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Property award to ex-girlfriend of longtime boyfriend affirmed

September 14, 2016

A trial court correctly awarded certain property to a woman who filed a complaint against her longtime partner for unjust enrichment after the two broke up after a 17-year relationship, the Indiana Court of Appeals held.

Jeffrey McMahel and Mary Deaton met in 1996 and shortly moved in together in McMahel’s home. They have one child together, born in 1998. During their time together, both worked, with McMahel making substantially more than Deaton. He began receiving disability toward the end of their relationship, unable to work due to his multiple sclerosis. The two moved into a house McMahel later bought in his name only and the two purchased vehicles together, went on vacation together and shared a bank account.

After they broke up in 2014, Deaton filed the complaint alleging unjust enrichment. The trial court found sufficient evidence to support an equitable clam for recovery, as McMahel would be unjustly enriched if the court took the position that Deaton had no claim to any of the assets held in McMahel’s name alone or to the growth of his asset base that occurred during their cohabitation.

Orange Circuit Judge Larry Blanton awarded certain cars or other property to Deaton, her 401(k) account, as well as a $13,102.30 equalization payment from McMahel for a total award of $54,753.32.

McMahel appealed in Jeffrey L. McMahel v. Mary A. Deaton, 59A04-1601-PL-91, asking the appellate court to reconsider its holding in Bright v. Kuehl, 650 N.E.2d 311 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995). In Bright, the court addressed whether a party is entitled to relief based upon contributions during cohabitation without subsequent marriage absent an express agreement. That court held that a party is entitled to relief upon a showing of an express contract or a viable equitable theory such as an implied contract or unjust enrichment.

To recover on a claim of unjust enrichment, the Bright Court held a plaintiff “must establish that a measurable benefit has been conferred on the defendant under such circumstances that the defendant’s retention of the benefit without payment would be unjust.” Deaton did so in the instant case, the COA held.

The evidence shows that Deaton’s sister co-signed a loan for McMahel to help establish his credit, she took care of the house and was the primary caretaker of their son. Judge Elaine Brown also noted that the trial court awarded Deaton approximately 30 percent of the parties’ combined assets, and that her earnings were 30 percent of McMahel’s earnings, so the award was proportional.

The appellate judges also declined McMahel’s request to reconsider the holding in Bright.

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