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Marital Rights Without Marriage — How Nonmarital Partners May Receive a Share of a Deceased Partner’s Estate Based Upon an Oral Promise Before Death

One of my first litigation cases was against attorney Thomas W. Dominick in San Bernardino County Probate Court. Tom is one of the best estate and trust litigators in California. To say the least, I was scared. The issue in that case revolved around whether my client had a right to his girlfriend’s real property after her death. She promised my client the property during her lifetime and he had spent money on the property, but nothing was in writing and the two were never legally married. I remember being frustrated that I could not find a legal doctrine to support my client’s claim after his girlfriend died. I was shocked that there appeared to be no real protection for long-term nonmarital partners after the death of the other partner. I ended up alleging several causes of action that were weak at best (i.e. oral promise to enforce trust in real property, quiet title, specific performance, constructive trust, and unjust enrichment—known generally as Marvin claims based on a case of the same name). Unfortunately, these claims must be brought within one year of the decedent’s date of death or they are forever time barred under the statute of limitations applied to decedents’ estates. And, the girlfriend’s family waited over eight years to file a petition for probate, knowing all the while that my client continued to live in what he believed was his house (the eight year time-frame made most of my client’s claims moot).

But I had equity on my side as my client had lived with his girlfriend for almost 30 years and he had invested his own money into the home over the years. Thankfully, the case settled after Thomas and I worked out a settlement, on behalf of our respective clients, which allowed my client to occupy the home for his lifetime.

A recent Court decision would have made my job much easier in the above-referenced case.  In McMackin v. Ehrheart (decided April 8, 2011) Presiding Justice Robert M. Mallano, writing for California’s Second Appellate District, Division One, discussed (as a matter of first impression) whether a Marvin claim based on a decedent’s promise to leave her nonmarital partner a life estate in real property requires the nonmarital partner to file a lawsuit within one year of her partners death, and if so, whether the doctrine of equitable estoppel can be applied to preclude assertion of the one year statute of limitations. The court concluded that the Marvin claim is governed by a one year statute of limitations, but that, depending on the circumstances of each case, the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be applied to preclude a party from asserting the one year statute of limitations. 

The pertinent facts of McMackin established that nonmarital partners—Hugh and Patricia—lived together in Patricia’s home from 1987 to 2004. Hugh was never on title to Patricia’s home, but continued to occupy her home after her death. More than three years after Patricia’s death, her children filed a petition for probate, which would effectively kick Hugh out of the home leaving him with no interest in Patricia’s estate. In reply, Hugh filed a lawsuit alleging that Patricia had promised him a life estate in the home upon her death in consideration for 17 years of his “love, affection, care and companionship.” Hugh argued that the one year statute of limitations did not apply. Of course Patricia’s daughters argued that the limitation statute applied (as three years had passed). In response, Hugh argued that even if the one year statute of limitations applies, the doctrine of equitable estoppel precluded Patricia’s daughters from using it against him. The court of appeal agreed, stating the one year statute of limitation applies, but that equitable estoppel may preclude the daughters from raising it as a defense. The court of appeal then sent the case back to the trial court for determination of these issues.

Overall, McMackin is a great case to review if you run into nonmarital partner estate issues. Justice Mallano did a great job in articulating the legal analysis pertaining to Code of Civil Procedure section 366.3 and the doctrine of equitable estoppel. I think this case will be used as more people choose to live together rather than get married. Of course all of the Marvin claim messes can be avoided by proper estate planning (i.e. creating California trusts and wills).

  • http://flsdprobate.com Thomas Dominick

    Stewart, Very nice blog! Tom