SEVEN YEARS AGO, a woman named Michelle Triola Marvin went into court and asked for a share of the property accumulated by actor Lee Marvin during the six years they had lived together. The gist of her case was that the couple had agreed orally that she would act as his wife and that she would shelve her singing career and devote all her talents and energies toward advancing his acting career. In return, she would get a share of the property, just as a wife would.
I'm going to put marriage on trial in the Marvin case," said her lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson, during the trial that just ended. "I intend to show that when two people live together they have precisely and identically the same lifestyles as two people who have a license in their drawer and they should be treated as one and the same."
In the end, the celebrated case turned on the simple question of whether or not there was an oral contract that accorded her the rights and privileges of a wife. Her actual case was terribly weak. There was no paper, nothing written down, merely filmsy circumstantial suggestions such as a joint bank account and checks made out to Mrs. Lee Marvin. The judge ruled that there was no contract but he availed himself of the "additional equitable remedies" the California Supreme Court suggested to protect the rights of unmarried people living together. He awarded Michelle Marvin $104,000 to be used to rehabilitate herself.
It was a clever decision-one that would satisfy Michelle Marvin who was at best a long shot to get anything and an award that was small enough that Lee Marvin would pay and not take it to appeal. In fact, both of them claimed victory after Wednesday's ruling and seemed deliriously happy over the whole thing.
But it also was a ruling that is doing violence to the emerging concept of rehabilitative alimony-a concept that may offer us a satisfactory alternative to awarding open-ended alimony that spouses almost never pay. The idea behind rehabilitative alimony is that the husband has an obligation to provide for the retraining and education of a woman who abandoned the workforce in order to take of his home and raise his children so he could establish his career.
The husband is viewed somewhat as an employer in this concept, with certain obligations towards an employe whom he terminates after years of service. The marriage is viewed as a business deal in which one partner performs work for pay in the main labor force, and the other partner performs work for no pay within the home, and at the end of the deal she is entitled to severance pay. The spouse is supposed to support her for three or four more years while she goes back to school and gets the training that will enable her to compete successfully in the labor force and earn enough money that her standard of living will not deteriorate too much from her married state to her divorced state.
Built into the idea of rehabilitative alimony is the principle that a husband does not have indefinite obligations to support his ex-wife and that at some point she had an obligation to support herself. It is a healthy departure from the practice of suffocating alimony payments that have for years forced men to skip states in order to avoid summonses for delinquent payments, a situation in which they end up paying their wives absolutely nothing for alimony or child support.
But Michelle Marvin is no ex-wife and she is no displaced homemaker. She did not get married to Lee Marvin in her early twenties, fresh from school, without formal training for a career and she did not spend the best years of her life raising his children and taking care of his home. Indeed, she did not take up with him until she was in her thirties and had developed enough of a singing career that she wanted $100,000 damages for abandoning it. Testimony during the trial had her earning tops of $1,000 a week singing, surely some indication that she was no helpless kid when it comes to the business world, that she must have some skills as an entertainer she can fall back on.If she can't sing anymore, for example, why can't she teach?
Michelle Marvin had a career. She chose to shelve it and throw in her lot with Lee Marvin, hitching her fortunes to what she hoped would be a rising star and who turned out on occasion, according to testimony to be a falling-down drunk. Love and affection and wifely obligations seems to have played, at best, supporting roles in here decision.
Michelle Marvin made a business decision. She changed careers. She took a gamble that if she invested her time and talent in Lee Marvin she would get some of his money. She had no written property contract and she didn't hold out for a marriage contract and she never managed to put Lee Marvin under any kind of legal obligation. If there is a victory to be perceived in the Marvin decision, it is that there is a difference between the Michelle Marvins and the millions of women who tucked the marriage license in a drawer and spent the best years of their lives at home taking care of their husband and raising his children and then got fired.
They're the ones who deserve the rehabilitative alimony from the courts, Michelle Marvin doesn't deserve a red cent.