When Co-Owners of a House Don’t Want to Live Together Any Longer – Connecticut Real Estate Litigation
By David S. Rintoul
People buy a house, with both people as co-owners, without getting married for many reasons:
- gay couples who got together before same-sex marriage was allowed;
- engaged couples that plan to get married shortly; or
- straight couples that decided not to get married or never get around to it.
Other times, one of the partners may already own a house and a romantic partner moves in. Even if the partner moving in isn’t an official co-owner (that is, their name is not on the deed to the house), the non-owner partner may claim that the other partner promised to give them an interest in the house. The cost of Fairfield County houses gives people a big incentive to pool income and resources to make it possible to buy the best house possible, but owning property together outside marriage can cause serious legal issues.
The couple can live together for years, have children together, make varying contributions financing and upkeep of the house, such as paying a portion of the mortgage or taxes, repairing or adding on the house. One partner may work while the other is like a house wife or house husband, raising the kids and keeping the house going.
We know that all romantic relationships do not last forever. When romantic partners own a house together, or lived together for many years in a house in one of the partners’ names, what happens when the relationship breaks up? How does homeownership break up in these cases?
What To Do to Avoid A Problem
If you are a forward-thinking person, you may decide to visit a lawyer while the relationship is still strong to address the issues of what happens with the house if you break up with your partner, if one of you dies, or the house has to be sold for other reasons. For relatively small cost up front, one of ZNC’s Connecticut real estate law department can help you and your partner come up with a comprehensive agreement, the most important reason for which is to avoid the lawyers when things go bad. We will post an article shortly discussing some of the issues that should be addressed when drafting an agreement between partners who plan to buy a house together, or who have done so already.
How Do You Get Out of Joint Home Ownership When the Relationship is Over?
What if the situation hasn’t gone well? What if one partner wants out of the relationship, and wants the other out of the house? What is the situation then? Real estate litigation in Fairfield County and in Connecticut is expensive, and the emotions involved can cause even more expense.
The parties might expect that the issues would be resolved as they would in a divorce. Resolving the disposition of the house, however, will have little similarity to a divorce, either in the law or the court procedures that will be applied to resolve the dispute.
Litigation between people who own a house jointly and who no longer want to live together is some of the most contentious and legally complex litigation that arises between individuals. The emotions involved in the litigation are in some ways more intense than in divorce litigation. Did one of the partners think marriage was going to occur, and feels betrayed that it didn’t? Despite not getting married, did one partner feel he or she was making a life-long commitment? Did one of the partners have an affair, and the other partner wants to do anything he or she can to harm the other one? All these factors can create an emotional bonfire in a co-habitation breakup case and are one of the reasons this type of Connecticut real estate litigation can be so expensive.
While the cases are just as emotional as divorce cases, or more so, the courts treat such disputes as any other contract dispute between two parties. In family court, no one gets before the judge until they have met with a family relations officer, whose only job is to help the parties get past the emotional barriers to agreement and resolution of the case. The judges who hear the dispute frequently have had decades of experience overcoming these same barriers. The court procedures are set up to move the cases towards resolution even the parties want to keep the case going to serve their emotional needs.
Cases involving co-habitators breaking up, however, are handled like regular civil cases. No one meets with the parties before motions are heard. The judges who hear the cases are used to dealing with parties who are motivated primarily by economics, rather than emotion. The case management is not nearly as active as in family court. In non-family courts, the procedures are based on the assumption that the parties are motivated to resolve the cases in the most economical way, and so will move the cases forward on their own. In a co-habitation breakup, however, parties can have emotional needs that are served by not expeditiously resolving the case. The parties may feel the need to punish the other side, to not let the other “get away with it.” One may feel the need to keep the litigation going to avoid acknowledging the end of the relationship. Or, one partner may feel that he was subordinated in the relationship, and may feel the need to get the other partner to agree to his or her settlement terms, unrelated to the real economic benefits, in order to change the pattern of subordination. Litigation decisions are made on a basis other than money. Any experienced Connecticut real estate litigation attorney will tell you that litigation is a terrible way to do anything other than to get money. The cases therefore tend to get bogged down procedurally, and result in great expense to both sides. Unfortunately, many of these cases keep going until one side runs out of money to pay their attorney, and is forced to settle for whatever terms he or she can get at the time.
