Who Gets What When Unmarried Power Couples Split?

In what might turn into a millennial version of the Lee Marvin palimony case, unmarried actors and reality TV show personalities, Ariana Madix and Tom Sandoval, have ended a nine-year relationship during which they acquired substantial property, as individuals and jointly.

Since 2013, the two have appeared in 146 and 177 episodes, respectively, of Vanderpump Rules, which purports to show the “real life” adventures of the employees and patrons of an exclusive Hollywood restaurant and lounge, called SUR. Ms. Madix apparently ended the relationship after learning of Mr. Sandoval’s alleged affair with a Vanderpump castmate, Raquel Leviss. Other Vanderpump regulars proceeded to light up social media, proclaiming their allegiance to one or the other ex-partners.

Since Madix and Sandoval are not married, there is no need to go through a divorce. But that doesn’t mean they get to bypass the legal system. The property they hold in common has to go somewhere, or rather, to someone. Madix, 42, and Sandoval, 40, have no children, but they do have a $2 million Los Angeles home they purchased together in 2019. Sandoval also has ownership interests in two restaurants. It’s said that Madix is not invested in either restaurant, but Sandoval did acquire them during his relationship with Madix, while they were appearing as a couple on Vanderpump Rules. Lisa Vanderpump, who owns SUV, is also part owner of one of Sandoval’s restaurants. But does any of that matter?

How Does California Treat Property Owned by Unmarried Couples?

If Madix and Sandoval had been married, their property would fall under California’s community property law, which dictates that each spouse is entitled to half of the property accumulated during the marriage. In New York, the law is equitable distribution, which means that each spouse is entitled to a “fair share” of the marital estate. (Both legal processes have exceptions for inheritances, gifts, and property obtained using only a spouse’s separate property.) But without the legal rights that married status conveys, the cohabitating partners must rely on contract law to protect their rights.

In the case of the real estate purchase Madix and Sandoval made, we would look first at the deed to see who the named owner is. Presuming both names are on the deed, and that mortgage payments came from a joint account or were split evenly by some other method, we can conclude that each owns fifty percent of the property. However, the manner in which mortgage payments were made could give rise to claims that one partner has greater equity in the property than the other.

What About the Restaurants?

If the couple had been married, Madix could have made a community property claim on the two restaurants. Then, Sandoval would have to prove he bought the restaurants with his own separate funds. In that case, Madix might still be able to claim a share of the restaurant ownership based on equity, if she had done anything to drive the success of either eatery. If, as a spouse, Madix had contributed materially to the businesses without receiving appropriate compensation, a court could award Madix an interest in the businesses she helped her spouse build. It’s a long-held principle of divorce law that a spouse who supports—or makes sacrifices for the advancement of—the other spouse’s career, deserves compensation.

But does the fact that Madix and Sandoval were never married disqualify her from claiming an equity interest in his restaurants? Let’s ask Lee Marvin.

Marvin v. Marvin and the Birth of “Palimony”

In 1977, Michelle Triola Marvin, the live-in girlfriend of Oscar-winning actor Lee Marvin, sued the star of The Dirty Dozen for support after their non-marital relationship ended. Her demand for payment was dubbed “palimony,” a clever conjunction of pal and alimony. (The erstwhile Ms. Triola legally assumed the Marvin surname even though the couple never married.)

In the case of Marvin v. Marvin, a court had awarded the plaintiff $104,000 for rehabilitative support. The California Supreme Court overturned the award, ruling that Ms. Marvin could only prevail if she could prove the existence of a contract with Mr. Marvin that gave her an interest in his property. Having failed to prove a contract, she could only take from the household what she had brought to it. Though the Court denied Ms. Marvin’s claim, the case established the precedent for enforcing non-marital relationship contracts, whether express or implied, oral or written. Marvin thus laid the legal groundwork for palimony claims based on contract.

Does the Evidence Support the Idea of a Contract?

Under Marvin, Madix must base her claim for part ownership of the restaurants on a contract. A party would usually support a contract claim by presenting evidence of financial participation. For this, Madix would have to show that she:

  • Contributed funds to the purchase
  • Made loan or rental payments
  • Paid for remodeling or maintenance

There are other forms of consideration Madix might have paid to establish a contract with Sandoval. Madix could have made “in kind” contributions, promoting the restaurants.

Consider the following facts:

  • Madix and Sandoval appeared in a TV show that promoted their real-life exploits
  • The show presented Madix and Sandoval as a couple, and their relationship was a driver of fan interest in the show
  • The owner of the show’s centerpiece restaurant invested in a restaurant owned by Sandoval
  • The show promoted Sandoval’s career as a restauranteur

Under these facts, Madix might argue that she actively participated in the promotion of Sandoval’s restaurants. As an actress, her performance in promotions is a professional contribution to the business, for which she was not directly compensated. Given their relationship at the time, Madix benefited from the restaurant’s success and surely had an expectation of future benefits.

It seems indisputable that Madix was participating in a marketing campaign aimed at building Sandoval’s restaurants for their mutual benefit. Would a court construe that the couple had formed a contract? Much slimmer cases have found their way to court, so we shall see.

Takeaways for Unmarried Individuals

Anyone who foregoes marriage in favor of a long-term nonmarital relationship must understand they are passing up automatic legal protections. This is fine, as long as they take the steps to establish their rights by contract. This can be done with a cohabitation property agreement. This type of legal contract allows the parties to determine how they will divide property acquired during the relationship if the relationship ends or if one of the partners dies.

As far as business endeavors go, each party’s participation and compensation should be committed to writing. When two people are living together, it’s quite easy for one to make uncompensated contributions to a startup enterprise. Then, when the business takes off, those material contributions are easily forgotten. If the relationship ends, a paramour who contributed mightily to a startup’s success might have no recourse under the law. You don’t want to find yourself in this situation.


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel founded and leads Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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