Unjust Enrichment: A New Substitute for Common Law Marriage?

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the legal principle of equity denotes a “spirit and habit of fairness, justness, and right dealing.”  Given the ambiguous nature of what is “fair” and “unfair,” the application of equitable principles in our courts of law can lead to surprising outcomes. Take a recent Massachusetts case, Bonina v. Sheppard, in which the plaintiff, Mr. Bonina, was refunded for the cost of renovations and additions that he paid for and performed, voluntarily and without promise of reimbursement, at a home owned by his girlfriend where he lived for several years. Despite the absence of marital rights or a binding contract, the Court was willing to apply the equitable principle of unjust enrichment in order to fairly account for the money and effort expended by Mr. Bonina throughout the years.

Early on in their relationship, Mr. Bonina’s girlfriend bought a run-down house in need of substantial repairs.  Although Mr. Bonina was not named as an owner of the property deed, he paid for and performed significant repairs and improvements to the house, in addition to paying half of the monthly mortgage payments. These repairs and improvements included roofing, siding, flooring, electrical and plumbing work; extending the kitchen and living room; the purchase of a new furnace, windows and gas stove; new septic system installation; and the build-out of an entire second floor. After a period of engagement, the couple’s relationship fell apart, at which time Mr. Bonina moved out of the house. He subsequently brought an action against his ex-fiancé to recover the money he had spent on improving the home.

While many states recognize the principle of “‘common law marriage” between long-term cohabitants, Massachusetts is not one of them. Therefore, Mr. Bonina was unable to avail himself of traditional marital redistribution principles in Probate and Family Court.  He instead pursued relief in the Superior Court, requesting that the Court apply an equitable remedy by imposing a “quasi-contract” between he and his ex-fiancé. Quasi-contracts are not truly contracts, but rather obligations imposed by a court to prevent unjust enrichment.  Unjust enrichment is the idea that one party has been given a substantial benefit for which the other party has not been fairly compensated.  When determining the appropriate compensation to be awarded on a quasi-contract theory, the Court will look at how much the other party was benefited, not at how much the plaintiff necessarily expended (though these amounts can often be equal, as was largely the case in Bonina).

Whether or not the benefit conferred upon the defendant was “unfair” comes down to the reasonable expectations of both parties. For instance, if the expectation was for the contribution of time, money, etc. to be a gift, as Mr. Bonina’s ex-fiancé argued, then there would be no unjust enrichment. However, the court in Bonina disagreed that the presumption of a gift should be made in such cases. Instead, the court sided with Mr. Bonina, finding that the expectation of both parties had been to sell the property for a shared profit at some point.  Thus, the court ordered Mr. Bonina’s ex-fiancé to reimburse him for the value of the labor and materials he provided to the property.

Given that Massachusetts does not recognize common law marriage, it is important that our state courts recognize and enforce equitable remedies for unmarried couples, who may view drafting and signing written contracts with each other as an awkward and unnecessary exercise (at least during the course of their relationship).   Although Bonina is undoubtedly an unusual case, given the substantial time and costs incurred by the plaintiff, it will not likely be the last of its kind.