Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The term “palimony” was coined during the trial of Michelle Triola against her former lover, actor Lee Marvin. After their breakup, Triola sued Marvin for a property settlement, claiming that she had given up a promising career to live with and care for him. The California Supreme Court ruled that unmarried couples could sue for property settlements even if no express contract exists, as long as some sort of legal agreement was made between partners.

Summary of Event

Michelle Triola had lived with actor Lee Marvin for seven years beginning in 1964. He was married at the time. She would claim in her lawsuit against him that she had been his cook, housekeeper, and companion, and had taken care of him after he had been drinking, devoting herself to his welfare. She also claimed that he told her, “What I have is yours and what you have is mine,” and that they agreed to appear as husband and wife in public. During the time of their cohabitation, Triola used the name Michelle Triola Marvin. The court would later rule that because Triola took Marvin’s last name, Marvin is presumed to have implicitly agreed to support her as her husband. [kw]Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover (Apr. 18, 1979) [kw]Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover, Actor Lee (Apr. 18, 1979) [kw]Palimony to Former Lover, Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay (Apr. 18, 1979) Marvin, Lee Mitchelson, Marvin Marvin v. Marvin (1979) Palimony Marriage;and palimony[palimony] Triola, Michelle Marvin, Lee Mitchelson, Marvin Marvin v. Marvin (1979) Palimony Marriage;and palimony[palimony] Triola, Michelle [g]United States;Apr. 18, 1979: Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover[01780] [c]Law and the courts;Apr. 18, 1979: Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover[01780] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 18, 1979: Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover[01780] [c]Women’s issues;Apr. 18, 1979: Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover[01780] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 18, 1979: Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover[01780] [c]Hollywood;Apr. 18, 1979: Actor Lee Marvin Is Ordered to Pay Palimony to Former Lover[01780]

Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola in 1966.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the time of the lawsuit, California law required that married couples equally divide the assets of their Marriage;and community property[community property] marriages (assets were called community property). Although the couple was not formally married, Triola believed that she was entitled to compensation from Marvin because she fulfilled her obligations under their informal agreement and gave up her career as an entertainer to care for him. He disagreed with her contentions, and the dispute went to court. Celebrity divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson insisted that Triola receive her claim of Marvin’s earnings of more than one million dollars. The so-called palimony (from “pal” and “alimony”) suit led to a media scandal.

Even in the first decade of the twenty-first century, cohabitation by unmarried couples was a crime in several states, and adultery was a crime in about half of the states. Such criminal statutes, however, were rarely enforced. As used in criminal statutes, cohabitation includes nonmarital relationships that had been called “meretricious,” or sexual. Illicit relationships were once considered void in the realm of public policy. If an agreement between the partners is supported by a quid pro quo or what the law calls “consideration,” however, courts have become more and more liberal in upholding these agreements. In a nonspousal agreement that one partner will provide services in the home and the other will support the household, for example, the value of the services constitutes the consideration that validates the agreement.

An express agreement is one in which the parties state their understanding either orally or in writing. An implied agreement is inferred from behavior or conduct in which the parties act in such a way that it is reasonable to conclude that they must have reached an understanding. Unjust enrichment is the doctrine holding that one person should not profit inequitably at another’s expense. If one party has received something of value at another’s expense, or benefited unjustly, the nonenriched party may seek the remedy of restitution or reimbursement. To prevent unjust enrichment of one partner at the other’s expense, a partner who provides services may recover in quantum meruit or the reasonable value of the services rendered. The reasonable value of the services must exceed the reasonable value of the support received if it can be shown that the services were rendered with the expectation of monetary reward. That may be difficult to demonstrate. Another possible remedy involves a constructive trust, inferred from the behavior of the parties. It is imposed by the courts to do justice and to prevent the unjust enrichment of one party at the other’s expense.

