As our BC family lawyers have discussed, an unjust enrichment claim in the family context can be used to prevent one spouse from leaving the relationship with a disproportionate share of the wealth accumulated as a result of joint efforts of the spouses. In a recent Alberta case involving a wife’s claim to farm property, the court allowed a wife’s unjust enrichment claim, finding that the common-law spouses had been involved in a “joint family venture” and that the husband was enriched by the wife’s provision of domestic services, child rearing, and farm help during the couple’s 14 years of co-habitation (see Lemoine v. Griffith, 2012 ABQB 685, aff’d, 2014 ABCA 46).
Ask a BC family lawyer: What is a joint family venture?
The concept of proportionate sharing of property acquired through the joint efforts of spouses or common-law partners is well-established in BC family law. As such, a finding that spouses were involved in a joint family venture can form the basis for an unjust enrichment claim. To determine whether the spouses were engaged in a joint family venture, the court will consider concepts such as mutual effort, economic integration, and the actual intent of the spouses. Factors such as the pooling of effort and teamwork, the decision to have children together, and the length of the relationship will be considered to determine whether and to what extent the spouses have formed a partnership and jointly worked toward mutual goals. Let’s examine the facts of Lemoine, a successful unjust enrichment claim arising from a joint family venture, to demonstrate the concept.
BC family lawyers summarize the facts in Lemoine
Mr. Griffith and Ms. Lemoine began living together in 1995 on a farm property owned by Mr. Griffith’s father and soon thereafter became engaged to be married. When the parties started living together, Mr. Griffith was involved in a ranching and farming partnership with his father. In 1999, more than three years after their engagement, the parties entered into a Matrimonial Property Agreement (MPA), stated to be effective whether or not the contemplated marriage took place. The parties never married but did have a child together. In the years that followed, Mr. Griffith sold and acquired land. Certain of the properties which he sold were listed in Schedule “A” of the MPA, and these transactions considerably increased his personal net worth. When the parties separated in 2009 after 14 years together, Ms. Lemoine commenced an action claiming unjust enrichment.
A trial judge found that the MPA was of no force and effect because of undue influence. She further found that the parties, throughout their relationship, were involved in a joint family venture that formed the basis of an unjust enrichment claim. Ms. Lemoine was found to be an equal partner in the family. In assessing the “overall domestic and economic activity engaged in by the family unit”, the court awarded Ms. Lemoine a 30% share of the increase in Mr. Griffith’s net worth during the parties’ cohabitation for her contribution to their family venture – a sum of $915,440.
Domestic services and contribution to increase in value of property
Mr. Griffith appealed the unjust enrichment award, arguing that there was no causal link between the increased value of his property and Ms. Lemoine’s contribution to the joint family venture. In particular, he argued that the bulk of the wealth which he accumulated during the parties’ cohabitation was attributable to profits made from his land holdings, and his trading in land, and that the profit made from his various land sales was due solely to inflation and market forces. The court held that increases due to outside influences, such as inflation, are not excluded where neither party contributed any more than the other to the increase. Further, the court dismissed his appeal, rejecting the argument that there was no link between the husband’s accumulation of wealth and the wife’s contributions to the joint family venture. The courts have been clear that domestic services are linked to the family’s accumulation of wealth. For example, the courts recognize that Spouse A may not have been able to make the efforts he or she did to build up a company were it not for Spouse B’s assumption of household and child-rearing responsibilities. Spouse A reaped benefits of Spouse B’s efforts by being able to focus time, energy and efforts on building a company.
BC family lawyers discuss other important points from Lemoine
The court held that where there is a joint family venture, each individual asset does not have to be assessed separately and there is no requirement to demonstrate a direct contribution relating to a particular asset. Rather, the overall domestic and economic activity engaged in by the family unit can be assessed as a form of joint family venture and dealt with in a fashion that will take practical realities into account. Unless it can be demonstrated that the parties to a joint family venture intended to place specific property outside the joint venture (e.g. through a valid marriage agreement) it is not appropriate to consider a party’s contribution to individual assets.
Take home points on joint family ventures from our BC family lawyers
An unjust enrichment claim can be used to prevent one spouse from leaving the relationship with a disproportionate share of the wealth accumulated as a result of the joint family effort. Contributions need not be direct as long as they are made to the overall value of the joint family venture, so can include domestic services that enable one spouse to focus on increasing the family’s wealth. Increases due to outside influences, such as inflation, are not excluded where neither spouse contributed any more than the other to the increase. If you need more information bringing an unjust enrichment claim, contact Onyx Law Group at 604-900-2538 to schedule your initial 30-minute complementary consultation with one of our BC family lawyers.
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