For over thirty (30) years, New Jersey courts recognized the right of an unmarried individual, living in a marital type relationship, to seek financial relief from his or her significant other upon the dissolution of the relationship. This claim is called “palimony” and is based on a promise by one party to support the other party for life. In most cases, the promise for support is in consideration for services performed by the other party, whether it be in the form of providing emotional support; taking care of the household; caring for children; or some other service performed for the benefit of the relationship.
In 2010, New Jersey enacted a new law that requires all promises for support between unmarried cohabitants be in writing and reviewed by independent counsel for both parties. In other words, verbal promises for support between unmarried couples are unenforceable. This change went largely unnoticed by the public, but what it did was essentially spell the end to palimony claims unless couples put their agreement into writing.
The question not addressed by the new law is whether it would apply to couples who were already living together. These parties, who in some cases have been living together for over 20 years without the benefit of a writing of any kind, were without guidance as to how the 2010 law affected their legal rights.
Recently, the Supreme Court answered this question in the decision of Maeker v. Ross, decided on September 25, 2014. In Maeker, the parties began a romantic relationship in 1998, and Ms. Maeker moved into Mr. Ross’ home the following year. The parties resided in a relationship akin to marriage until 2011, during which time Mr. Ross supported Ms. Maeker—paying for 100% of her living expenses—in exchange for Ms. Maeker performing all duties asked of her, including cooking, cleaning, companionship, and taking care of the household. During the parties 13 year relationship, Mr. Ross repeatedly promised to support Ms. Maeker for life. But nothing was put in writing. In 2011, Mr. Ross ended his relationship with Ms. Maeker, cut off all ties with her and stopped contributing to her financial support in any way. Ms. Maeker thereafter filed a complaint in the family court seeking palimony from Mr. Ross based on his oral promise to support her for life.
The trial court held that Ms. Maeker had a valid claim for palimony based on the oral promise for support, as the promise for support was made prior to the 2010 law requiring promises for support to be in writing. The appellate court disagreed, holding that the new law invalidated oral promises for support, whether made before or after the passage of the state. The Supreme Court was called upon to settle the dispute. It did so, making clear that that oral promises by one party to provide support to the other party before 2010 are not invalidated as a result of the passage of the 2010 law. Rather, only oral promises for support made after the new law was passed are unenforceable unless thereafter memorialized in writing. Under the circumstances, the Supreme Court held that Ms. Maeker—who was promised support for life by Mr. Ross prior to the passage of the new law—could pursue her claim for palimony.
The Maeker case will allow individuals involved in long-term relationships prior to the passage of the new law to seek palimony based on an oral promise for support. Individuals who commenced living together after the 2010 palimony law without the benefit of marriage, need to memorialize their agreements in writing, reviewed by independent counsel, for those agreements to be enforceable. Individuals in a marital-type relationship or who were involved in a marital-type relationship where an enforceable right to palimony is at issue should discuss their case with their attorney for advice as to how the Maeker decision may impact upon a potential palimony claim in their case.