Watts v. Watts, 137 Wis. 2d 506

Case Name: Watts v. Watts
Plaintiff:  Sue Ann Evans Watts
James Watts
137 Wis. 2d 506

Key Facts: The parties began living together in a “marriage-like” relationship, holding themselves out to the public as husband and wife. The plaintiff assumed the defendant’s surname, had two children with the defendant who also assumed his surname. The plaintiff did the home making services and even worked in the defendant’s office. She did not receive any compensation.

The plaintiff alleges that the defendant indicated to the plaintiff both orally and through his conduct that he considered her to be his wife and that she would share equally in the increased wealth.

Procedural Posture: The circuit court dismissed the amended complaint stating that the statutes authorizing a court to divide property does not apply to unmarried persons. The circuit court did not analyze the four other legal theories.

  • First legal theory – that her relationship with the defendant and their children constitute a family and entitle the plaintiff to bring an action for property division under the Family Code. The court rejected this claim because they believed the legislature specifically meant the legal family.
  • Second legal theory – Because of the defendant’s words and conduct, he should be estopped from asserting the lack of a legal marriage as a defense against the plaintiff’s claim for property division under sec. 767. The court concluded that “marriage by estoppel” should be applied in this cause because the legislature did not intend the family code to govern unmarried cohabitants.
  • Third legal theory – The parties had a contract, either express or implied in fact contract, to share equally the property accumulated during their relationship, which the defendant breached.  The defendant’s defense was that their relationship was immoral and illegal and that any recognition of a contract between the parties contravenes public policy and weakens the integrity of marriage. The court was not persuaded by the defendant that enforcing an express or implied in fact contract would violate the Wisconsin Family Code.
  • Fourth legal theory – Unjust enrichment. She alleges that the defendant accepted and retained the benefit of services she provided knowing that she expected to share equally in the wealth accumulated during their relationship and that it is unfair for the defendant to retain all the assets. She also states that a constructive trust should be imposed on the property as a result of the defendant’s unjust enrichment.

A claim for unjust enrichment does not arise out of an agreement entered into by the parties. Rather, an action for recovery based upon unjust enrichment is grounded on the moral principle that one who has received a benefit has a duty to make restitution where retaining such a benefit would be unjust.

Holding:  The court concluded that the plaintiff had pleaded the facts necessary to state a claim for damages. Unmarried cohabitants may raise claims based upon unjust enrichment following the termination of their relationships where one of the parties attempts to retain an unreasonable amount of the property acquired through the efforts of both.

Judgment: The plaintiff’s complaint has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted but that it may rest on contract, unjust enrichment or partition. Reversed for further proceedings.

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