Marin Partition Lawyers

Marin is in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Marin County is located 5 miles north of San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge. Marin is well known for its natural beauty and sites, including the Muir Woods, Marin Headlands, Stinson Beach, the Point Reyes National Seashore, and Mount Tamalpais. Marin City was home to various artists. Tupac Shakur, or 2Pac, was considered one of the most influential rappers of all time and lived in Marin City with his family in 1988. The city was also home to Harry Bowden, a famous abstract painter credited for founding the American Abstract Artists Society, George Duke, a famed music producer, and Lew Welch, an American poet associated with the Beat generation literary movement.

As a part of the San Francisco Bay Area, Marin residents often find themselves owning real property with other people they no longer wish to be entangled with. Since a person cannot be forced into maintaining ownership of property they do not want, the right of partition is absolute. When one is considering initiating a partition action, a Marin Partition Lawyer can give proper guidance on the process. Marin Partition Lawyers often find that joint ownership problems fall into four broad categories:

  • Father/Mother-Son/Daughter tenants in common in real estate;
  • Brother-Sister shared tenants in common in real estate;
  • Investor-Investor shared tenants in common in real estate; and
  • Non-Married Partners shared tenants in common in real estate;
What is a Partition Action in California?

A partition lawsuit requires real estate to be sold regardless of the requests of the other title owners. The purpose of a partition action is to permanently end all disputes and remove all obstacles to the free enjoyment of land by one person. (McGillivray v. Evans (1864) 27 Cal.92.) These types of actions can be brought for all types of real estate from houses to farms to office buildings to apartment buildings. Similarly, partition actions are available all types of ownership situations from joint tenants to tenants-in-common to partnership property to property jointly owned by former spouses.

Basically, any person who is an owner of real estate can bring a partition action in California. Code of Civil Procedure section 872.710, subdivision (a), states "A partition action may be commenced and maintained by any…owner of…such property." California Civil Code section 872.210 provides a property owner with the "absolute right to partition" absent a valid waiver. Thus, a partition action can be brought by anyone who no longer wants to own jointly owned real estate, other than spousal property.

Generally, a partition action cannot be stopped absent a valid waiver. The instances in which a court has found a valid waiver have generally involved some sort of written contract or adverse possession of property. As such, many parties try to stop a partition action through mediation, or a buy-out agreement. In most instances, the parties to a partition action can benefit from creative lawyering by those who are familiar with the different options for resolving real estate disputes.

What are the Steps in a Partition Action?

Broadly, a partition action has only relatively simple steps. First, a party files a lawsuit to establish their rights to the property and desire to sell the property. Second, the court determines that the property should be sold, and appoints an appraiser to appraise the property and offer the other owner the opportunity to buy out the interest. Third, if the other fails to do so, then the Court appoints a "partition referee" (who is frequently a licensed Realtor) to sell the property, and they market and sell the property and deposits the proceeds into a trust account. Fourth, the court determines how much each party should receive from the proceeds, which should include addressing offsets and claims for contribution in an "accounting."

What are Claims for "Contribution"?

Before the sales proceeds are distributed among the parties, a court-ordered accounting will determine the charges and credits upon each co-owner's interest. These credits are taken out of the net proceeds before the balance is divided equally. (Southern Adjustment Bureau, Inc. v. Nelson (1964) 230 Cal.App.2d 539 ("Nelson").) 

"When a cotenant makes advances from his own pocket to preserve the common estate, his investment in the property increases by the entire amount advanced. Upon sale of the estate, he is entitled to his reimbursement before the balance is equally divided." (Nelson, 230 Cal.App.2d, at p. 541, citing William v. Koyer (1914) 168 Cal.369.)

As such, a party to a partition action must produce and gather their evidence and make sure that it is presented to the court so they can receive full credit for the value that they have added to the property. While a party may have a right to these credits under the law, ultimately, they will not be counted unless they can be presented in the proper form. 

Can a Partition Action be Settled Through Mediation or Negotiation?

Generally, anyone considering filing a lawsuit should consider all of their alternatives, including an informal resolution of the problem. This can take the form of a discussion with the other owner or owners about agreeing to sell the property, negotiating with the co-owner to create a formula to divide the proceeds from the sale, or retaining a lawyer to engage in a mediation with the other owners.

Throughout the partition process, and even on the day of trial, any of the owners can make an agreement about the sale of the property. This can happen through a phone call, through negotiations between the parties' lawyers, or through a mediation session with a retired judge or trained mediator. There are many benefits from a mediation session, including confidentiality provisions contained in the law in Evidence Code sections 1115 through 1129.

Specifically, Evidence Code section 1119, subdivision (a), provides "no evidence of anything said or any admission made for the purpose of, in the course of, or pursuant to, a mediation or a mediation consultation is admissible or subject to discovery, and disclosure of the evidence shall not be compelled in any arbitration, administrative adjudication, civil action, or other noncriminal proceeding in which, pursuant to law, testimony can be compelled to be given."

A Partition Case Study: Riley v. Turpin

Partition actions often have a lot of money to keep track of, and it can sometimes be disorienting. Being caught off-guard by unexpected fees is never a pleasant feeling. One expense that people often forget about is attorneys' fees. All lawsuits can become contentious, but it is important to do one's due diligence and prepare for any possible financial obligations.

