What is a constructive trust?

Parties often request a constructive trust during estate litigation and family disputes over real property and other assets. This claim generally seeks to recover property from someone who has obtained it unfairly. 

A constructive trust is an equitable remedy “erected whenever necessary to satisfy the demands of justice” (Latham v Father Divine, 299 NY 22, 27 [1949]; see also Beatty v Guggenheim Exploration Co., 225 NY 380 [1919, Cardozo, J.]).  It may be imposed “‘[w]hen property has been acquired in such circumstances that the holder of the legal title may not in good conscience retain the beneficial interest’” (Sharp v Kosmalski, 40 NY2d 119, 121 [1976], quoting Beatty, 225 NY at 386).

There are four elements of a constructive trust: (1) a confidential or fiduciary relationship; (2) a promise; (3) a transfer in reliance of such promise; and (4) unjust enrichment (Sharp, 40 NY2d at 121).  However, these elements have been referred to as merely “factors” (Simonds v Simonds, 45 NY2d 233, 241 [1978]).

In a proper case, the court may impose a constructive trust even if all the elements are not established (see id.; Rowe v Kingston, 94 AD3d 852, 853 [2d Dept 2012]; Cruz v McAneney, 31 AD3d 54, 59 [2d Dept 2006]).  The flexibility of the claim “is limited only by the inventiveness of men [and women] who find new ways to enrich themselves unjustly by grasping what should not belong to them” (Simonds, 45 NY2d at 241 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]).


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