NYS Supreme Court, Monroe County
Alternative Service Divorce
Constructive Trust — Marital Residence
McKeown v. Frederick
Background: In this divorce action, at issue is whether an alleged promise by a spouse, prior to marriage, created rights and responsibilities under the equitable doctrine of a constructive trust.
The parties discussed buying a house prior to their marriage. Rather than buy a house, the husband moved into the wife’s home, which was in her name. The husband alleged that the parties mutually agreed to make the house their home and add him to the deed. The husband further alleged that he expended significant sums of money to improve the home in reliance on the promise that he would be added to the deed. The husband argued that the wife’s conduct rendered cohabitation untenable, thereby breaching the contract between them regarding the home.
The wife stated that the couple did look at a few homes, but focused on her home instead. She did not state whether improvements to the home were made.
The parties negotiated a settlement agreement, but severed the issue of the constructive trust, agreeing to have the court resolve the dispute.
Ruling: The Supreme Court held that the wife’s motion for summary judgment is granted and the husband’s counterclaim for a constructive trust is dismissed. The court reasoned that in order to impose a constructive trust upon real property, a plaintiff must prove that a confidential or fiduciary relationship existed, that there was a promise, a transfer in reliance thereon, and unjust enrichment. The court also noted that in New York state constructive trusts were to be used as “fraud-rectifying” remedies rather than “intent-enforcing” remedies.
In applying the above the court found that there was no evidence that the wife asked the husband for any financial assistance, exerted any control over the repairs, or made any promise to pay for any portion of the repairs. Further, there is no evidence that the wife concealed any factors or made any other statements to the husband beyond those stated in the husband’s affidavit.
In addition, the court held that a confidential or fiduciary relationship should not control in a constructive trust claim asserted between a romantic couple. The alleged promise was made prior to the wedding. Further, it was not clear when the husband performed the work. Determining when the fiduciary relationship existed would require the court to examine the degree of emotional attachment between the parties at particular times.
The court found that the mutual agreement between the parties to make the house a home, if taken as true, is not a promise. Nor does the “suggestion to amend the deed” amount to a definite promise even under the liberal interpretation of promise required for a constructive trust. Further, the court declined to find an implied promise as the wife did not allege any conduct that would suggest an intention to grant the husband an interest in the real property.
The husband failed to demonstrate any reliance on the alleged promise. Indeed, it appeared that the renovations made were based upon a familial impulse to provide better surroundings for the family.
Finally, the court declined to accept the alleged “fault” of the wife for constructive eviction in the analysis. Nor was there any evidence that the wife was unjustly enriched. To suggest that she was is to ignore the aspects of married life.
Rebecca Hatch of the Hatch Law Firm for the plaintiff; Frank Beretta for the defendant