Unjust Enrichment in Real Estate Cases—an Overview.

Unjust Enrichment is a legal theory applicable when one person is enriched at the expense of another in circumstances that the law deems unfair. It is usually used when there is no valid contract or no contract at all between the parties.

The elements of unjust enrichment are: (1) plaintiff conferred a benefit upon the defendant, who has knowledge of that benefit; (2) defendant accepts and retains the conferred benefit; and (3) under the circumstances, it would be inequitable for the defendant to retain the benefit without paying for it. Fito v. Attorneys’ Title Ins. Fund, Inc., 83 So. 3d 755, 758 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011).

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Unjust enrichment principles are applicable in real estate cases. For example, a party is unjustly enriched in cases where the benefit conferred is real property purchased by another, but titled under the party’s name. See Saporta v. Saporta, 766 So. 2d 379, 380 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000). In Saporta, an unmarried couple purchased a house using solely the cash the wife had inherited. Id. However, the home was titled in the husband’s name. Id. The couple married almost three years after the purchase and the wife filed for dissolution approximately two years after that. Id. The Third District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s order declining to impose a constructive trust in favor of the wife. Id. at 382. In pertinent part, the Court held that “failure to impose a constructive trust would result in a windfall to the husband amounting to unjust enrichment.” Id. at 381. The court further said that Saporta was “a classic case where the imposition of a constructive trust is necessary to do justice and ‘prevent the unjust enrichment of one person at the expense of the other.’” Id. at 382 (quoting Geiser v. Geiser, 693 So. 2d 59, 60 (Fla. 5th DCA), review denied, 699 So. 2d 1373 (Fla. 1997)). In other words, by remaining a title record holder to property purchased with funds entirely supplied by the wife, the husband would be unjustly enriched, but for the imposition of constructive trust. Id. at 380-81.

While the property in Saporta was only titled to one person, unjust enrichment is also applicable in cases where the property was “jointly owned.” Hegel v. Hegel, 248 So. 2d 212 (Fla. 3d DCA 1971). In Hegel, a married couple purchased and built several real properties and titled those properties in their joint names. “The trial court concluded that appellee [wife] furnished the entire consideration for the purchase of all of the jointly owned property and that appellant’s [husband’s] record interest therein was held by him as trustee of a constructive trust for the benefit of appellee.” Id. at 214.

If you are involved in a real estate dispute and think the theory of unjust enrichment can help you, email us at eayala@ayalalawpa.com or call 305-570-2208.

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