3 Elements of a Claim for Unjust Enrichment

Under Colorado law, a claim for unjust enrichment has three elements:

  1. The defendant received a benefit;
  2. At the plaintiff’s expense; and,
  3. Under circumstances that would make it unjust for the defendant to retain the benefit without commensurate compensation.

See Pulte Home Corp., Inc. v. Countryside Cmty. Ass’n, Inc., 2016 CO 64, ¶ 63. Whether a plaintiff is entitled to compensation for unjust enrichment is “a discretionary call for the district court” and requires “extensive factual findings.” Falcon Broadband, Inc. v. Banning Lewis Ranch Metro. Dist. No. 1, 2018 COA 92, ¶ 50. Because a claim for unjust enrichment is a mixture of both contract and tort law, Colorado courts occasionally treat such claims as tort claims and sometimes as contract claims. See, e.g., id. 


The great example of unjust enrichment is a painter who paints someone’s house. The painter may go out and paint the defendant’s house, thereby conferring a benefit on the defendant in the form of a new paint job. The work was performed at the painter’s expense because the painter spent money on the materials and time on painting. It may be unfair for the defendant to withhold any payment for such work because a benefit was conferred and the benefit has value.

(1) Benefit Received

In plain terms, the “benefit received” element requires that the claimant show that a benefit was somehow conferred on the defendant. This could be in terms of a service performed for the defendant or possibly goods or other property transferred to the defendant. A classic benefit used to teach unjust enrichment in law school is the painting of a house.

(2) At the Plaintiff’s Expense

In plain terms, the “plaintiff’s expense” element requires that the plaintiff show that the benefit conferred somehow cost the plaintiff something. In the house painting example, this would be shown by introducing evidence of the time spent painting and the money spent on supplies.

(3) Unjust to Retain Benefit

In plain terms, the third and final element asks whether it would be “unjust” or unfair for the benefit to be retained by the defendant without any payment. In the house painting example, the plaintiff might argue that it would be unfair that the defendant’s house is painted so nicely and the plaintiff lost out in terms of time and money.

Unjust Enrichment in Divorce Cases

Unjust enrichment and other civil claims are starting to pop up more and more in divorce cases. Millennials and other groups are starting to marry less but are nonetheless living their lives as if they were married regardless. For example, some are running businesses together, owning houses together, and even purchasing dogs and other animals together.

The law has a comprehensive scheme to deal with the dissolution of marriages but struggles to deal with situations where the parties have inextricably intertwined finances yet are unmarried. Our firm sees numerous clients where they and another person are in business together, own homes together, and act as if they are married. Although these situations sometimes give rise to a common law marriage, that is not always the case.

A claim for unjust enrichment can arise where one party tries to take advantage of the other because there are no contracts or other written documents evidencing the agreement of the parties. It is not uncommon for parties in these relationships to suddenly argue that the other person has no interest in a business or a piece of property – they were just “helping out” so to speak. These situations are complex and require special attention and expertise.

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