In the last several years, more and more couples are living together, making serious lifestyle commitments without getting married, family lawyers in New Jersey report. But even as this is a growing trend, these couples do not have the same rights and privileges under the law as a married couple would enjoy. But in New Jersey and other states, lawmakers are making changes to accommodate unmarried couples who have made long-term commitments, and have shared investments, possessions, and support in the course of their relationship.
New Jersey’s existing palimony laws are one such measure of protecting unmarried couples who split up at the end of a long and devoted relationship, and have to decide how best to divide their assets, especially in the case where one partner had been financially supporting the other during the course of their relationship. The state courts have treated these cases as family matters, in which the partners had made a contract, and created laws to guide New Jersey family attorneys into demonstrating the duty one partner has to the other.
New Jersey lawmakers amended these laws in 2010, outlawing palimony pacts, unless they are made in writing, and signed with advice of counsel. But now, a state judge has found an exception to this law, ruling that, under the doctrine of performance, the 39-year relationship between actor Roscoe Orman and his partner, Sharon Joiner-Orman, did not need a written palimony pact to prove the agreement they had in their relationship.
Orman, who has played Gordon on Sesame Street since 1974, split from Sharon in 2010, and provided financial support to her until he remarried in 2012. The two never had an official, written agreement, but Sharon acted as companion, homemaker, and mother to their four children, for nearly forty years before their breakup. The judge found that, despite the lack of written documentation, Sharon had upheld her portion of their agreement, and should be allowed to ask Orman for continuing financial support.
Using the doctrine of performance, Judge Ned Rosenberg ruled that letting Orman cut off financial support was the same as committing fraud, which led to an exception of the existing New Jersey palimony statute. The doctrine of performance states that in cases where an oral agreement exists, and one party has performed their end of the agreement, the contract can be enforced if dissolving the agreement causes an inequity.
In an unmarried couple like the Ormans, one partner may offer to provide financial stability and support, if the other provides home care—one works, one takes care of the day-to-day home they share. But when that couple splits, the financially dependent partner can be left in a bind, without a steady income or a means of self-sufficiency. The palimony laws grant the dependent person the right to ask their ex-partner for support, even after the relationship ends, similar to the alimony paid to an ex-spouse.
At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our family attorneys offer counsel and legal advice to couples who have made written or oral commitments in the course of their relationship.