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updated 10/31/2009 1:13:46 PM ET 2009-10-31T17:13:46

Michelle Triola Marvin, whose landmark lawsuit against her former lover, "Dirty Dozen" actor Lee Marvin, placed the word "palimony" into the family law lexicon and changed the legal rights of unmarried cohabiting partners, died Friday at age 76.

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She underwent surgery for lung cancer last year and died at the Malibu home of actor Dick Van Dyke, her partner of 30 years, said family spokesman Bob Palmer.

Michelle Marvin's birth name was Triola and she met Lee Marvin while working as an extra in his 1964 movie "Ship of Fools." They lived together for six years and she took his last name but never married. The relationship ended in 1970.

At first she accepted payments from him of $833 a month to support her while she tried to resume her singing and acting career. But after support checks stopped she filed suit for half of everything Marvin had earned during their years together. Her share would have been $1.8 million. Her cause was taken up by one of Hollywood's most colorful divorce lawyers, Marvin Mitchelson, who launched what was a campaign to change the law.

The case of Marvin vs. Marvin focused a spotlight on the then radical arrangement of cohabiting unmarried couples and the plight of women after such relationships ended. At first, the suit was rejected by the courts as having no basis in law. But Mitchelson took her case to the California Supreme Court where in 1976 she won the right to bring suit.

He would later say that the day she won the right to walk into court and file suit was the day American marriage and family law changed forever. Mitchelson, known for his pursuit of multimillion-dollar divorce cases, sought to win the same rights for Marvin as she would have under alimony laws if the couple had married. He coined the term, "palimony" and it stuck.

By the time the case of Marvin Vs. Marvin came to court in 1979, palimony suits were springing up across the country.

In a time when live-in relationships without marriage had no place in the law, the case broke new legal ground. But Michelle Marvin never received any of Marvin's fortune.

A judge rejected Marvin's community property request but granted her $104,000 for "rehabilitation." The award was later overturned on appeal.

Afterward, she went to work as an agent's secretary at the William Morris talent agency, Palmer said.

"She had a lot of friends in the (show) business," he said.

Although Marvin came away with no money, the sensational case spurred similar trials and established in California law the right of unmarried partners to sue for joint property on grounds that their partners had violated a relationship contract.

Marvin had contended she gave up her career to become the actor's "cook, companion and confidant" and he had promised to support her for life. He denied that contention.

Palmer said Marvin didn't dwell on the case and wasn't bitter, even though she was forever associated with it. Many said she came up with the concept of palimony, but it was really Mitchelson, he said.

"She just shrugged it off," Palmer said. "If Lee Marvin's name came up, she said he was a great guy."

Her relationship with Van Dyke began in the late 1970s and they moved to Malibu in 1986. Lee Marvin died in 1987.

Besides Van Dyke, Marvin is survived by her sister, Diane Triola Johnson of Los Angeles; a niece and a nephew.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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