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Wright v. Wright

Filed: March 30, 1982.


On petition for further review*fn1 of a decision of the Court of Appeals, Exum, Justice. Justice Mitchell took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


Plaintiff furnished extensive improvements to land owned by his wife, the defendant. His claim is for a money judgment and an equitable lien pursuant to the doctrine of unjust enrichment. The principal question presented is whether Judge Hairston, under the pleadings and evidence before him, properly required plaintiff to prove by clear, cogent and convincing evidence that defendant expressly promised him an interest in the land. The Court of Appeals concluded not. We conclude to the contrary and reverse. We also conclude that the same presumption of gift should apply in these cases whichever spouse furnishes the consideration for improvements on the other spouse's land.

This is an action for a money judgment of $17,270.15 and for an equitable lien in that amount on property owned by defendant. Plaintiff alleged the following: The parties were married on 25 October 1975. "[O]n or about" 1 November 1975 defendant "made certain representations" to plaintiff that if plaintiff made and paid for certain improvements on defendant's real property, defendant would convey the property to the parties as tenants by the entirety. "[I]n reliance upon defendant's said representation," plaintiff spent $15,126.91 for materials and $2,143.24 for labor for permanent improvements on defendant's home. Defendant has refused to "fulfill her representation to reconvey said real property to defendant and plaintiff as tenants by the entirety." Plaintiff is therefore entitled to equitable relief "on the basis that defendant has breached the quasi-contractual relationship existing between the said parties and has become unjustly enriched."

In her answer defendant admits the allegations relating to the marriage and that plaintiff "did purchase certain materials and pay for certain labor to the defendant's house." Otherwise, she denies the allegations of the complaint.

The matter came on for trial before Judge Hairston. The evidence consisted solely of the testimony of the parties.

Plaintiff testified as follows: He is a carpenter. He met defendant on 4 July 1975 and married her on 25 October 1975. Before their marriage they discussed the fact that defendant's home was inadequate to house the five people, including defendant's daughter and plaintiff's two sons, who would live there after the marriage. They discussed buying a new home but instead decided that they would remodel defendant's home. Plaintiff, using his carpentry skills, made substantial improvements to defendant's home. He installed new carpet and a new heating and air conditioning system. He added a bedroom, bath, den, double carport with two utility rooms, and a front porch. Although the improvements were begun before the marriage, most of the work was actually accomplished after the marriage. All improvements and additions were the result of the parties' "joint decision." Plaintiff paid for the improvements out of savings "that I had accumulated throughout my life." He spent $15,544.37 for materials and valued his labor at $2,147. In his opinion the fair market value of the home increased from $19,000 before the improvements to between $38,000 and $40,000 after the improvements.

Plaintiff testified that as a result of discussions with his wife about how the improvements would be paid for, he "assumed" and "expected" to own the property jointly after the improvements were made. They discussed changing the deed to include his name. He requested that his name be put on the deed and his wife "informed me that she did have the deed changed." Later plaintiff discovered that defendant had merely changed her name on the deed from her prior married name to that of "Wright." Plaintiff, however, conceded that when he made the improvements he knew that the house was titled in his wife's name. Plaintiff also testified that "the statement about sharing the house was made before we were married." He said, "Our disagreement over the property did lead to our marital problems." Both went to marriage counseling sessions, but ultimately the parties separated on 24 November 1976.

Defendant testified that plaintiff "came up with the idea of remodeling my house to make it bigger" because they were unable to find another house that satisfied him. She told him, "Well if that is what you want, you know, okay." She denied ever promising him "anything concerning the house," saying, "No, I

never made any statement concerning joint ownership of the house." She executed a will devising the home to plaintiff for life with remainder to her daughter. When she showed plaintiff the will "he did not like the wording. He got mad about it. He complained that his boys would not get anything out of the house. He left me for the last time the day after Thanksgiving in 1976. When he left, he had 'cleaned house.' No, he did not take any of my things. Yes, he did take furniture." Defendant did not deny that plaintiff had made substantial improvements on her home. She did "agree with him to make the improvements . . . after we had discussed the possibility of purchasing a bigger house together," but she "did not promise him anything," and "he did not ask or mention anything about putting his name on the deed." She agreed, however, that the "main problem in the marriage concerned putting his name on the deed."

Judge Hairston, treating the claim as one sounding in unjust enrichment,*fn2 submitted and the jury answered three issues as follows:

1. Did the defendant agree with the plaintiff to share in the ownership of the real property?

Answer: No.

2. If so, was the defendant ...

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