Santa Ana Partition Lawyers

Santa Ana is the county seat of Orange County, was founded in 1869 and is now the fourth densest city in the country. Santa Ana is the second most populous city in Orange County, the 13th most populous city in California, and the 64th densest city in the United States. As a residential community, Santa Ana residents often own property jointly with another. When such relationships become unfavorable, a partition action may be the legal remedy needed to end all disputes. A Santa Ana Partition Lawyer often find partition actions to be best suited for disputing joint owners in the following categories:

  • Split home dispute;
  • Brother-Sister home dispute;
  • Investor-Investor house dispute; and
  • Girlfriend-Boyfriend home dispute
What Is a Partition Action in California?

Partitions are lawsuits that split up the property between multiple co-owners so that each can take their equity out of the home. The prototypical partition are between siblings, former romantic partners, or business partners. Both own parts of the property, but only one wants to end the relationship and take their money out. Partitions enable this to happen, usually ending with a court-ordered sale of the subject property. 

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. The best Santa Ana Partition Lawyer will be able to share information on this process with you.

What Are the Steps in a Partition Action?

First, a partition action is filed. A partition action can be filed if one co-owner of real property or a piece of real estate wishes to sell the property or piece of real estate in question but the other co-owners or co-tenants do not wish to sell their ownership rights. 

Second, the court may appoint a court referee to oversee the sale of the property in question. The sales procedure includes that all parties agree to the terms and conditions of the sale in writing. If the parties can not agree, as partition actions are usually very contested issues, then the referee that the court appointed may recommend terms and conditions to the court. Then the court will hold a hearing to decide whether or not to accept those terms and conditions. 

Third, in California, the property’s value will be appraised via a third party or another property appraisal with no ties to any of the parties. While this is not required in all states, it is recommended to make sure that all parties are on the same metaphorical page as to the potential sale proceeds of the property in question. 

Fourth, the referee will conduct the sale in the method most agreeable to all of the party’s goals. This can be via a public auction or a private sale. Regardless of the specific method of partition by sale, the court will determine if the sale was “fair.” If it is decided that the property’s sale proceeds had a lack of proper notice, the sale amount is not within reasonable the value of the property, or if the proceeds were unfair- the court would rule that the property will be up for sale again. 

Lastly, the court will order that the proceeds of the sale, minus any court litigated or approved offsets or costs, will be distributed equitably amongst all of the co-owners or people with interest in the property. A top Santa Ana Partition lawyer will be familiar with the process.

Can You Mediate a Partition Action?

A partition action can always be resolved informally at any time prior to the first day of trial, or entry of judgment. In fact, in numerous instances, just filing the partition itself leads the other party to seek a resolution between them. We always encourage the parties to talk throughout every phase of the process, as that can lead to the best outcomes for everyone.

From our perspective, every piece of litigation is just part of a larger “negotiation.” In any negotiation, the party who has the best leverage is usually able to achieve a more favorable outcome. The lawsuit provides the client with more leverage because they have more options available to them than without the prospect of a resolution from a judge. As such, all that a lawsuit does is provide one party with more leverage in the negotiation about how to resolve the dispute. For this reason, the best way to informally resolve a dispute is to combine discussions with active litigation, so that the matter can be quickly resolved without unnecessary expense. Throughout the process, our attorneys are in touch with our clients about their options and the prospects for informal resolution through mediation or negotiation. A knowledgeable Santa Ana Partition Attorney will be able to give you good advice on these issues.

What Are Claims for “Contribution”?

Following the sale of the property, the referee will divide the proceeds of the sale among the parties in according to amounts expended for the "common benefit."

When the sale is confirmed by the court, the court may enter an order about the proceeds of sale. Under the law, the sale proceeds must be applied in a defined order. Specifically, Code of Civil Procedure section 873.820 states that the sale proceeds go towards (a) payment of expenses of the sale, (b) payment of the other costs of partition, (c) payment of any liens on the property in priority, (d) and distribution of the remainder to the parties in proportion to their shares as determined by the court.

Generally, the last part of the priority list includes what is commonly known as an "accounting" or a determination of whether one party has contributed more than their fair share to the property in the form of taxes, improvements, or other benefits for the property. For example, if one party is a 50% owner of the property, but has paid all of the property taxes for the property, then that property owner will have a claim for the remaining 50% above their interest in the property. An experienced partition lawyer will be able to help a co-owner determine their claims to the proceeds and make these arguments to the court in an effective way. An experienced Santa Ana Partition Attorney will be intimately familiar with these matters.

A Partition Case Study: Nguyen v. Le (2023)

How may the court decide to award attorney fees and court costs among the parties to a partition action? The answer largely depends on the particular facts of the case in question. What a party claims in papers submitted to the court and evidence that attorney fees were incurred for the common benefit of the parties are factors that play key roles in the court’s decision. The following paragraphs discuss how such circumstances affected the court’s judgment in Nguyen et al. v. Le (2023) 354729.

