This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).






Stanley Thomas Olson,
as Personal Representative of the Estate of Violet Pilgrim,


Irving Bird,
individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Richard Bird, et al.,


Filed September 12, 2006


Stoneburner, Judge


Roseau County District Court

File No. C102372


Alan B. Fish, Alan B. Fish, P.A., 109 Second Street Northeast, Roseau, MN 56751 (for appellant)


Steven A. Anderson, Law Office of Steven A. Anderson, P.O. Box 430, Warroad, MN 56763 (for respondents)


            Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Stoneburner, Judge; and Worke, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




            Appellant challenges the district court’s judgment for respondents on appellant’s decedent’s unjust-enrichment claim against the estate and siblings of respondents’ decedent.  Because appellant failed to prove unjust enrichment, we affirm.



            Appellant Stanley Thomas Olson is the personal representative of the estate of Violet Pilgrim.  Olson is Pilgrim’s son.  In 1977, Pilgrim sold her home to Olson for $10,000.  Pilgrim, who was not employed, used the money from the sale to pay living expenses. 

            In January 1980, Pilgrim moved into the home of decedent Richard Bird.[1]  At that time, Bird owned six acres of land, bank accounts, vehicles, farm equipment, and a fully furnished home.  Pilgrim helped Bird operate his farm.  She testified that her relationship with Bird was very similar to that of a husband and wife.  Pilgrim did bookkeeping for the farm, but Bird made the decisions regarding what was included in his financial records and reported as income.  Pilgrim was not a signatory on Bird’s bank account, and she never reported any income from or interest in the farm to government agencies from which she received financial assistance.[2]  Pilgrim’s benefits were used to pay for some household expenses.

            Pilgrim and Bird did not have any agreement, oral or written, that Pilgrim would have an ownership interest in any of the personal property acquired in the farming operation.  Bird died in June 2000.  Pilgrim did not make any claim on his estate, the assets of which were distributed to Bird’s three siblings.

In 2002, Pilgrim sued respondents, the estate, and Richard Bird’s siblings, claiming an interest in property distributed to Bird’s siblings in the probate of his estate under theories of fraud and unjust enrichment.  The district court granted summary judgment to respondents, and Pilgrim appealed.  In an unpublished opinion, Pilgrim v. Bird¸ C1-02-372 (March 30, 2004), (Pilgrim I), this court affirmed summary judgment, dismissing Pilgrim’s claims based on fraud but found genuine issues of fact regarding her claim of unjust enrichment and the defense of unclean hands, and remanded for trial on those issues, limiting any such claim to “personal property in which [Pilgrim] is able to prove her ownership interest.”  Pilgrim died before the trial, and Olson took over the litigation as her personal representative.  The matter was tried to the court without a jury.

            The district court granted judgment to respondents, concluding that Pilgrim’s claim was based solely on her long-term cohabitation with Bird and that she failed to provide any evidence of direct contributions to specific assets and also failed to establish unjust enrichment.  This appeal followed.



            Olson appears to argue that the district court’s adoption of respondents’ proposed findings one day after they were submitted calls into question the district court’s neutrality.  We do not find any merit in this assertion.  Adoption of a party’s proposed findings by a district court is generally an accepted practice, but raises the question of whether the court independently evaluated the evidence.  Schallinger v. Schallinger, 699 N.W.2d 15, 23 (Minn. App. 2005).  A reviewing court examines the findings to determine whether they are clearly erroneous.  Id.  Our review of the record and findings in this case leads us to conclude that the district court did not fail to independently evaluate the evidence.

            Olson argues that the district court clearly erred by finding that he did not prove that Pilgrim made a direct contribution to the acquisition of any specific asset owned by Bird and did not establish a claim to any asset under a theory of unjust enrichment.  On review, the findings of a trial court will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.  “Where the trial court’s factual findings are reasonably supported by the evidence, they are not clearly erroneous and must be affirmed.”  Tourville v. Kowarsch, 365 N.W.2d 298, 299 (Minn. App. 1985). 

Minn. Stat. §§ 513.075 and 513.076 (2004) “prevent an unmarried couple living together in ‘contemplation of sexual relations’ from receiving the legal rights conferred upon married couples.”  In re Estate of Palmen, 588 N.W.2d 493, 496 (Minn. 1999).  Under Minn. Stat. § 513.075, a contract between a man and woman who are living together out of wedlock is enforceable as to terms concerning the property and financial relations of the parties only if (1) the contract is in writing and signed by the parties and (2) enforcement is sought after termination of the relationship.  The supreme court views Minn. Stat. §§ 513.075 and 513.076 narrowly and has held that the statutes prevent enforcement of agreements only “where the sole consideration for a contract between cohabitating parties is their ‘contemplation of sexual relations . . . out of wedlock.’”  In re Eriksen, 337 N.W.2d 671, 674 (Minn. 1983).

            Olson relies on Eriksen, in which the supreme court affirmed a constructive trust placed on Eriksen’s home by the probate court, reasoning that the claimant’s equal contribution to the acquisition and maintenance of an asset during her cohabitation with Eriksen required the constructive trust to avoid unjust enrichment.  Id.  But Eriksen is distinguishable from Pilgrim’s situation because in Eriksen, the court found that the parties had orally agreed to purchase a home jointly; consideration for the agreement was not based solely on the parties’ “contemplation of sexual relations” out of wedlock; each contributed equally toward the purchase and maintenance of the home; and each contributed equally toward insurance that ultimately paid the mortgage.  Id. at 672, 674.  The supreme court adopted the district court’s characterization of the claim as “similar to the claim made by a joint venturer or partner.”  Id.  The supreme court held that the cohabitation statutes do not apply where a claimant seeks “to preserve and protect her own property, which she acquired for cash consideration wholly independent of any service contract related to cohabitation.”  Id. at 674. 

