As a real estate partition attorney in California, the most common question we receive is whether a co-owner has a right to partition a property by sale, meaning a court-ordered sale of the entire property to the highest buyer after the property is marketed to third parties.
California law is clear that the right to file a partition action requesting property be sold is available to any co-owner of real property, known in the law as a co-tenant (tenant-in-common or joint-tenant), is absolute.
One case explained that: “The action for partition may be brought by one or more of the persons described in section 752 of the Code of Civil Procedure. It is a special proceeding regulated by the provisions of the statute and ordinarily, if the party seeking partition is shown to be a tenant in common, and as such entitled to the possession of the land sought to be partitioned, the right is absolute.” Bacon v. Wahrhaftig (1950) 97 Cal.App. 2d 599, 603.
Yet another case set forth that: “Ordinarily, if the party seeking partition is shown to be a tenant in common, and as such entitled to the possession of the land sought to be partitioned, the right to partition is absolute, and cannot be denied, ‘either because of any supposed difficulty, nor on the suggestion that the interest of the cotenants will be promoted by refusing the application or temporarily postponing action, . . .’” Priddel v. Shankie (1945) 69 Cal.App. 2d 319, 325.
One treatise on California law explains the issue as follows: “Ordinarily, therefore, if a party seeking partition is shown to be a tenant in common or a joint tenant, the right [to partition] is absolute and cannot be denied, either because of any supposed difficulty or on the suggestion that the interests of the cotenants will be promoted by refusing the application or temporarily postponing the action. The only indispensable requirement is that a clear title be shown, and in no event is a partition to be denied because it might result in financial loss to the cotenants.” 48 Ca Jur Partition § 36.
This is because Code of Civil Procedure Section 872.710(a) provides that: “At the trial, the court shall determine whether the plaintiff has the right to partition.” Code of Civil Procedure Section 872.710(b) goes on to explain that “partition as to concurrent interests in the property shall be as of right unless barred by a valid waiver.” Such concurrent interests include joint tenants and tenants-in-common, i.e. co-owners of real estate.
Even the leading treatise on California real estate law, Miller & Starr, explains under the heading “Absolute right to partition” that “each cotenant has an ‘absolute’ right to partition the common property.” Right of partition—In general, 4 Cal. Real Est. § 11:14 (4th ed.). While there are very unusual cases in which the right to partition had been waived or otherwise, these cases are so far outside the fact pattern of virtually all co-owners of real estate in California that these strengthen, rather than undermine, that the right to partition is absolute.
This means that the right to partition does not depend upon the fractional interest of the co-tenant. For example, a co-tenant holding only a small fractional interest could file a partition action. One reason the law allows this is that it may be very hard, if not impossible, to market a fractional ownership of real estate, as few parties will be interested in becoming a co-owner with the remaining co-owner(s).
Moreover, the right to partition does not require infighting among the co-owners. For example, an ex-husband can file a partition action even if he has an entirely-amicable relationship with his ex-wife, so long as they are co-owners of the property. Generally, partition actions involve parties who are or were very close, such as family (or former family), intimate partners (or formerly-intimate partners), and close friends (or formerly close friends). Indeed, parties would rarely end up as co-owners unless they did so voluntarily, based on trust existing at the time, or involuntarily, based on a trust, will, divorce decree or otherwise creating the co-ownership.
Further, the right to partition does not depend upon the hardship that a partition may cause to the tenant-in-possession (co-owner-in-possession). For example, an ex-wife can file a partition action that may cause the sale of the house occupied by her ex-husband, a co-owner of the property, even if the ex-husband may have no where else to live. One reason for this is that the ex-husband is welcome to be the highest bidder for the property. To the extent the tenant-in-possession is not the highest bidder, the tenant-out-of-possession should not receive diminished profits from the sale because of the hardship it may cause the tenant-in-possession, who can only offer a diminished sum. To prevent problems caused by a tenant-in-possession who would prefer that the property not be marketed for sale, an experienced partition attorney should request that the court take appropriate action if the tenant-in-possession fails to fully cooperate with an orderly sale of the property.
There are many ways to become a co-owner of real estate, but unless all co-owners agree to sell, there is only one remedy under the law: a complaint for partition by sale. To ensure that a partition action proceeds smoothly given the unique complications in every case, co-owners should seek the advice of an experienced partition attorney in California.