Watts v. Watts
137 Wis.2d 506, 405 N.W.2d 303 (1987)

  • Sue Ann and James lived together for twelve years in an unmarried relationship. They even had two children together.
    • The two told people they were married. She took his name, they filed joint tax returns, and signed contract with third parties claiming to be married.
    • Sue Ann also worked at James' business, thereby enriching him.
  • They broke up, and Sue Ann sued for support.
    • Most of their assets were in James' name.
  • The Trial Court found for James in summary judgment. Sue Ann appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that there was not a valid marriage, therefore Sue Ann was not entitled to anything.
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed.
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court found that there was enough to state a claim for an accounting of the property acquired during the parties' relationship and partition of those assets.
    • Sue Ann argued that they met the definition of 'family' under Wisconsin State law. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that the law was never intended to cover unmarried cohabitants. Therefore she didn't qualify.
      • The Court looked to the purpose and legislative history and found that the laws were designed to protect marriage, not to protect the interests of unmarried couples.
    • Sue Ann argued that Robert was not allowed to now claim they were unmarried because he had previously claimed that they were. However, the Court was not willing to accept the doctrine of "marriage by estoppel."
    • Sue Ann argued (and the Court agreed) that even if they weren't married, they had an implied contract to share their stuff.
      • Robert argued that enforcing non-marital contracts would contravene public policy (see Hewitt v. Hewitt (77 Ill.2d 49 (1979)), but the Court here disagreed with that Illinois Supreme Court decision.
    • Sue Ann argued that Robert was unjustly enriched at her expense. The Court found that unjust enrichment was a valid argument, but Sue Ann would have to go back to the Trial Court and prove the elements of the claim.
      • So she could get continuing support if she can prove unjust enrichment.
    • Sue Ann argued (and the Court agreed) that under property law, when there is a dissolution of a contract where property is involved, partition is the proper remedy.
      • So she gets half of the property accumulated during the relationship.
  • Basically this case says that for equity's sake you have to step in when a non-marriage dissolves, otherwise there is likely to be an injustice.
    • Compare to Hewitt, which found that giving non-married couples marital rights would make getting married pointless. Therefore it would be against public policy to recognize such a common law marriage.