A recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision has provided much needed clarity on a 2010 change to the “palimony” law, which said that those agreements for support were unenforceable unless in writing.
More and more couples are choosing to live in a traditional family setting but staying unmarried. A member of that couple, who might if married be entitled to alimony after divorce, may be entitled to “palimony” support after the relationship ends, if the other promised to financially take care of him or her.
The state legislature reacted to a rise in palimony claims by changing the Statute of Frauds laws, which requires that certain important agreements be in writing to be enforceable, in order to prevent fraud. The 2010 amendments said that no claim could be brought to enforce a palimony agreement unless the promise was made in writing and with the independent advice of attorneys for both parties. But, the change left open the question whether it would effect all existing palimony agreements or only those done after 2010.
In 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this precise issue in a case called Maeker v. Ross. In that case, Ms. Maeker and Mr. Ross began a relationship in 1998. Ms. Maeker claimed that throughout the relationship, Mr. Ross made oral promises to provide her with financial support for the rest of her life. Relying on this promise, Ms. Maeker left a 20-year career to meet Mr. Ross’ emotional and physical needs. After their relationship ended, Mr. Ross moved out of their shared home and cut off all support to her. She then brought a palimony claim in 2011, after the change to the Statute of Frauds laws took effect. Mr. Ross wanted the case dismissed for that reason, but the trial court allowed the case to proceed. He then went to the Appellate Court, which reversed the trial court’s decision and dismissed the case.
Ms. Maeker then appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the Appellate Court’s decision. The Supreme Court recently said that the 2010 amendment was not retroactive, meaning it was not meant to cancel oral palimony agreements made before its enactment. The reasoning was based upon the notion that if an oral contract is lawful when it is made, it cannot be made unenforceable by a later passed law.
In short, the Supreme Court decided that oral palimony agreements made before 2010 are still binding, while promises for palimony support made in 2010 and after must be made in writing with independent advice of counsel for both parties. If you have an oral agreement for financial support from a partner in an unmarried relationship before the 2010 amendment of the Statute of Frauds and you meet the other requirements for palimony support, you have a claim.
A good lawyer skilled in Family Law can tell you if you have case to enforce oral palimony promises, or assist you in preparing a written agreement if you want to have a palimony agreement in the future. Kieu-Nhi Le, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016. She is the Managing Business Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal collaborated with me on this blog.