Dear Penny: My Ex Lied to Evict Me. I’m Living in My Car. Can I Sue Him?
I was with my boyfriend 29 years. He bought us a home, and he worked while I didn't.
Then he moved out of our home and went to court and evicted me. I didn't show up, because he stopped the mail so I never got the letter to show up and fight for my home. He lied in court; he said I was a tenant who did not pay her rent. The judge gave me seven days to move. I was never a tenant; my boyfriend called me his wife even though we weren’t legally married. He listed me as a dependent on his taxes every year.
I'm disabled, and he left me homeless because he sold the home and didn't give me a penny out of it. I sleep in my car with nothing.
Can I sue him even if we were never married but lived together 29 years?
— Broken Home and Heart
First and foremost is finding yourself a safe place to live. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2-1-1, or your local YWCA to get connected with resources that can ensure you have immediate access to food and shelter. Visit thehotline.org, ywca.org or 211.org to find their affiliated resources in your area.
These organizations can also help you sign up for other assistance if you’re not able to work for an income, including Social Security Disability and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Re: whether you can sue for a share of the proceeds from selling the house, I can’t offer you legal advice, but I can share a few pieces of information that could help you decide.
Depending on the state you live in, three types of laws might be relevant:
- Common law marriage is a legal recognition of your relationship as a marriage even if you haven’t purchased a marriage license. Just a handful of states still allow this, and each state has different standards for claiming common law marriage (generally, a number of years you have to have lived together).
- Community property states consider any income, assets and real estate (and debt) acquired during a marriage to be owned equally by each person. Some states that don’t consider all assets community property still consider a home you lived in together to be equally owned.
- Palimony is a form of financial support (a la alimony) for unmarried couples that you can pursue in many states.
A local lawyer can advise you based on the details of your situation and your history with your boyfriend. Visit LawHelp.org to find pro bono and low-cost legal assistance for folks in your situation.
Tenants’ rights laws might also be relevant in your situation, because you were treated by the court and by your boyfriend as a tenant. Those also vary dramatically by state, including the process for eviction and the amount of notice you’re required to receive. Search for “tenant resource center” or “tenants union” in your state to find organizations that provide free legal help for tenants.
You might find that you simply didn’t have a legal claim to the property or financial support if your name wasn’t on the deed and your relationship with your boyfriend wasn’t legally recognized beyond his tax filing status. That doesn’t make what your boyfriend did ethical or right; it just might mean you don’t have any further legal recourse.
If this is where you end up, focus on getting yourself the housing and care you need outside of your relationship. Lean on the organizations and resources near you to get all the assistance you can — they’re designed precisely for people in unexpected situations like yours.
Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance®, author, speaker and personal finance journalist. She writes Healthy Rich, a newsletter about how capitalism impacts the ways we think, teach and talk about money.