Jan L. Warner & Jan Collins
Question (by e-mail): From the time of our divorce until he died, my former husband paid me $2,500 each month as alimony. I also received $50,000 from his estate and $100,000 in life insurance. Six years ago, I began working for a man who owned his own business. At first the business paid me minimum wage and provided me with health coverage. He and I became serious and, as my children were grown, he moved into my house, sold his home, and invested the money in his business. He asked me to let him pay part of my household expenses and continue my health coverage rather than paying me a salary, telling me that he wanted to plow everything back into the business in order to make it successful. In addition to working basically without pay, I ended up providing a roof over his head, helping him educate and support his children, buying food, paying utilities, and contributing to his overall financial welfare. I even loaned him $45,000 without taking a note or mortgage.
Although we discussed marriage from time to time, we decided not to take this step for a lot of reasons, including his promises that everything he was acquiring would be shared with me. He even showed me his will that made me beneficiary and took out a policy of insurance on my life which he pays for and promised that he was going to incorporate the business and give me stock.
Then, several months ago, the unthinkable happened: While I was out shopping on a Saturday, he moved his clothes and property out of my home and changed the locks at the business. He sent me $750 a month for three months, but this stopped when he married another woman half my age -- He's 62 and I'm 56.
Because I helped prepare his financial statements while I was working, I know that he is worth more than a million dollars with very little debt. When we met, he had very little, but we worked hard together to build up this business. Now I have my house, some furniture, and a bleak future because I have little savings and have been unable to get a job.
The lawyers whom I have seen tell me that because we were not married, I have few remedies. Is there anything I can do?
Answer: We believe there is. In family courts, marriage carries with it rights to both support and property division. Unmarried cohabitants, on the other hand, do not have this built-in protection and generally can not receive support; however, depending where you live, there are equitable remedies that prevent unjust enrichment -- that is, the economic advancement of one person (here your former friend) at your expense. Here's what we suggest you do:
First, specifically document your economic contributions to the relationship, both direct (such as cancelled checks, receipts, the loan you made to him, etc.) and indirect (such as an estimate of the reasonable value of rent for your home, the value of your upped wages which you contributed, etc.). If you have financial statements showing your former companionís worth when you and he began your venture and now, these will help.
Then find a lawyer well-versed in partnership and resulting and constructive trusts which we believe are vehicles through which you may be able to assert your claims to a share of the assets to which you contributed. In all probability, a matrimonial lawyer who handles cases for unmarried cohabitants or a lawyer with litigation experience in business and trusts should understand the claims you will be making and the proof that is necessary. Because the business did not pay you, we doubt that Social Security contributions were made on your behalf -- yet another economic loss you face. We are also curious -- as we believe the court will be -- about how you received employee health coverage without being paid a salary.
Although your situation points up the need for written cohabitation agreements for those who choose not to marry, if you can prove the contributions you assert to the court, it would appear to us that you can make a convincing case for some type of recovery.