Triola’s 1976 lawsuit relied, in part, on the legal doctrine of quasi-contract, or an implied-in-law contract imposed by the courts to prevent injustice. It is a special form of contract that lacks all the trappings of a formal written document such as mutual assent of the parties, but it is imposed on the parties by the courts to avoid unjust enrichment. Under this doctrine, courts may infer a legally enforceable agreement from the circumstances surrounding the dealings of the parties, even though the parties have not entered into any formal written agreement. Triola asserted that similar logic should be applied to her relationship with Marvin, and that their conduct should be viewed as an “implied agreement” granting her many of the same rights given by law to a spouse. The court, however, declined to treat unmarried cohabitants like married persons. In her suit, Triola argued that, aside from a marriage license, she and Marvin were essentially married from 1964 until 1970. As such, Triola contended that she was entitled to half of what he had earned during their relationship, or $1.8 million including $100,000 for loss of her own potential earnings. Her attorney, Mitchelson, demanded palimony and had to prove that Marvin breached an oral or implied contract to share his assets.

Initially, Triola lost her 1976 case on legal grounds. On appeal, the California Supreme Court decided that her case should be heard again in the lower courts, sparking a number of similar cases in other states. On rehearing, the superior court ruled, on April 18, 1979, that Triola had failed to prove her alleged agreement, that there was no express or implied contract, and that there was no unjust enrichment. Judge Arthur K. Marshall denied her community property claim for half of the $3.6 million that Marvin had earned during their seven years of cohabitation. However, Marshall did order Marvin to pay Triola $104,000 for “rehabilitation purposes,” that is, job training.

Marvin appealed, and on August 11, 1981, the California Court of Appeal reversed Marshall’s decision, declaring that Triola was entitled to no money, including the $104,000 she was awarded in 1979. The appeals court, although upholding the concept of palimony, ruled that a cohabitant (Triola) in a nonspousal relationship has no community property claim. Instead, a cohabitant has a contract claim. Without evidence that there had been a contract between Marvin and Triola stipulating that Marvin would support her should their relationship end, Triola could not recover any money.


Although Triola lost her 1976 palimony case on technical grounds, Marvin v. Marvin nonetheless created new law when the court decided to address the issue of “property rights of a nonmarital partner in the absence of an express contract.” The court’s ruling, in effect, said that a nonmarital partner can attempt to establish an implied contract in the absence of an express contract. Furthermore, it ruled that the law cannot assume that an unmarried couple intends to keep their properties and earnings separate and, thus, the law must take into account all possible arrangements between an unmarried plaintiff and defendant. The court stated,

[W]e conclude that the mere fact that a couple have not participated in a valid marriage ceremony cannot serve as a basis for a court’s inference that the couple intend to keep their earnings and property separate and independent; the parties’ intention can only be ascertained by a more searching inquiry into the nature of their relationship.

In Marvin v. Marvin, the court also spoke of the growth of nonmarital partnerships in contemporary society. The court recognized the diversity among cohabitants and gave the trial courts an opportunity to tailor their remedies to the particular circumstances of the parties. Without specific guidelines for application of quasi-contractual remedies in nonspousal agreements, however, Marvin left uncertain the circumstances and limitations for each type of recovery. The court’s rationale also has been applied to same-gender couples.

The 1979 appeals court ruling, in which Marvin was ordered to pay for Triola more than $104,000, was unique because it determined that Triola’s case had at least some merit. It therefore extended the 1976 ruling that the “nature of” a couple’s relationship should be probed in deciding the contractual intentions, if any, of both the plaintiff and the defendant. Marvin, Lee Mitchelson, Marvin Marvin v. Marvin (1979) Palimony Marriage;and palimony[palimony] Triola, Michelle

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, Alan, and Ann C. Crouter, eds. Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children, and Social Policy. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2002. A collection of articles exploring the social significance of cohabitation. Articles look at legal policy, child development, and the culture of cohabitation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kay, Herma Hill, and Carol Amyx. “Marvin vs. Marvin: Preserving the Options.” California Law Review 65, no. 5 (September, 1977): 937-977. A scholarly guide to statutory and case law prior to the Marvin case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moller, Mark K. “Almost Like Being Married.” Legal Times, April 5, 2004. An informally written account of the Marvin case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weitzman, Lenore J. The Marriage Contract: Spouses, Lovers, and the Law. New York: Free Press, 1981. A thorough and insightful guide to the law surrounding marriage and the family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zec, Donald. Marvin: The Story of Lee Marvin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. An illustrated biography of Lee Marvin written by a syndicated entertainment columnist. Contains detailed accounts of Marvin as a drunken rebel and overnight successful actor and discusses incidents that occurred during the trial.

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