While these cases are emotionally fraught, they are also legally complex. The law of property division in divorce is relatively settled. How the law will be applied in a giving factual context may be complex, but the rules that will be applied are generally accepted among practitioners. The Connecticut law that applies to co-habitation breakups is not settled. Courts apply a complex mix of real estate and contract law and legal and equitable principles that varies with each case, and the judge’s personal inclinations. Some judges treat the cases as divorces, and others treat them as a regular Connecticut contract case.
Below are only some of the complex legal and factual issues these cases create under Connecticut real estate law:
- Can a co-owner force the sale of the house?
- If the house is sold, how will the proceeds be divided? If one partner put in more money, does that partner get more of the proceeds?
- Are the financial contributions of each partner repaid and then the remainder split? If so, are profits split 50-50 or in proportion to the parties’ respective financial contributions? Connecticut courts have applied each of these theories in different co-habitation break up cases.
- Does a partner who stays home and takes care of the house, or takes care of the children he or she had with the partner, does he or she have some right of ownership in the house even if he or she is not on the title to the house?
- If there was an oral promise to give half the house to the other partner, or to “take care” of the other partner, is it enforceable? If it was a promise of an interest in the real estate, does it have to be in writing (as required by a law called the statute of frauds), or do any of the exceptions to the rule that it be in writing (such as part performance of the promise), take it out of the statute of frauds?
- If one partner moves out, does he or she have the right to have the partner who stays in the house pay rent or use and occupancy? Can the one who leaves force the other to pay for property expenses?
- if one partner paid more of the down payment, was it intended as a gift, such that it doesn’t get repaid out of the sale proceeds, or was it more like an investment that get paid back before proceeds are split?
- What if the house is underwater (worth less than the mortgages on the property). How is the loss split? Equally? In proportion to the parties’ respective contributions?
- What if the parties bought a vacation home together. Is it divided in the same manner as the residence? What about an investment property?
- What if one partner owned the house when the other moved in, but the partner who moved in took over the mortgage payments?
- Are a partner’s contributions for maintenance/operating expenses (landscaping, property taxes) treated differently than contributions to capital expenses (new roof or furnace)?
- What about capital improvements, such as an addition or a new pool? Was it a gift? If not, is the partner who paid entitled to be repaid for the full amount of the cost, or just to the extent the value of the property was increased?
- What if one partner wants an addition, and the other didn’t, but agreed to it because the other partner wanted it? Is the partner who wanted the addition entitled to be repaid for it even though the other partner didn’t want it?
- Neither partner wants to live together, but each of them want remain in the house without the other. Who has the right to stay? What if one partner alleges abuse and calls the police? What happens then?
- What if one partner trashes the house before leaving. Is the partner liable for the damage?
- What if one partner pays the other’s credit card bills or other debts. Does that figure into the division of the proceeds of a house sale?
- What if one partner helped the other in his or her business. Is the partner entitled to some share of the business as well?
All of these situations have arisen in co-habitation break-up cases handled by ZNC’s Connecticut real estate litigation lawyers. It is only a sample of some of the issues that can arise in these cases. And, this list doesn’t include any of the myriad issues that can arise when the couple has minor children, which adds an element of complexity and further expense.
If you do not yet own property with another person, we hope this article will encourage you to contact an experienced Connecticut real estate lawyer to draft an agreement to resolve this issues before a relationship becomes contentious. It is a vastly less expensive alternative to Connecticut real estate litigation. Co-habitation break up cases involve all the emotion of a divorce, and all the legal complexity of commercial litigation. Any Connecticut real estate litigation attorney you hire to resolve these needs to be experienced in handling this complex mix of raw emotion and technical legal principles to reach the best result for you in the most cost-effective manner possible. We are happy to discuss with you any questions you may have regarding these matters.