For Unmarried Couples, Promise to Support Your Significant Other Is Not Binding

Marriage of the parties creates binding legal obligations and rights between spouses, including an obligation to support your spouse financially, as well as the right to division of jointly acquired assets in the event of divorce.  Once in a while, I am asked about a situation where the parties have been in a relationship for a long time and have treated their relationship as a marriage, but did not actually get married.  In this situation, my usual answer is that neither party has acquired a right to support from the other party, and any assets that one of the parties accumulated will remain assets of that party, unless titled in both parties’ names.

A good illustration of the above took place in a recent case of M. v. F., 27 Misc.3d 1205(A) (Sup.Ct. New York Co. 2010).  In M. v. F., the parties resided together for approximately 13 years between 1994 and 2007, and have a child together.  They have never been married to each other.  The girlfriend argued that the boyfriend told her that he would always take care of her, that they would combine their efforts and earnings, and what was his was hers.  Once the parties split up, the girlfriend asked for a portion of the boyfriend’s assets, a portion of the profits from his business, and other financial support.

After the girlfriend commenced an action to obtain financial relief under various causes of action, the trial court held that the boyfriend’s promise to support his girlfriend if they ever broke up are unenforceable.  The girlfriend is not entitled to “equitable distribution” of the assets acquired during the relationship.  The court held that such statements as “I will always take care of you” and “everything that we put in, we will enjoy together” do not constitute legally binding promises.

Specifically, the court stated that even “an explicit promise that, upon separation, [the plaintiff] would be entitled to ‘equitable distribution’ of their assets, it would be unenforceable, as it would be contrary to the long-standing law and policy in New York that unmarried partners are not entitled to the same property and financial rights upon termination of the relationship as married people.”   According to the court, the absence of a marriage is the determinative factor of her property rights.  The court stated that “Unless and until the law imposes equitable distribution on unmarried couples, in New York, as least, the legal status of marriage remains vitally important to establishing the economic rights of members of a couple.”

This case illustrates the fact that marriage is the critical legal event that creates financial rights and obligations between the parties that can be enforced by the courts.  For those couples who choose to cohabit, without getting married, each party should be able to rely on their own ability to earn and not to expect any financial assistance from the other party in the event of breakup.  With respect to M. v. F., the answer would likely be different if there was a written agreement to provide support.  Any such agreement, assuming properly created and executed, would probably enforceable as any other contract.

“Cohabitation” and Interpretation of Separation Agreement’s Provisions Applicable to Maintenance

A typical separation agreement that provides for post-divorce maintenance will have a number of provisions describing circumstances under which such maintenance can be terminated. One of the more common clauses speaks of the spousal maintenance being terminated where the former spouse is cohabitating with another adult of opposite sex for a period of time. Most separation agreements do not define cohabitation, but the courts have held that in order for cohabitation to take place, there must be a sexual relationship, as well as a degree of economic partnership between the former spouse and the unrelated adult of the opposite sex. In Graev v. Graev, __ N.Y.3d __ (October 21, 2008) the Court of Appeals had to decide whether the term “cohabitation” as included in the parties’ separation agreement was unambiguous, and whether the prior standard utilized by the courts was still valid. In a 4-3 opinion, a divided Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that “cohabitation” is an ambiguous term whose definition for purposes of potential violations of separation and divorce agreements depends on what the parties understood it to mean when making their settlements. While all of the judges agreed that a couple need not share household expenses or function as a single economic unit to be cohabitating, the Court was divided over how to resolve the dispute between Linda and Lawrence Graev and the $11,000 in monthly maintenance fees he contends she forfeited by living with a boyfriend for at least 60 straight days in violation of their separation agreement. Since the Court of Appeals held that the term “cohabitation” as contained in the parties’ separation agreement was ambiguous, it remanded the case back to the trial court to hold a fact-finding hearing to determine what the parties’ understanding of this term was at the time the separation agreement was executed. As the Court of Appeals pointed in the footnote, “[t]he wisest rule, of course, is for parties in the future to make their intentions clear by careful drafting.”