parties lived together they would combine their efforts and earnings and would share equally any and all property accumulated as a result of their efforts whether individual or combined.' Furthermore, they agreed to 'hold themselves out to the general public as husband and wife' and that 'plaintiff would further render her services as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook to . . . defendant.'

Shortly thereafter plaintiff agreed to 'give up her lucrative career as an entertainer (and) singer' in order to 'devote her full time to defendant . . . as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook;' in return defendant agreed to 'provide for all of plaintiff's financial support and needs for the rest of her life.'

Plaintiff alleges that she lived with defendant from October of 1964 through May of 1970 and fulfilled her obligations under the agreement. During this period the parties as a result of their efforts and earnings acquired in defendant's name substantial real and personal property, including motion picture rights worth over $1 million. In May of 1970, however, defendant compelled plaintiff to leave his household. He continued to support plaintiff until November of 1971, but thereafter refused to provide further support.

On the basis of these allegations plaintiff asserts two causes of action. The first, for declaratory relief, asks the court to determine her contract and property rights; the second seeds to impose a constructive trust upon one half of the property acquired during the course of the relationship.

Defendant demurred unsuccessfully, and then answered the complaint. Following extensive discovery and pretrial proceedings, the case came to trial. 2 Defendant renewed his attack on the complaint by a motion to dismiss. Since the parties had stipulated that defendant's marriage to Betty Marvin did not terminate until the filing of a final decree of divorce in January 1967, the trial court treated defendant's motion as one for judgment on the pleadings augmented by the stipulation.

After hearing argument the court granted defendant's motion and entered judgment for defendant. Plaintiff moved to set aside the judgment and asked leave to amend her complaint to allege that she and defendant reaffirmed their agreement after defendant's divorce was final. The trial court denied plaintiff's motion, and she appealed from the judgment.

2. Plaintiff's complaint states a cause of action for breach of an express contract.

In Trutalli v. Meraviglia (1932) 215 Cal. 698, 12 P.2d 430 we established the principle that nonmarital partners may lawfully contract concerning the ownership of property acquired during the relationship. We reaffirmed this principle in Vallera v. Vallera (1943) 21 Cal.2d 681, 685, 134 P.2d 761, 763, stating that 'If a man and woman (who are not married) live together as husband and wife under an agreement to pool their earnings and share equally in their joint accumulations, equity will protect the interests of each in such property.'

In the case before us plaintiff, basing her cause of action in contract upon these precedents, maintains that the trial court erred in denying her a trial on the merits of her contention. Although that court did not specify the ground for its conclusion that plaintiff's contractual allegations stated no cause of action, 3 defendant offers some four theories to sustain the ruling; we proceed to examine them.

Defendant first and principally relies on the contention that the alleged contract is so closely related to the supposed 'immoral' character of the relationship between plaintiff and himself that the enforcement of the contract would violate public policy. 4 He points to cases asserting that a contract between nonmarital partners is unenforceable if it is 'involved in' an illicit relationship (see Shaw v. Shaw (1964) 227 Cal.App.2d 159, 164, 38 Cal.Rptr. 520 (dictum); Garcia v. Venegas (1951) 106 Cal.App.2d 364, 368, 235 P.2d 89 (dictum), or made in 'contemplation' of such a relationship (Hill v. Estate of Westbrook (1950) 95 Cal.App.2d 599, 602, 213 P.2d 727; see Hill v. Estate of Westbrook (1952) 39 Cal.2d 458, 460, 247 P.2d 19; Barlow v. Collins (1958) 166 Cal.App.2d 274, 277, 333 P.2d 64 (dictum); Bridges v. Bridges (1954) 125 Cal.App.2d 359, 362, 270 P.2d 69 (dictum)). A review of the numerous California decisions concerning contracts between nonmarital partners, however, reveals that the courts have not employed such broad and uncertain standards to strike down contracts. The decisions instead disclose a narrower and more precise standard: a contract between nonmarital partners is unenforceable only To the extent that it Explicitly rests upon the immoral and illicit consideration of meretricious sexual services.

In the first case to address this issue, Trutalli v. Meraviglia, supra, 215 Cal. 698, 12 P.2d 430, the parties had lived together without marriage for 11 years and had raised two children. The man sued to quiet title to land he had purchased in his own name during this relationship; the woman defended by asserting an agreement to pool earnings and hold all property jointly. Rejecting the assertion of the illegality of the agreement, the court stated that 'The fact that the parties to this action at the time they agreed to invest their earnings in property to be held jointly between them were living together in an unlawful relation did not disqualify them from entering into a lawful agreement with each other, so long as such immoral relation was not made A consideration of their agreement.' (Emphasis added.) (215 Cal. at pp. 701--702, 12 P.2d 430, 431.)

In Bridges v. Bridges (1954) 125 Cal.App.2d 359, 270 P.2d 69, both parties were in the process of obtaining divorces from their erstwhile respective spouses. The two parties agreed to live together, to share equally in property acquired, and to marry when their divorces became final. The man worked as a salesman and used his savings to purchase properties. The woman kept house, cared for seven children, three from each former marriage and one from the...

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