Law School Case Brief
Watts v. Watts - 137 Wis. 2d 506, 405 N.W.2d 303 (1987)
In Wisconsin, an action for unjust enrichment, or quasi contract, is based upon proof of three elements: (1) a benefit conferred on the defendant by the plaintiff; (2) appreciation or knowledge by the defendant of the benefit; and (3) acceptance or retention of the benefit by the defendant under circumstances making it inequitable for the defendant to retain the benefit.
Plaintiff Sue Ann Evans Watts and defendant James Watts did not see eye to eye over their respective interests in property accumulated during their nonmarital cohabitation relationship, which spanned 12 years and produced two children. Sue Ann asked the circuit court to order an accounting of the James' personal and business assets accumulated between June 1969 through December 1981 (the duration of the parties' cohabitation) and to determine her share of this property. The circuit court dismissed her action against James for failure to state a claim. Sue Ann appealed.
In a Wisconsin case of first impression over the parties' respective interests in property accumulated during their nonmarital cohabitation relationship, was plaintiff Sue Ann entitled to an accounting and to share in defendant James' assets?
The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed the judgment that dismissed plaintiff Sue Ann's action against defendant James for an accounting and a share of the personal and business assets accumulated during the parties' unmarried cohabitation relationship. The Court held that Sue Ann stated a claim for which relief could be granted and her claim could rest on contract, unjust enrichment, or partition grounds. Neither the Wisconsin Family Code nor public policy precluded the female from asserting an express or implied contractual right to share property accumulated through the parties' joint efforts. Sue Ann could raise an unjust enrichment claim in view of the male's alleged unreasonable retention of the parties' jointly acquired property. Facts about the parties' business partnership, joint property purchases, and Sue Ann's uncompensated home and business contributions stated a partition claim, which was a proper cause of action in marital cohabitation cases. The Court, however, noted that Sue Ann did not state a claim for property division under § 767.255 because the parties and their children were not a "family" within the meaning of the statute, which was not intended to extend to unmarried cohabitants. The doctrine of "marriage by estoppel" also did not apply because the parties' conduct could not place them within the ambit of § 767.255, which was not intended for their benefit. Remanding, the Court noted that although plaintiff's complaint could not be based on "marriage by estoppel," it might rest on contract, unjust enrichment or partition.
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