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Bonina v. Sheppard - 91 Mass. App. Ct. 622, 78 N.E.3d 128 (2017)

Rule:

Cohabitation in Massachusetts does not create a relationship of husband and wife in the absence of a formal solemnization of marriage, and the incidents of the marital relationship do not attach to an arrangement of cohabitation. Unmarried cohabitants, however, may lawfully contract concerning property, financial, and other matters relevant to their relationship. Equitable relief is also available, including restitution for unjust enrichment. An appellate court examines a judge's imposition of equitable remedies under an abuse of discretion standard. Unjust enrichment occurs when a party retains the property of another against the fundamental principles of justice or equity and good conscience. A plaintiff must establish not only that a defendant receives a benefit, but also that such a benefit is unjust. Whether the benefit is unjust turns on the reasonable expectations of the parties.

Facts:

Plaintiff Stephen Bonina and defendant Jane A. Sheppard were involved in a long-term nonmarital relationship. The plaintiff, who was a contractor, expended significant funds and labor to improve the home in which the couple lived for 16 years, which was owned by the defendant. When the relationship ended, the plaintiff brought an action seeking restitution for his contributions to the home against the defendant claiming that she had been unjustly enriched by his contributions to the home. After a bench trial, the Superior Court judge awarded the plaintiff $156,913 in restitution, which represented the funds he expended to improve the home over the 16 years. On appeal, the defendant claimed that the trial judge erred by finding that she was unjustly enriched and by calculating the plaintiff's restitution based on his costs to improve the home, rather than the increased value of the home with the improvements. 

Issue:

Was plaintiff former non-marital cohabitant entitled to restitution under a theory of unjust enrichment for his substantial, uncompensated contributions to improve the home owned by defendant?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

Reviewing for an abuse of discretion, the Appeals Court affirmed the judgment holding that the judge properly awarded the first unmarried cohabitant $156,913 in restitution, which represented the funds he expended to improve the second cohabitant's home over 16 years. The Court found that the substantial contributions made by the first cohabitant to improve the home were not meant to be gifts to the second cohabitant. Over the 16 years, the plaintiff paid $93,744 toward the mortgage, which the trial judge found was more than adequate for the plaintiff's use and occupancy of the residence. As such, the plaintiff could seek restitution for his contributions to the defendant's home under an unjust enrichment theory.

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