Michelle Marvin v. Lee Marvin, 18 Cal.3d 660 (1976)

CASE: Nonmarital partner of actor Lee Marvin sues him when he kicks her out of the house they shared.

FACTS: Michelle Marvin and the actor Lee Marvin lived together for six years before he "compelled" her to leave his household in 1970. She sued, saying that the two of them had 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 Michelle would render her serviced as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook to Lee." She sued, asking the court to determine her contract and property rights and to impose a constructive trust upon one half of the property acquired during the course of the relationship (essentially, she asserted her community property rights). The trial court granted judgment on the pleadings for the defendant, this leaving him with all property accumulated by the couple during their relationship.

MICHELLE MARVIN ARGUES: The trial court erred in denying her a trial on the merits, given the principle established in California law that nonmarital partners may lawfully contract concerning the ownership of property acquired during the relationship.


  • 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. Essentially, he argues that Michelle Marvin was nothing more than a concubine.
  • Awarding Michelle Marvin any property would be counter to public policy because it would deprive Betty Marvin, the actor's lawful wife, of her share of the community property. Under California law, he cannot give away Betty Marvin's share of the community property.
  • Michelle Lee has no cause of action independent of express contract and deliberately elected to remain outside the bounds of the community property system (Cary, a case that held that property accumulated by nonmarital partners in an actual family relationship should be divided equally, erred in holding that California's Family Leave Act vitiated the force of the prior precedents).

COURT SAYS: Judgment of the trial court reversed (case should not have been dismissed on the pleadings).


  1. Nonmarital partners are not entitled to division of community property, but the courts will instead enforce express agreements between the parties to the extent that these agreements do not rest on an unlawful meretricious consideration.
  2. In the absence of an express agreement, the courts may look to a variety of other remedies in order to protect the parties' lawful expectations.


  • Nonmarital partners may lawfully contract concerning the ownership of property acquired during the relationship.
  • A contract between nonmarital partners is unenforceable only to the extent that it explicitly rests upon the immoral and illicit consideration of meretrocious sexual services.
  • A standard which inquires whether an agreement is "involved" in or "contemplates" a nonmarital relationship is vague and unworkable, in that virtually all agreements between nonmartial partners can be said to be "involved" in some sense in the fact of their mutual sexual relationship, or to "contemplate" the existence of that relationship.
  • Awarding the plaintiff some of the property to which Marvin's first wife would be entitled is not counter to public policy, because Betty Marvin could have asserted her community property rights but did not.
  • Adults who voluntarily live together and engage in sexual relations are nonetheless as competent as any other persons to contract respecting their earnings and property rights.