Failed Deeds in Contemplation of Marriage

underwood-failed-deeds-contemplation-marriage-300x300It is an unfortunate fact that many marriages don’t make it out of the engagement stage. While this can be a difficult time for all involved, the situation can only become more dire when real property is involved.

Commonly, one owner of real property will add their partner to the house’s title shortly before the marriage occurs. Usually, they do this because they are under the impression that the marriage is about to happen. But when the partner calls the marriage off, the property owner is now faced with the problem of title. Under the law, the former partner is now an owner of the property.

In these instances, Civil Code section 1590 allows for the property owner to recover their title, although this will usually require filing a quiet title lawsuit. However, quiet title law can be difficult to understand, and in addition, litigants will need to take care not to blow the applicable statute of limitations. 

In these situations, the right lawyer can make all the difference. At Underwood Law Firm, our attorneys are well-versed in quiet title actions and partitions as they relate to co-ownership disputes. If you’ve found yourself in one of these situations, please do not hesitate to reach out to our office.

Can you recover a gift made in reliance on the promise of marriage?

Yes, subject to a few key legal issues of procedure. Under Civil Code section 1590, “where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the done refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated, or that it is given up by mutual consent, the donor may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.” 

This statute can be tricky to decipher, as there are certain aspects of the rule that are not immediately obvious. 

First, note that the statute contemplates recovery of a “gift.” And a gift is a “transfer of property without consideration.” (Shaw v. Shaw (1964) 227 Cal.App.2d 159, 163.) In other words, a gift is something given without any expectation of a return payment or service. This can be a difficult condition to satisfy by proof in court. 

Second, there is a question of what it means for the “donee [to] refuse to enter into the marriage as contemplated.” Does this require a definitive statement? No. “The breach of a marriage contract may be shown by any words or conduct, although there is neither verbal nor written refusal to marry.” (Simonian v. Donoian (1950) 96 Cal.App.2d 259, 261.)

Is there a time limit on when marital gift property can be recovered?

Yes and no. Technically speaking, “section 1590 contains no time limitations.” (Shaw, 227 Cal.App.2d at 165.) So, for instance, suppose a boyfriend gives the gift of a ring to girlfriend. Girlfriend refuses to marry as promised some years down the line. That the gift was made years ago isn’t an issue. 

However, this changes where the gift is of real property. A common theme of 1590 cases and their ilk is that one party already owns property. When their partner initially agrees to marry, the owner adds them to title, usually by executing a gift deed. 

But what happens when the promise of marriage broken? It isn’t as simple as recovering a ring, or pet, or other item of personal property because the partner’s name is on the title. In the eyes of the law, they are an owner. As such, the original owner of the property must clear the title to the property, and they can do this by filing a lawsuit to quiet title. Of course, quiet title actions contain a statute of limitations, meaning they must be filed in a certain time frame. 

What is the statute of limitations for quiet title?

As if 1590 issues were not already complicated enough, the presence of a quiet title action can make things even more confusing. As stated, quiet title suits are subject to a statute of limitations. But quiet title actions are unique because their statute of limitations actually shift around. 

This is because quiet title suits do not have their own, set limitations period. Instead, the period that governs depends on why the quiet title action is being brought. So, for example, take the initial premise of one partner being added to the title in contemplation of marriage. 

Now suppose that partner secretly harbored the intent to never really follow through on the promise. All they wanted to do was get in and get out of the relationship with as much money and property as possible. That sounds like fraud. Thus, when the original owner sues to quiet title, the limitations period is the fraud limitations period, which is three years. (Salazar v. Thomas (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 467, 476.)

The limitations period can get all the way up to five years even, with the right underlying claim for quieting title. 

When does the quiet title statute of limitations begin to run with failed gifts in contemplation of marriage?

The last aspect of recovering property given in contemplation of a marriage that failed is a concept called “tolling.” Tolling is the legal way of saying that the statute of limitations stops running. 

For quiet title actions, the rule is simple. “No statute of limitations runs against a plaintiff seeking to quiet title while he is in possession.” (Muktarian v. Barmby (1965) 63 Cal.2d 558, 560.) 

Reuter v. Macal is an apt example of this principle in play. ((2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 571.) There, a 64-year-old man (Reuter) and 45-year-old woman (Macal) began a relationship. Eventually, Macal agreed to marry Reuter. As a gift, Reuter added her onto title at his condo. Years later, their relationship fell apart in 2011. But it wasn’t until 2018 that Reuter filed a quiet title suit. 

The appellate court held that even though Reuter knew the marriage would not happen for seven years before filing suit, his action was not barred by the statute of limitations. Instead, it was tolled because he remained in continuous possession of the condo for all that time. 

How the Lawyers at Underwood Law Firm Can Help

A promised marriage falling apart is already difficult enough to handle for most people. But add in a title dispute with an ex and the situation suddenly becomes quite the legal quagmire. For the inexperienced litigant, the next steps might seem impossible to determine. Fortunately, the lawyers at the Underwood Law Firm specialize in partition actions and solving the difficult problems that can accompany them. If you have found yourself in one of these situations, then please do not hesitate to contact us today, or learn more here.


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