            Olson, by contrast, has neither alleged nor proved that Pilgrim had an agreement with Bird to jointly own assets acquired in the farming operation.  The only agreement Pilgrim asserted that she had with Bird was that “they would be retiring together when the time was right and move to Arizona.”  There is no evidence that Pilgrim’s cash was used to acquire a specific asset or that she performed labor toward the acquisition of a particular item of personal property.  Olson’s claim is that because Pilgrim labored on the farm, she contributed to the acquisition of all of the farm assets and thereby acquired an ownership interest in all of the assets.  We disagree.  The district court did not, as Olson implies, disregard evidence that Pilgrim worked hard on the farm, rather the district court rejected, as do we, the argument that her work gave her an ownership interest in farm assets absent any agreement that she would acquire an ownership interest.

            Olson argues that Pilgrim’s claim is identical with the claim in Palmen.  But Palmen, like Eriksen, involved the enforcement of an oral agreement between cohabitants.  Palmen, 588 N.W.2d at 495.  The agreement in Palmen was to build a log cabin together on property belonging only to Palmen, and if the relationship ended, Palmen would reimburse claimant for labor and materials that she contributed to the construction.  Id. 

            Furthermore, the issue on appeal to the supreme court in Palmen was whether the court of appeals correctly held that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the claim because the agreement was not in writing as required by Minn. Stat. §§ 513.075 and 513.076.  Id.  The supreme court noted that in Eriksen, it “explicitly held that the jurisdictional bar imposed by sections 513.075 and 513.076 applies only when the ‘sole consideration for a contract between cohabiting parties is their contemplation of sexual relations . . . out of wedlock.’”  Id. (quotation omitted).  And the supreme court stated, “We also made it clear that the statutory bar does not apply where one party is merely seeking to ‘preserve and protect [his or] her own property’ and is not ‘seek[ing] to assert any rights in the property of a cohabitant.’”  Id. The supreme court concluded that the claimant in Palmen sought to recover her own contributions to the log cabin’s construction, which were not based solely on the fact of cohabitation; therefore, she could seek to recover on the theory of unjust enrichment.  The supreme court did not hold that the claimant in Palmen was entitled to recover, but merely held, as did this court in Pilgrim I, that the claimant was entitled to a trial on her claim of unjust enrichment. 

            Olson concedes that Pilgrim I precludes any claim for services rendered to Bird by Pilgrim and asserts that because the claim is based on Pilgrim’s contribution of labor to the farming operation, it is not a claim for services.  Olson does not provide any authority that a claim for services is distinct from a claim based on labor, and we find no basis for such a distinction in the context of this case. 

            Olson argues that Pilgrim provided “equal,[3] direct contributions to the value of the farm assets” based on her “conservative estimations of 8 hours a day [labor] at $10.00 an hour for 6 days a week for only 20 of the 30 years” that she and Bird were together.  Olson asserts that Pilgrim had an ownership interest in all of the property listed on the inventory of Bird’s estate that was filed in the probate court.  Olson asserts that it is undisputed that all of the property listed on the inventory was acquired after Pilgrim and Bird began to live together, and therefore Pilgrim, through her labor, contributed to the acquisition of everything on the list.  But the record does not support the assertion that all of the assets were acquired through direct contribution of Pilgrim’s labor or even if they were, that there was an agreement that her labor would result in an ownership interest.  The finding that Olson failed to trace any specific asset to which Pilgrim made a direct contribution and that the only evidence presented at trial was a claim based on the value of her services as a “helpmate” to Bird is not clearly erroneous.

            Olson argues that the district court erred in determining that he failed to establish Pilgrim’s claim to Bird’s assets under the theory of unjust enrichment.  Appellate courts review a district court’s denial of an unjust-enrichment claim for an abuse of discretion.  See City of Cloquet v. Cloquet Sand & Gravel, Inc., 312 Minn. 277, 279, 251 N.W.2d 642, 644 (1977) (stating that the standard of review in cases involving equitable relief is whether the court abused its discretion.).  To prove a claim of unjust enrichment, a claimant must establish that (1) a party knowingly received something of value to which he or she was not entitled and (2) the circumstances are such that it would be unjust for that party to retain the benefit.  Schumacher v. Schumacher, 627 N.W.2d 725, 729 (Minn. App. 2001).  A claimant must also show “that a party was unjustly enriched in the sense that the term ‘unjustly’ could mean illegally or unlawfully,” First Nat’l Bank of St. Paul v. Ramier, 311 N.W.2d 502, 504 (Minn. 1981), or that a party’s conduct was “unconscionable by reason of a bad motive . . . ,” Park-Lake Car Wash, Inc. v. Springer, 394 N.W.2d 505, 514 (Minn. App. 1986).  Because Pilgrim and Bird did not have any agreement that Pilgrim, through her labor, would acquire an ownership interest in Bird’s assets, and because there is no other evidence in the record that would support a claim that Bird or his siblings were unjustly enriched as that term is used to establish an equitable claim, the district court did not err by concluding that Olson failed to establish a claim of unjust enrichment.


[1] In Pilgrim v. Bird,C1-02-372 (March 30, 2004), (Pilgrim I), this court accepted as true the assertion that Pilgrim brought $10,000 into the relationship with Bird, but her subsequent deposition testimony demonstrates that she used that money for living expenses before she moved in with Bird.  There is no evidence in the record of any amount of cash that Pilgrim brought into Bird’s household.

[2] Pilgrim started receiving social-security disability benefits and medical assistance in 1988 due to heart problems.

[3] At trial, Olson agreed that Pilgrim’s contribution of labor was not equal to Bird’s.