Testimony on Property Value in Partition Cases (Evid. Code Section 813)

underwood-testimony-property-value-partition-cases-300x300The estimated value of a piece of property can be important for resolving several types of legal disputes. It is crucial when a property owner needs to establish damages when the government interferes with the owner’s property and diminishes its value. Spouses may wish to testify regarding the value of their marital property when it is divided during divorce proceedings. A property owner may also want to testify as to their property’s value to contest a bank’s foreclosure on the property.

Testimony regarding a property’s estimated value can also be important during partition proceedings: when one or more co-owners of a property want to sell their property interest a question arises under the Partition of Real Property Act as to the Property’s value. As such, determining who can answer that question becomes of critical importance.

Normally, who can testify as to a property’s value?

Under the law, there are generally only two types of testimony. Percipient testimony by a lay witness can consist only of something that someone experienced with their five senses. (Evid. Code § 170.) In other words, almost every witness is limited to testifying to what they saw, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted. This is because a witness’s testimony is limited to their “personal knowledge.” (Evid. Code § 702; People v. Valencia (2006) 146 Cal.App.4th 92, 103-104.) 

Outside of these boundaries, most testimony is considered to be “expert witness” testimony. Experts possess certain qualifications that permit them to provide their “opinion” testimony not based on their personal knowledge. (Evid. Code § 801.) As such, expert witness testimony need not be based on personal observations, but instead they can provide their opinion when based on any reliable matter (whether admissible or not) that may reasonably be used in forming opinions. (People v. McAlpin (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1289, 1308.) 

California Evidence Code section 813 sets forth who is allowed to give testimony or other evidence about the value of real property. It may be provided by “[w]itnesses qualified to express such opinions,” the property’s owner or the owner’s spouse, or certain officers and employees of a business entity when the property in question is owned by the business entity. (Evid. Code § 813(a)(1) – (3).) 

Is a property owner’s testimony regarding value “expert” testimony?

Property owners’ testimony regarding the value of their property is permitted “even though [they] [are] not qualified as a valuation expert.” (Hansford v. Lassar (1975) 53 Cal.App.3d 364, 376 (overturned on other grounds due to legislative action Cal. Civil Code § 3439.02.) This is also supported by Section 813, which lists “[t]he owner or the spouse of the owner of the property or property interest being valued” as a category of persons allowed to give opinions on the value of property. The statute also separately lists “[w]itnesses qualified to express such opinions,” demonstrating that property owners are in their own class as non-experts who may testify as to the value of their property. 

Similarly, if there is a dispute between the parties regarding the “highest and best use” of the property, the owner may testify as to the property’s fitness for a particular use. (Red Mountain, LLC v. Fallbrook Public Utility Dist. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 333, 358.)

Alternatively a witness who owns similar property in the same general area as the subject property is not qualified to provide an opinion on the subject property’s value if the witness is not familiar with the subject property or with sales of similar properties in the subject property’s vicinity. (People v. McReynolds (1939) 31 Cal.App.2d 219, 225-226.) 

Nevertheless, a property owner may retain a real estate expert or appraiser to provide expert testimony regarding their property’s value. This form of expert testimony may bolster an owner’s conclusion regarding the value of their property. For example, in Young v. Redman, both a property owner and the owner’s expert land appraiser testified to a certain value of the owner’s land. (Young v. Redman (1976) 55 Cal.App.3d 827, 833.) The court held that the testimony of the owner and the appraiser, “both independently and taken together, constitutes substantial evidence” to support the conclusion as to the value of the property. 

What are the limits on a property owner’s testimony?

Even though a property owner may testify as to their property’s value, they must provide foundation for their opinion. (Jones v. Wachovia Bank (2014) 230 Cal.App.4th 935, 950-951.) In Jones, a property owner contesting the foreclosure on his property testified that the foreclosure sale price of his home was substantially below market value. The court upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude the property owner’s testimony. 

The court stated that ownership alone does not satisfy the foundation requirement. (Id.) The court cited Evidence Code section 814, which lays out the requirements for foundation: the opinion must be “based on information ‘of a type that reasonably may be relied upon by an expert in forming an opinion as to the value of the property.’” (Jones, 230 Cal.App.4th at 951 (quoting Evid. Code § 814.)

However, if the party opposing the owner’s valuation testimony does not object to the testimony or cross-examine the owner at trial, the party cannot attack the testimony on appeal. (In re Marriage of Hargrave (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 346, 352.) A testifying owner should still provide some basis for their valuation, though, because the opposing party will certainly object to the testimony if the owner provides no details supporting their valuation.

How can the attorneys at Underwood Law Firm, P.C. Help?

Courts have not directly considered whether a co-owner may testify as to the value of their property in a partition context. But Evidence Code section 813 is clear: property owners – and their spouses – may provide opinion testimony regarding the value of their property or their interest in property. Section 814, however, does require that testifying owners provide foundation for their opinion. 

If you are involved in partition proceedings or are considering initiating a partition suit, it is important that you understand how your property’s value will be established. The knowledgeable and dedicated attorneys at Underwood Law Firm, P.C. can help you ensure the value of your property interest is properly established. 

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