A non-written agreement for cohabitants to share retirement benefits can be enforceable under a breach of contract claim, but will not support claims to impose a constructive trust, or for unjust enrichment or an accounting. Such was the holding of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its November 13, 2013 decision in Dee v. Rakower.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Leonard B. Austin, the appellate court relied heavily on the facts as pleaded in the complaint. The parties had lived together in a committed, same-sex relationship for nearly 18 years. Two children were born of this relationship; each party being the biological parent of one child, legally adopted by the other.

After the relationship ended in 2007 (before the passage of New York’s Marriage Equality Act [see, Domestic Relations Law §§ 10-a, 10-b]), Ms. Dee commenced this action seeking to enforce the alleged oral “joint venture/partnership” agreement. Under that agreement, Ms. Dee was to share in assets, including Ms. Rakower’s retirement contributions and earnings, in exchange for Ms. Dee leaving her full-time job to care for the parties’ children.

Before they had children, each party was employed full-time, earning a salary and retirement benefits. The parties pooled their respective salaries to meet their shared expenses. The parties purchased a house as joint tenants with rights of survivorship.

After the parties’ first child was born, the parties agreed, it was alleged, that given the cost of child care, Ms. Dee would eschew her full-time employment and work part-time so that she could be home with the children and perform other non-financial services for the benefit of the family and for the parties’ partnership and/or joint venture while Ms Rakower would continue to work full-time. Ms. Dee alleged that her decision to leave her full-time employment was based upon the parties’ specific agreement that Ms. Dee would be entitled to one half of Ms. Rakower’s retirement contributions and earnings for the period.

Ms. Rakower moved to dismiss Ms. Dee’s complaint. Kings County Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Lewis granted that motion, determining that the facts did not support causes of action for breach of contract, to impose a constructive trust, for unjust enrichment or for an accounting.


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Two decisions within the last 10 days confirm the need for agreements relating to support to be in (an acknowledged) writing, and then incorporated in a court order.

In one, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears without a hearing despite the claimed reduction of maintenance under an oral modification of the parties’ separation agreement. In the second, Albany County Family Court Judge W. Dennis Duggan directed a father to pay 71% of his older son’s private middle school expense, despite the mother’s conceded agreement to pay the full tuition.

In its January 30, 2103 decision in Parker v. Navarra, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears by Dutchess County Supreme Court Justice James V. Brands. The ex-husband alleged that he and his ex-wife had orally modified the maintenance provisions of their separation agreement and, alternatively, that the ex-wife should be equitably estopped from enforcing the maintenance provisions of the separation agreement. The ex-husband had requested an evidentiary hearing so that he could present the testimony of witnesses on those issues. Justice Brands denied the request for an evidentiary hearing, awarding arrears on the basis of the parties’ submissions.

The Second Department affirmed, noting that the ex-husband failed to make a showing sufficient to entitle him to a hearing on this issue:

Where, as here, the parties’ separation agreement contains a provision that expressly provides that modifications must be in writing, an alleged oral modification is enforceable only if there is part performance that is unequivocally referable to the oral modification. The defendant did not demonstrate that the plaintiff’s acceptance of reduced monthly maintenance payments was unequivocally referable to an alleged oral modification by, for example, demonstrating that consideration was given in exchange for the plaintiff’s alleged oral agreement to accept reduced maintenance payments.

Moreover, to establish a defense of equitable estoppel, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the ex-wife’s conduct induced his significant and substantial reliance upon an oral modification. Again, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the conduct relied upon to establish estoppel was not otherwise  compatible with the agreement as written.


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