William Ross and Beverly Maeker’s love story started out like a lot of others.
They met in Brooklyn and started dating in 1998. Soon they moved in together. Next, they moved out to Bedminster, where they rented a house, and eventually moved into another, this time leasing with an option to buy.
While they were together, she, for the most part, did not work outside the home. He paid the living expenses, including buying her four horses, paying for most of her son’s college, and paying for a property she had in Brooklyn. In 2010, he gave her power of attorney and appointed her as executrix of his estate.
But they never married and they never signed a palimony agreement. Now, their case is before the state’s highest court and is likely to define a new path forward on the enforceability of oral palimony agreements, at a time when a recent U.S. census report shows the American family is dramatically changing to become less traditional.
The case has drawn attention from the New Jersey legal community, and the New Jersey State Bar Association has filed a friend-of-the-court brief.
“There are numerous New Jersey citizens who have altered their lives in reliance upon a promise made by another in a relationship that they believe constitutes a valid oral palimony agreement. The decision in this case will impact the ability of those citizens to continue to rely on those oral promises if, and when, the relationship falters,” the association wrote in an amicus brief. “The decision in this matter will have implications far beyond the facts of this case that will affect the fair administration of justice throughout the state, the equitable powers granted to courts in considering palimony agreements, (and) the advice provided by NJSBA members to their clients.”
Ross and Maeker were together for 12 years before he moved out of the home they had shared. Following the split in 2011, she went to court seeking support, saying they entered into an oral contract.
He asked a judge to throw the case out. A trial judge found the complaint was not barred by the 2010 amendment to the statute of frauds and sided with Maeker, awarding $6,000 in support each month. An appeals court reversed, saying they had a chance to formalize a palimony agreement, but didn’t.
“Their conduct would suggest no expectation, on the part of plaintiff, of promised lifetime support, but only that defendant would permit her to manage his affairs until the POA (power of attorney) was revoked and that upon his death, he intended to name her as the residuary beneficiary of his estate. Neither document, as a matter of law, evidences any intent or promise of lifetime support,” wrote Appellate Division Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson, who was joined by Judges Francine Axelrad and Michael Haas.
The case turns on a 2010 amendment to the statute of frauds. That’s when the Legislature amended the statutes to say that only written palimony agreements can be enforced.
Attorneys for Ross claim he shouldn’t be held to the palimony payments since they never had a formal agreement. Maeker’s attorney says the trial court correctly found that an oral promise should be enforced when necessary to avoid an injustice.
In the amicus brief filed with the Court, the association urged the justices to confirm that promissory estoppel can be used to defeat the requirement to have a written contract under the fraud statute, if it meets a higher evidence standard.
“For over 100 years, both the United States and New Jersey Supreme Courts have been careful to ensure that a statute designed to avoid fraud is not used as a sword to perpetuate a fraud… Requiring proof of the promise to be by the higher clear and convincing evidence standard, as some courts have done, is a sound and reasonable way of balancing the competing interests and insuring justice prevails,” according to the brief New Jersey State Bar Association President Ralph J. Lamparello signed. Brian Paul; Brian Schwartz, chair of the association’s Family Law Section, and Elizabeth Vinhal wrote the brief.
Further, the association argues the 2010 amendment should only be applied prospectively, and that the common law defense of partial performance remains available to defeat the writing requirement.
Those proposals “are consistent with the provisions of the New Jersey Constitution, with long-standing New Jersey precedent, and with general notions of fairness and equity,” the association’s brief concludes.
No argument date has been set.