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A party who cohabitates with another person without subsequent marriage is entitled to relief upon a showing of an express contract or a viable equitable theory such as an implied contract or unjust enrichment.
Bruce Gazvoda and Sabrina Wright cohabited for sixteen years without contracting marriage. During the course of their relationship, Bruce and Sabrina built up an electrical business, which Bruce represented as the couple’s asset. In January 2004, Sabrina left Bruce. In March 2004, Bruce filed a Declaratory Action for Determination of Interests in Property. Sabrina responded with a counter-complaint against Bruce and his companies, seeking recovery under the theories of implied contract and unjust enrichment. At the time of the action the couple's combined net worth was over one million dollars. The trial court found that Sabrina’s work for the company went beyond the traditional family arrangement of one person maintaining a household and raising the parties' child in exchange for the other person providing home and living expenses. In addition, the court found that Bruce would be unjustly enriched were he to retain the full value of the assets accumulated through the joint efforts of the parties during the parties' cohabitation. The court then awarded Sabrina the sum of $250,000.00. Bruce appealed, arguing that he fully compensated her for all her benefits conferred while they were cohabitating and that an award under the theory of unjust enrichment was unwarranted.
Was Sabrina entitled to be awarded part of the assets in question under the theory of unjust enrichment?
The court noted that a party who cohabitated with another person without subsequent marriage would be entitled to relief upon a showing of an express contract or a viable equitable theory such as an implied contract or unjust enrichment. In this case, the trial court found that Sabrina had presented evidence to support recovery under a theory of unjust enrichment. In order to prevail on a claim for unjust enrichment, Sabrina needed to show that a measurable benefit had been conferred on Bruce under such circumstances that Bruce's retention of the benefit without payment would be unjust. Here, Bruce and Sabrina lived together for sixteen years. During that time, Sabrina helped Bruce build up his electrical business and managed his rental properties. In addition, Sabrina took care of the parties' daughter and home, allowing Bruce the time to develop his businesses. Under the circumstances, Bruce substantially benefitted from the services that Sabrina provided and that Bruce would be unjustly enriched if Sabrina were awarded no part of the assets that Bruce acquired in his name during the cohabitation. Accordingly, the trial court’s decision was affirmed.