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Messner v. County of Union

Decided: February 20, 1961.

WILLIAM A. MESSNER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
COUNTY OF UNION, NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Schettino. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Schettino, J.

Schettino

Appeal is from a Superior Court, Law Division judgment denying plaintiff's motion and granting defendant's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff had instituted suit for the return of certain moneys paid to defendant by plaintiff for the support of plaintiff's former wife. Before the appeal was heard by the Appellate Division, we certified it on our own motion.

In 1941 a Union County court committed plaintiff's wife to the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane at Marlboro. The court ordered plaintiff to pay defendant for the cost of her maintenance at the state hospital. The transcript

of the hearing contains plaintiff's agreement to pay for his wife's support.

Plaintiff was granted an absolute divorce decree on April 16, 1947 on the ground that the wife had deserted him in December 1938. Plaintiff continued to pay defendant for the support of his ex-wife until January 1959. In February 1959 plaintiff was advised by counsel to stop paying and finally obtained, on November 6, 1959, an order vacating the 1941 order of support. In 1960 defendant moved to vacate the November 1959 order. After argument and upon defendant's consent, defendant's motion was dismissed with prejudice.

On December 21, 1959 plaintiff brought this action seeking to recover from defendant what he had paid during the twelve years since his April 1947 judgment of divorce. Plaintiff contends that defendant was not entitled to the support payments since that date because the divorce judgment terminated the marital status and thus relieved plaintiff of liability for his former wife's maintenance and that defendant by its monthly billings to plaintiff had misinformed plaintiff as to plaintiff's obligation to support his former wife.

Defendant resisted repayment alleging that the payments were voluntary, that plaintiff was guilty of laches and delay in seeking relief and that defendant, having used the payments for welfare expenditures, had made no provision for repayment in the budgets over the years.

Plaintiff claims that the payments made after his divorce judgment were based upon his erroneous assumption that his obligation to support his former wife continued and that therefore he is entitled to recover. Admittedly, plaintiff knew all the facts necessary to establish the termination of his obligation although he did not understand the legal implications of these facts.

Plaintiff's contention runs contrary to the settled principle of law that where an individual under a mistake of law, but with full knowledge of the facts, voluntarily pays money on a demand not legally enforceable against him, he

cannot recover it in the absence of unjust enrichment, fraud, duress or improper conduct on the part of the payee. Hnath v. Hnath, 47 N.J. Super. 461, 468 (App. Div. 1957); Wildwood Trust Co. v. DeCorrevant, 20 N.J. Super. 559, 564 (Ch. Div. 1952); Buschbaum v. Barron, 1 N.J. Super. 4, 7 (App. Div. 1948); Sutton v. Metropolitan Cas. Ins. Co. of New York, 117 N.J.L. 21, 22 (Sup. Ct. 1936); Hochman v. Ziglers, Inc., 139 N.J. Eq. 139, 142 (Ch. 1946); 40 Am. Jur. Payment § 205; 70 C.J.S. Payment § 156.

Running through the mistake-of-law cases is the theme of conscience and morals as distinguished from legal obligations. For example, in Ruppel v. Kissel, 74 S.W. 220, 24 Ky. L. Rep. 2371 (Ct. App. 1903), a husband and wife executed a promissory note to plaintiff for $1,000. Subsequently the husband died and the widow paid $600 on account. She became insane and suit was filed against her representative for the balance. A counterclaim was filed for the return of the $600 on the ground that, as she was a married woman at the time she executed the note, it was void as to her. Judgment in her favor was entered. The Court of Appeals agreed with ...


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