The Marvin V. Marvin "Palimony" Suit: 1979
Trial Enthralls Spectators, Career Claim Fails, Suggestions For Further Reading
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Verdict: $104,000 for "rehabilitation" awarded to Michelle Marvin, later rescinded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 client—alimony 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.
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