Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

Is An Oral Agreement Enforceable In New Jersey Family Law?

As an experienced family law and divorce attorney, I know how important it is to get all agreements between parties in writing. That is because typically if something is not in writing, it is not binding. New Jersey’s Statute of Frauds clearly states that promises or agreement are not binding unless in writing. N.J.S.A. 25:1-5. While sometimes exceptions are made and oral agreements will be considered, it is extremely rare. This is especially true if the parties are not married and one is trying to have an oral agreement enforced. That was the case in the New Appellate Division decision of Cooper v. Beaty, decided just last week.    

In the case, the parties had a relationship with each other for ten years. The girlfriend described the parties’ relationship as a “union.” In July 2010, they entered into an oral agreement, which provided that they, in addition to the girlfriend’s daughter, would live together in an apartment in Union, New Jersey. The boyfriend intended to lease the apartment under his name. He stated that he would pay the lease and utilities for four years. However, in April 2011 the parties called it quits when the girlfriend found out that her boyfriend had a wife.

In July 2011, the girlfriend filed a complaint with the court seeking specific performance of the oral agreement or any damages that resulted from its breach. In December 2013 after a bench trial, the trial judge dismissed her complaint on the merits and found that the oral agreement violated section 25:1-5(h) of New Jersey’s Statute of Frauds. Pursuant to the provision, an unwritten “promise by one party to a non-marital personal relationship to provide support or other consideration for the other party, either during the course of such relationship or after its termination” is not enforceable. The trial court looked more in depth at the provision, noting that no written promise is binding unless it was made with the independent advice of counsel for both parties. However, in this case, there wasn’t even a written promise to begin with.

In December 2013, the girlfriend filed a motion for reconsideration. She argued that the trial court erred because it incorrectly treated her claim as one for palimony. Yet, when the trial judge reconsidered his prior decision, he reached the same result. He stated that the girlfriend was not prejudiced in any way, that he did not treat the case as one for palimony, and that the Statute of Frauds precluded him from awarding damages on a contractual or equitable basis. The girlfriend appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division stated that the girlfriend’s arguments were without merit. Therefore the court did not submit a written opinion. Instead it simply affirmed the findings of the lower court, adding that the relief the girlfriend sought was clearly precluded by section 25:1-5(h) of New Jersey’s Statute of Frauds based on the relationship between the parties as she had described.

The main takeaway from the Cooper decision is to always have oral agreements reduced to writing. For more questions or to discuss this area of the law further, please contact my office today.