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Hewitt v. Hewitt

    Brief Fact Summary. Two unmarried cohabitants lived together for over fifteen years.  The woman, in reliance on the man's representations, sacrificed a lot so the man could establish his career.  The man promised he would "share his life, his future, his earnings and his property" with the woman.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Due to the public policy considerations involved, the legislature, not the judicial branch, is the appropriate branch of government to decide whether unmarried cohabitants should be granted property rights.

    Facts. The Plaintiff, Victoria Hewitt (the "Plaintiff"), became pregnant in June 1960.  The Defendant, Robert Hewitt (the "Defendant"), told her that they would live as husband and wife, but that no formal ceremony was necessary.  The Defendant told the Plaintiff that he would "share his life, his future, his earnings and his property" with her.  The Plaintiff and the Defendant lived with one another for over fifteen years, holding themselves out as husband and wife.  The Plaintiff sacrificed a lot in order to further the Defendant's career.  The Plaintiff relied on the Defendant's representations that the parties would share in all property equally.  The Plaintiff brought suit under on an implied contract theory.  The trial court found there was no legal marriage and the Plaintiff only had a claim if there was an actual marriage.  The Appellate court reversed, finding public policy was not so offended that the Plaintiff was not entitled to relief, and as such, enforced an express oral contract.

    Issue. Is the Plaintiff entitled to recover "an equal share of the profits and properties accumulated by the parties"?

    Held. No.  The court first compared and contrasted the Appellate court's decision below with the California Supreme Court's decision in  [Marvin v. Marvin].  The court observed that the [Marvin] court implemented a pure contractual theory, qualified only by the fact that an implicit sexual relationship cannot be the explicit consideration for the agreement granting property rights.  The court then observed the Appellate division "would apply contract principles only in a setting where the relationship of the parties outwardly resembled that of a traditional family."  As such, the court recognized the plaintiff in [Marvin] would not have been victorious in the appellate court because there was not an outward appearance of a conventional family relationship.  The court then recognizes that the issue of "whether property rights accrue to unmarried cohabitants" is not strictly one of contracts, but that significant public policy questions are involved.  Most importantly, the effects of such recognition on the institution of marriage, whether less people will get married, and various other considerations.
    •    The court then characterizes the Plaintiff's real argument as "abandon[ing] the rule of illegality because of certain changes in societal norms and attitudes." The court however recognizes that to be candid the court should "acknowledge the varying forms of common law marriage" because the effects of the Plaintiff's arguments would be just that, "the reinstatement of common law marriage."  Because of the difficulties involved with this issue, the court thinks the legislature is the appropriate place where change must come from.  Specifically, the court finds that the Appellate court's decision undercuts the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, which makes common law marriage invalid.  Further, the court was worried that husbands will be able to stop supporting their wives, a situation not possible if the parties were married.

    Discussion. It is interesting to recognize the public policy implications the court observes when construing this issue.  "Will the fact that legal rights closely resembling those arising from conventional marriages can be acquired by those who deliberately choose to enter into what have heretofore been commonly referred to as "illicit" or "meretricious" relationships encourage formation of such relationships and weaken marriage as the foundation of our family-based society? In the event of death shall the survivor have the status of a surviving spouse for purposes of inheritance, wrongful death actions, workmen's compensation, etc.? And still more importantly: what of the children born of such relationships?  What are their support and inheritance rights and by what standards are custody questions resolved? What of the sociological and psychological effects upon them of that type of environment? Does not the recognition of legally enforceable property and custody rights emanating from nonmarital cohabitation in practical effect equate with the legalization of common law marriage at least in the circumstances of this case?"


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