Common Law Wife Gets House After Companion Dies

Deed Listed Decedent As Sole Owner; Woman Helped Pay Mortgage

House Worth $1 Million

The plaintiff met the decedent when he was 44 years old, blind, unemployed and suffering from asthma. They lived together as husband and wife until the time of his death at the age of 79 in June 2002.

The plaintiff was employed during the 35 years that she lived with the decedent, while his only income came from Social Security.

On April 22, 1976, the parties purchased a house in the South End of Boston to generate additional income by renting rooms to boarders. To finance that purchase, the decedent invested $7,000 and borrowed $23,000 secured by mortgages. The balance of $8,800 was provided by the plaintiff from her savings. The plaintiff did not attend the passing of papers, but expected that the deed would list her and the decedent as joint tenants, since she had contributed more than half of the equity.

During the four years that their home was mortgaged, the plaintiff made more than half of the monthly mortgage payments from her savings. The parties paid off the balance of the mortgages on April 10, 1980. The plaintiff


contributed more than $7,500 in cash to pay off the balance due on the decedents mortgage notes.

The plaintiff learned that the deed to their home listed the decedent as the sole owner.

When the plaintiff brought this fact to the attention of the decedent, he allegedly told her that he had not actually seen the deed (because he was blind), but assured her that he would correct the mistake.

Whenever the plaintiff asked the decedent whether he had corrected the deed to include her, he would allegedly tell her that he had not done it yet, but that the plaintiff should not worry because he would leave the home to her in his will.

During the 35 years that the parties lived together, the plaintiff took care of the decedent's needs. She also dealt with the boarders in their building, cleaned the premises, provided janitorial services and generally kept up the premises.

The plaintiff's complaint alleged that the decedent had breached his contract with her; that she was entitled to recover against the estate in quantum meruit for the fair value of her services; and that she was entitled to recover the fair market value of her services from the estate to prevent the unjust enrichment of the decedent's heirs.

The estate argued that the plaintiff was not entitled to recover anything on the basis of her status as the decedent's common law wife. The plaintiff conceded this point.

The estate also argued that plaintiff's claim to the real estate was barred by the statute of frauds and the defense of laches.

The court held that the plaintiff could escape the consequences of the statute of frauds because the uncontested facts alleged proved that the plaintiff had invested large sums of money in the real estate and that she had managed the same for 26 years in reliance upon the decedent's oral agreement that he would convey or devise a joint tenancy to her, therein citing Fisher v. Mac-Donald, 332 Mass. 727, 729 (1955).

The court also held that the plaintiff's claim was not barred by the doctrine of laches, because the plaintiff had no reason not to trust her long-term companion and no reason to believe that she would need to bring a lawsuit to enforce her agreement with the decedent, citing Stewart v. Finkelstone, 206 Mass. 28, 36 (1910); the plaintiff did not learn that the decedent had not fixed the error until after his death; and the decedent's estate had failed to prove that it was prejudiced by the plaintiff's alleged failure to assert her rights in a more timely manner.

Accordingly, the court entered summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff and ordered

the special administrator to convey the real estate to the plaintiff on the ground that the real estate represented and determined the reasonable compensation of the services that the plaintiff had performed in reliance on the decedent's promise that she would receive that property, citing Green v. Richmond, 369 Mass. 47, 58 (1975).

Type of action: Wills & Trusts

Injuries alleged: Payment for services, real estate

Name of case: Petillo v. Jordan , Special Administrator of the Estate of Philip J. Ligone

Court/Case #: Suffolk Probate Court , No. 03E-0036

Tried before judge or jury: Judge

Name of judge: John M. Smoot

Amount of award: House in Boston 's South End of Boston (worth approximately $1 million)

Date: Oct. 13, 2004

Attorney: C. Peter Gossels, Boston (for the plaintiff)


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