Divorce Actions in Family Court v. Marvin Actions in Civil Court

The law is a broad field in which many different types of focus exist. As such, lawyers often specialize in specific areas, whether real estate, corporate, criminal, and so on. Family law generally refers to the area of law involving families, e.g., divorce, paternity, domestic violence, etc.


As discussed in a prior blog, the outcome of a personal injury case in civil court may lead to an award to an injured spouse that functions as an exception to general family law rules re the equal division of property.  See the prior blog for more details.


Another time in which a civil action may intersect with a family action is in the case of a “Marvin” claim. Marvin refers to a 1976 California case in which the Court held that while the Family Code does not govern a nonmarital relationship, general contract law still does, and thus Courts should enforce express and implied contracts between cohabiting parties.[i]


Given that many people cohabitate prior to marriage, often for substantial periods of time, Marvin claims may accompany a divorce action. During the period of time the parties lived together prior to marriage, they likely acquired assets—which would be characterized as their respective separate property in a subsequent dissolution action.


The Family Court would have jurisdiction over the marital time period and all assets owned during marriage. However, as to those assets acquired prior to marriage, the spouse whose name is not on the assets (characterized as the other spouse’s separate property in the divorce action) may have a separate Marvin claim to the separate property portion of the property if he or she can establish an implied in fact contract.


The Marvin Court stated: “The courts should enforce express contracts between nonmarital partners except to the extent that the contract is explicitly founded on the consideration of meretricious sexual services, [and i]n 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.”


Thus, even with no express contract, a Court may still find an implied contract between cohabiting parties. “An implied contract is one, the existence and terms of which are manifested by conduct.”[ii] An implied contract is necessarily oral and thus a 2-year statute of limitations applies.[iii]


A party may also have a right to pursue a claim for specific performance of oral property agreements where monetary damages may be an inadequate remedy.[iv] “Such an action requires: (1) a contract that is sufficiently definite to be enforced; (2) a contract that is just and reasonable; (3) performance by the plaintiff; (4) failure to perform by the defendant; (5) adequate consideration; (6) an inadequate legal remedy; and (7) if the contract is oral and subject to a statute of frauds, a means such as estoppel of avoiding the statute.”


While Marvin claims are civil, and thus must be brought in civil court, if a dissolution proceeding is concurrently open in family court it will likely make sense to consolidate the cases. That way, the parties can attempt a global settlement taking all facts into consideration, rather than reaching a piecemeal deal in one case only to complicate the outcome of the other.


If you have cohabitated with a partner, but never married, and believe you have a Marin claim, you will need to find a civil attorney who specializes in Marvin actions. In the case you cohabitated with your spouse prior to marriage and believe you have Marvin claims, best practice would likely include seeking the advice of a civil attorney who specializes in Marvin claims in addition to the family attorney handling your divorce proceeding, even if the endgame is to consolidate the cases.


Stay tuned for future blogs discussing other instances where family law and other areas of law intersect.


[i] Marvin v. Marvin (1976) 18 Cal.3d 660.

[ii] Civil Code §1621.

[iii] Code of Civil Procedure §339.

[iv] Byrne v. Laura (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1054, 1072-1073.