Rights of long-term unmarried couples when they break up

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In 2018, Brynn Cameron, the longtime girlfriend of NBA star Blake Griffin, sued Griffin for “palimony” after he left her and their children for reality TV star Kendall Jenner.

“Palimony” is money one partner pays to a cohabiting partner after a breakup so that the recipient partner can maintain the lifestyle, he or she has become accustomed to.

Griffin’s relationship with Jenner did not work out, but he wound up agreeing to pay Cameron $32,000 per month for palimony, child support and breach of an oral agreement he allegedly made to support her when she abandoned her career to be with him.

Most people aren’t wealthy pro athletes who end up seeing their relationship woes in tabloid headlines. Still, the Griffin saga underscores that if you have a long-term relationship with someone and live as though you’re married, you and your former partner may still have certain rights if the relationship doesn’t work out.

Take, for example, the possibility of palimony. Unlike “alimony,” palimony is not a legal term and it’s not usually something awarded in family court. Instead, it’s a remedy that civil courts will award in about half the states if one member of an unmarried couple can show there was an agreement in place that the other member of the couple would provide support if the relationship didn’t last.

Factors that courts will consider in awarding palimony include whether or not the couple lived together, how long the relationship lasted, promises that can be proven, sacrifices made by one partner, such as putting the other partner through school or giving up a career to take care of children, or the ability of each partner to support themselves.

Some states may be fairly lenient in recognizing the rights of unmarried partners. Take, for example, a recent New Jersey case. An unmarried couple bought a home together in 2012. The home and mortgage were exclusively in one partner’s name, but the other partner kicked in much of the down payment and was the one who was most involved in the transaction.

The couple never legally married. When they broke up, despite having no written cohabitation or palimony agreement, the court ordered “partition” of the home. In other words, it ordered that the home be sold and the proceeds divided and it did so as an “equitable” remedy out of fairness to the partner who may not have held title to the home but did a lot of work to secure it, maintain it and enhance its value.

A majority of states don’t recognize palimony at all. But they still will generally enforce a written cohabitation agreement drawn up between unmarried partners laying out exactly what each partner is entitled to in the event of a breakup.

In addition to financial support, such an agreement can address who keeps the house, the car or even the pets and can allow partners to appoint one another to make important medical, legal or financial decisions on the other partner’s behalf should one of them lose the ability to make such decisions.

Agreements like this are a good idea in any long-term domestic partnership to provide both partners with a sense of stability and security. If you are considering such an agreement, it’s important to consult with a family law attorney to ensure it covers all issues worth considering and that it’s written in a way that a court will enforce.

Ideally, each partner will have their own attorney when negotiating and drafting such an agreement. That way a court is more likely to be satisfied that it was negotiated fairly, with each partner enjoying comparable bargaining power and having their interests fairly represented.

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