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The Marvin V. Marvin "Palimony" Suit: 1979

The Marvin v. Marvin "Palimony" Suit:

Plaintiff: Michelle Triola Marvin
Defendant: Lee Marvin
Plaintiff Claim: That Michelle Triola Marvin was entitled to half of Lee Marvin's earnings during the six years they spent together as an unmarried couple
Chief Defense Lawyers: Mark Goldman and A. David Kagon
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Marvin Mitchelson Judge: Arthur K. Marshall
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: January 9-March 28, 1979
Verdict: $104,000 for "rehabilitation" awarded to Michelle Marvin, later rescinded

SIGNIFICANCE: The case established the right of partners in nonmarried relationships to sue for a division of property.

When film actor Lee Marvin married in 1970, his former lover Michelle Triola was not inclined to wish him well. After all, she had lived with the rambunctious, hard-drinking actor for six years and had even legally changed her name to Marvin. At first she accepted the $833 per month he sent to support her while she tried to resume her singing and acting career. When the promised checks stopped, she decided to sue him. Her claim reverberated in divorce courts across America in a decade when the number of unmarried couples living together more than doubled.

Michelle Marvin contacted Marvin Mitchelson, a colorful Los Angeles, California divorce lawyer often hired by Hollywood celebrities. Mitchelson filed a suit charging that, apart from the lack of a $3 marriage license, Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola Marvin were essentially married from 1964 to 1970. Michelle Marvin had given up her career as a singer and an actress to serve as the actor's "cook, companion, and confidante." She claimed that she was entitled to half of what he had earned during their relationship. Her share would be $1.8 million, including $100,000 for the loss of the career she had forgone. Attorney Mitchelson announced he was demanding "palimony" for his clientalimony from a former "pal." While popular usage of the term palimony would result from the case, Mitchelson's real task was to prove that Lee Marvin had reneged on an oral or implicit contract to share his assets.

California had abolished the concept of common-law marriage in 1895. Because the circumstances of the case were so similar to the common-law concept, Michelle Marvin's suit was initially rejected by the courts. On appeal, however, the California Supreme Court endorsed the principle of seeking palimony in 1976, allowing her case to be heard and sparking similar suits in 15 other states. By the time Marvin v. Marvin arrived in court in 1979, more than 1,000 palimony suits were pending in California courts alone.

Lee Marvin's lawyers tried to have the case dismissed, but Judge Arthur K. Marshall denied their final motion in January 1979. In Judge Marshall's opinion, only the lack of a marriage license and the absence of a clergyman made the life the two Marvins led together different from that of a married couple.

Trial Enthralls Spectators

Lee Marvin's celebrity and the legal implications for thousands of unmarried couples ensured that the courtroom was packed. Sensation-seeking spectators were not disappointed. Michelle Marvin claimed that Lee Marvin told her early in their relationship, "What I have is yours and what you have is mine." She felt that this and her six years with the actor added up to an implicit marriage contract. The pair had maintained joint bank accounts and were accepted as husband and wife in Hollywood social circles. She offered a packet of love letters from Lee Marvin as evidence and tearfully recalled having several abortions at the actor's insistence because he did not want to become a parent.

Lee Marvin testified that his declarations of love were sexual endearments and denied ever promising to share his assets with his former lover. He dismissed her name change as an act that was entirely her decision, taken in the last days of their relationship. He claimed that he had tried to talk her out of it, joking that she should take the name of a more successful Hollywood star and call herself Gary Cooper. The joint bank accounts were opened as a convenience on movie locations. He had not relinquished sole ownership of his house nor did he and Michelle Marvin co-own any property.

Lee Marvin's lawyers argued that if he had ever intended to marry Michelle Triola during their six years together, he obviously would have done so.

With dramatic flair, attorney Mitchelson unsuccessfully motioned that Lee Marvin should be forced to pay $1 million punitive damages for the fraud of telling the plaintiff he loved her without meaning it.

Career Claim Fails

The picture of a promising career Michelle Marvin claimed to have abandoned faded on the witness stand. Testimony by nightclub owners and singer Mel Torme appraised her talents as being somewhere between mediocre and "slightly better than average." She claimed that her devotion to Lee Marvin caused her to refuse a part in the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, but dancer Gene Kelly denied ever offering her a role.

After 11 weeks in court, Judge Marshall ruled that Michelle Marvin had failed to prove her claim of an oral or implicit contract to share her lover's assets. Under the legal principle of "equitable remedy," however, the judge awarded her $104,000 so that she would "have the economic means to re-educate herself and learn new employable skills." The $104,000 "rehabilitation" figure represented $1,000 a week for two years, the top weekly salary she had earned as a singer before becoming the film star's companion.

The judge stopped short of likening his decision to alimony or property division in conventional divorces. To accept the notion of equal division of property without a marriage contract, he wrote:

would mean that the court would recognize each unmarried person living together to be automatically entitled by such living together and performing spouse-like functions, to half of the property bought with the earnings of the other nonmarital partner.

Judge Marshall felt that this would come too close to recognizing the long-abolished concept of common-law marriage.

Both sides claimed victory. The only loser appeared to be attorney Mitchelson, who had taken the case on a contingency-fee basis, agreeing to be paid a percentage of the expected million-dollar settlement. Time magazine calculated that the years Mitchelson had invested in the case had earned him $6.50 an hour, a miniscule fraction of his normal hourly fee.

Mitchelson attempted to have the $104,000 award increased or, at least, to have Lee Marvin pay Michelle Marvin's legal bill. Judge Marshall refused. Mitchelson's only victory was that he had established the right to file a palimony suit, testing the legal property rights of unmarried couples for the first time. "This principle," ruled the judge, "did not come at the expense of the defendant." Mitchelson tried without success to get the State of California to pay him $500,000 for his work.

Observers debated whether Judge Marshall had set forth new legal guidelines for unmarried couples or had arbitrarily awarded an alimony payment under a different name. In 1981, the California State Court of Appeals overturned the $104,000 award, ruling that there was no basis in law for arriving at such a specific figure. The court's decision related only to the sum itself. The basic precedent set by the Marvin case remained, entitling estranged unmarried partners to sue for an equal division of their assets and prompting luckier couples to have legally binding nonmarital contracts drafted to guard against unforeseen future problems.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Burnett, Barbara A., ed. Every Woman's Legal Guide. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1983.

Couric, Emily. The Divorce Lawyers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Lawyers Troubled By Rehabilitation Concept In Marvin Decision." New York Times (April 20, 1979): 18.

Weitzman, Lenore J. The Marriage Contract: Spouses, Lovers, and the Law. New York: The Free Press, 1981.

Zec, Donald. Marvin: The Story of Lee Marvin. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

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