December 30, 2009

New Case Law – Unmarried Domestic Partnership

On December 23, 2009, the Oregon Court of Appeals filed its decision in Baker and Andrews, a dissolution of domestic partnership case.  The entire opinion can be found here:

                Baker and Andrews were an opposite sex couple who lived together for many years.  Baker appealed the trial court’s order that no domestic partnership existed and from an order of the court awarding Andrews sanctions against both Baker and her attorney.  The court of appeals agreed with the trial court with respect to its ruling that no domestic partnership existed, but reversed the trial court with respect to its ruling on sanctions.

                They lived together for 24 years, and shared a home and bed and raised their own separate children to adulthood in the home during that time.  They maintained separate bank accounts. Baker did some work outside of the home and Andrews owned a business (that Baker did some work for without pay).  Baker also worked as a homemaker.   They had no agreement as to their financial relationship.  Andrews added Baker to the title on the house in 1994, but Baker then signed a quitclaim deed releasing her interest in the home in 2004.  She also filed for SSI disability, stating in her application that she did not expect anything from the home and that she lives financially separately from Andrews.

                The trial court did not find Baker to be credible, a finding upon which the court of appeals must rely. 

                Oregon does not recognize common law marriage.  Under the court’s decision in Beal and Beal and subsequent cases, however, Oregon has a body of case law that recognizes that where parties intend to create a domestic partnership that the court can then equitably divide their property and debts.  The court of appeals describes this as follows:  “In general, an equitable property division on dissolution of domestic partnership is appropriate where the parties’ intent to share assets and expenses is shown by evidence that they have jointly purchased, built, or maintained property, held joint accounts, and made substantial economic and noneconomic contributions to the household for mutual benefit.” There cannot be an award of spousal support, nor can there be a claim for attorney fees made in such a proceeding.

                Here the court of appeals found that there was insufficient evidence of financial commingling sufficient to support Baker’s claim of the existence of a domestic partnership.

                Even though a party has no entitlement to attorney fees in this form of proceeding, if the other party files a frivolous case then the offended party can seek sanctions under Oregon Rule of Civil Procedure 17.   The court of appeals did not reach the issue of whether the filing was in fact frivolous, because it decided that the trial court’s manner of assessing sanctions was legally improper.  The matter was remanded to the trial court to decide if sanctions were warranted under ORCP 17.