When determining how to distribute attorneys' fees under the costs of partitions, the California code of civil procedure instructs courts to include attorneys' fees in the costs of partitions if those fees were incurred or paid by a party for the "common benefit". CA CIV PRO § 874.010 (2022). The statute does not explicitly state what the "common benefit" means exactly, leaving the interpretation of the statute up to the courts. This makes analyzing case law vital when arguing on this issue.

Riley v. Turpin, 53 Cal.2d 598 (1960), is an example of what happens when a party fails to understand what courts consider when allocating attorney's fees. Though the statute may not explicitly define what the common benefit is, there is a wealth of case law that demonstrates how courts view this term in partition actions. It is important for parties to understand the legal precedent behind the common benefit standard so that their arguments do not fall flat in court.

In Riley, Turpin owned a life estate in the property at issue. (Id., at 600.) Riley and Turpin both owned contingent remainders that would be in effect depending on which one of them survived. (Id.) Riley sued for partition. (Id.) A temporary, or interlocutory, judgment was held for a partition by sale and the proceeds to be divided among the parties according to the values of their contingent remainders. (Id.)

Turpin appealed this judgment, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court of California for the first time. (Id.) The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, ordering that Turpin be given a sum equal to her life estate. (Id.) After a new hearing at the trial court, the trial court issued a new interlocutory judgment that allocated sale proceeds to Turpin based on the value of her life estate, with the remainder being paid to Riley. (Id.) The interlocutory judgment was not appealed. (Id., at 601.)

After the property was sold, the trial court awarded a total of $4,000 of attorneys' fees, which was to be allocated to the parties based on their interests in the property. (Id.) The parties' allocation proportions were to be calculated according to the trial court's interlocutory judgment ordering partition. (Id.) Riley appealed this order. (Id.) The case once again made its way to the Supreme Court of California, where the court affirmed the trial court's order. (Id.)

The main point of contention in Riley is the issue of the common benefit standard. There is much case law discussing the common benefit standard that Riley seemed to have misinterpreted or were not analogous to the case. Riley's failure to support his argument resulted in an unpersuasive case and a failed appeal.

Riley's first argument was that the services of Turpin's attorneys were not for the common benefit and so those fees should not have been allowed. (Id.) Riley argued that Turpin did not want to partition, so Turpin's attorneys' services were only for Turpin's benefit. (Id., at 602.) However, Riley's interpretation of the "common benefit" was inconsistent with previous case law, which held that attorneys' fees could be allowed even in contested partition lawsuits. (Id.) The Supreme Court of California quoted themselves from a previous case, writing:

". . . [W]e are of the opinion that the more just and equitable rule to be applied to such cases would require a proper division of the expenditures entailed in the maintenance of such actions for the common benefit among those who shall have been found to be entitled to their respective shares and interests in said property by the ultimate judgment of the court, regardless of whether or not there had arisen and been litigated controversies either over the question as to whether or not the parties to the action were cotenants or over the extent of their respective interests as such in the property . . ." (Id.)

The Court noted that there was an exception, which was when controversial litigation arose between only some of the parties rather than all of the parties. (Id.) In those cases, courts may require litigation expenses to be paid by the parties involved in the controversy. (Id.) However, this exception did not apply to this case because Riley and Turpin were the only parties in litigation and all controversies were between themselves. (Id.)

Additionally, two cases that Riley cited to support his argument were not analogous to the case. (Id., at 603.) In one case, the party seeking allowance of attorneys' fees did not have an ownership stake in the partitioned property. (Id.) In the other case, the partition lawsuit eventually changed into a different lawsuit. (Id.) The Supreme Court of California did not find those cases applicable or persuasive. (Id.)

Riley also argued that the order erroneously held that Turpin's life estate would not be a part of the lawsuit's expenses. (Id., at 604.) However, the matter of Turpin's life estate was determined in the trial court's previous interlocutory judgment. (Id.) This interlocutory judgment became final without appeal, and so was not reviewable. (Id.) In addition, Riley's own attorney prepared the findings upon which the order was based. (Id.) The Supreme Court of California held that Riley could not raise the issue of allocating attorney's fees regarding this order. (Id.)

Riley teaches that the common benefit standard of allowing attorneys' fees in partition costs can still be met in controversial litigation. It is important to remember that the plain meaning of words in statutes may not necessarily match up with a court's interpretation. In this instance, the plain meaning of the words "common benefit" is a bit different from how case law interprets those words.

Riley also demonstrates the importance of properly understanding case law. Not only did Riley argue using a misinterpretation of the common benefit standard, but he also argued using case law that was not comparable to his lawsuit. A court is unlikely to look kindly upon arguments with such weak legal backing.

How the Underwood Law Firm Can Help

As seen in Riley, partitions law is full of intricacies that can catch an unwary party off guard. Courts may have legal standards counter-intuitive to common belief, and that can make it difficult to compute exact costs. It is important for parties to understand the legal standards surrounding partitions law so that they are not caught by surprise at trial or make arguments that a court finds unpersuasive.

Here at the Underwood Law Firm, our knowledgeable attorneys are here to help navigate the complex web of case law and statutes surrounding partitions. If you are trying to plan a partition order, or just have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to our office.

Learn more here.

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