Many people are aware of or have heard something about the recent revisions made to New Jersey’s alimony laws. Most people however are not aware of the term called “palimony” or the recent developments surrounding same. In today’s society more and more people are living together in family settings without formally getting married. What happens if one party promised to financially take care of the other party, but then all of sudden the couple splits? Is that dependent individual entitled to some sort of support? As a New Jersey divorce attorney, I have been asked these questions on many occasions. This is where the term “palimony” comes in and there have been some recent developments in the current case law in New Jersey that effects same. Let’s explore.
Generally speaking, palimony is a legal term used to describe the support that an unmarried person may be entitled to receive from their partner when the relationship terminates. More simply put, palimony is like alimony for “unmarried” couples. However, major differences exist. There are certain items that the Court will look at to determine if palimony may be appropriate in a particular case. With palimony claims on the rise, the Legislature took action in 2010 with an amendment to N.J.S.A. 25:1-5 (commonly known as the “Statute of Frauds”), which generally holds that promises or agreements are not binding unless they are made in writing. The legislature added subsection (h) to same which states in pertinent part that no action shall be brought upon any agreement or promise by one party to a non-marital personal relationship to provide support for the other party unless the promise was in writing and made with the independent advice of counsel for both parties. This act was to take effect immediately.
As expected, the enactment of this amendment to the statute led to some questions. When did this “writing” have to take place? Would all claims for palimony made after 2010 have to be in writing or did the new law only apply prospectively to promises made after 2010? This precise issue was recently decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Maeker v. Ross. The Court in that matter looked at whether the statute intended to render oral palimony agreements that predated the amendment discussed above unenforceable. Maeker filed a complaint in the family court seeking to enforce what she alleged was the parties’ oral palimony agreement and Ross filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that it failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted based upon N.J.S.A. 25:1-5.
Interestingly, the trial court denied Ross’ motion holding that the statute is not retroactively applied to invalidate contracts entered into before its enactment. The matter was then heard before the New Jersey Appellate Division where they reversed the trial court’s ruling and dismissed Maeker’s complaint. Here the Appellate Court held that the cause of action accrued at the time Ross is alleged to have breached the agreement, which was after the enactment of the statute in 2010 and thus his promise to support needed to be in writing.
The Supreme Court then heard the matter and ultimately held that the Legislature did not express an intent for the statute to be applied retroactively and thus they did not intend to retroactively void oral palimony agreements that predated its enactment. The premise behind the ruling was that if an oral contract is lawful when made, it is not rendered unenforceable by a later passed statute. In other words, rendering a previous valid contract unenforceable would impair the obligation of a contract and run counter to constitutional provisions. The Court reasoned that the Legislature is aware of constitutional law and knows how to write a statute that applies retroactively, and in this case they did not specify same. Based on these principles, the Court held that the statute does not retroactively void oral palimony agreements that predate the act, therefore the court reinstated the complaint and remanded the matter to the family court for further proceedings.
The Court did however leave some other questions unanswered, including whether equitable forms of relief would be available in the absence of an agreement for support or any issue concerning the applicability of the statute to palimony agreements formed after its enactment. These issues will clearly be brought up at some point in the future by individuals who experience these specific circumstances. Until then, it is clear that if you had an oral agreement for support prior to the amendment to the Statute of Frauds, and provided that you meet the other requirements necessary to be entitled to palimony, you can proceed with your claim for same.
In the event you were never married, but your partner nonetheless promised to support you, you may be entitled to receive support known as palimony. As practicing New Jersey family law attorneys we can assess your case and get you the relief you are entitled to. Please do not hesitate to contact our firm today to discuss your rights and how we can help you.