Even when property is not subject to equitable distribution, it may nevertheless be divided by the Court in a divorce proceeding if certain equitable doctrines apply.
One doctrine that may be applied to divide assets exempt from equitable distribution is “unjust enrichment.” For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently required the division of the premarital portion of a $2.25 million closing bonus acquired prior to the parties’ marriage based on unjust enrichment. [Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, ___ N.J. ___ (2016).]
The Trial Court and the Appellate Division both declined to divide the premarital portion of the closing bonus because it had not been acquired “during the marriage” as required under the equitable distribution statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(h). The Supreme Court reversed those decisions, concluding that although equitable distribution did not strictly apply, the husband would have been unjustly enriched if allowed to keep the premarital portion in light of the parties’ long period of premarital cohabitation and the wife having sacrificed her career to care for the parties’ daughter, home, and rental properties in order to permit the husband’s grueling work schedule. Accordingly, the Court imposed a constructive trust on the closing bonus and remanded for the Trial Court to determine how much of the closing bonus to which the wife should be entitled. In making that determination, the Supreme Court noted that some of the equitable distributions factors may be relevant to the Trial Court’s determination. [Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, ___ N.J. ___ (2016).]
To prove a claim for unjust enrichment, a party must demonstrate that the opposing party “received a benefit and that retention of that benefit without payment would be unjust.” [Iliadis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 191 N.J. 88, 110 (2007).] Unjust enrichment is a form of quasi-contract and “also requires that plaintiff show that it expected remuneration from the defendant at the time it performed or conferred a benefit on defendant and that the failure of remuneration enriched defendant beyond its contractual rights.” [VRG Corp. v. GKN Realty Corp., 135 N.J. 539, 554 (1994).]
Other equitable doctrines may be available as well, including but not limited to quantum meruit, breach of implied contract, and detrimental reliance. [Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, ___ N.J. ___ (2016).]