In Nguyen, Bin Ngoc Nguyen (Nguyen) and Lien Kim Dao (Dao) (collectively, the “Plaintiffs” or “Respondents”) sued Jenny Le (Le) and Lang Dao (Lang) (collectively, the “Defendants” or “Appellants”) for partition of real property located in Santa Ana, California.

In December 1990, Le, Lang, Dao, and Nguyen (the “Parties”) took title to the property as joint tenants by grant deed. Over two decades later, in May 2011, Le and Lang divorced. Among other things, the judgment dissolving their marriage required Lang to pay Le spousal support and an equalization amount. Lang did not make the required payments.

Following the divorce, in July 2011, Le entered a cloistered Buddhist convent and took a vow of poverty. Le's counsel informed the court that Le had hired him in November 2019 to collect spousal support and the equalization payment Lang owed her, but she had agreed to forego the spousal support owed to her after June 2011. Le gave power of attorney to her son, Lance, and assigned her rights to the payments to Lance.

According to Le's counsel, the Parties had agreed in 2019 to sell the property. Court records included an unsigned listing agreement that gave a realtor the exclusive right to sell the property between January and July 2020. In March 2020, Le filed two abstracts of judgments for (1) the unpaid spousal support between 2006 and 2011, and (2) the unpaid equalization payment plus attorney fees.

On June 4, 2020, Nguyen and Dao filed a complaint against Le and Lang for partition of the real property. The four individuals were alleged to own equal shares of the property. The complaint included as an exhibit a preliminary title report dated January 22, 2020. The title report did not show Le's 2020 abstracts of judgment, as they had not yet been filed, but it did show a $100,000 deed of trust in favor of Wells Fargo. It also showed a lis pendens filed by Le in 2006 and a judgment against Lang for spousal support as of 2007.

Le's answer to the complaint asserted that Lang owed her more than $300,000 in unpaid spousal support and equalization payments. The answer included a schedule of the amounts owed. Including interest, the answer asserted that Lang owed Le a total of $345,843. Le's answer also alleged that Lang, Dao, and Nguyen had excluded her from the property and had received the benefit of its exclusive occupancy, rental, and use, for which benefit she requested compensation. Le alleged that she was entitled to Lang's share of the property because he had not made spousal support or equalization payments.

Trial for the partition action was set for February 14, 2022. When this day arrived, however, Plaintiffs Dao and Nguyen did not appear. Subsequently, the court dismissed the case pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 581.1. Le then moved for her attorney fees and costs under Code of Civil Procedure section 874.010. Specifically, Le asked for $9,371 in attorney fees attributed to the matter since November 2019. The trial court granted Le’s request for court costs but denied her request for attorney fees. The court reasoned that the fees had not been incurred for the common benefit. Le appealed.

On appeal to the California Fourth District Court of Appeal, Le argued that anything done “to get the title in the right place, to get the encroachments in the right place, to get everything prepared for sale by partition, those are all for the common benefit.” Le also argued that the trial court failed to apportion fees pursuant to the partition statutes. Civil Code of Procedure section 874.010 provides, “The costs of partition include: (a) Reasonable attorney's fees incurred or paid by a party for the common benefit.”

The Court of Appeal disagreed with Le’s argument. The Court of Appeal explained that “Whether the services are for the common benefit must be decided upon the facts and circumstances in each particular case.” (Stewart v. Abernathy (1944) 62 Cal.App.2d 429, 433.) Common benefit, however, does not extend to the “pressing of spurious matters” or advocating for a greater share of the proceeds than one is entitled to. (Forrest v. Elam (1979) 88 Cal.App.3d 164, 173-174.) It may extend to resisting spurious matters (Id. at p. 174). But it does not include activities that took place before partition entered the picture or activities intended to benefit one party over the others. (Williams v. Miranda (1958) 159 Cal.App.2d 143, 158.)

In Le’s case, the trial court had previously dismissed the action and had not ordered partition of the property, so the owners were in the same place in February 2022 with regard to the property as they had been when the complaint was filed in June 2020. Le's answer to the partition complaint asserted her individual interests. In her answer, Le alleged that she had a lien in the amount of $345,843 on the property and that the three other owners had benefited from their exclusive use of the property, for which she was entitled to additional compensation.

More importantly, the records submitted with Le's fee motion showed attorney fees billed more than six months before Nguyen and Dao filed the complaint. These records included bills for preparing and recording the abstracts of judgment against Lang for nonpayment of Le's spousal support. Le did not explain how these activities promoted the common benefit rather than herself as an individual. The time spent on efforts by counsel on remedying spousal support and equalization payment issues served only Le’s interests.

The Court pointed out that, as a cloistered Buddhist nun who had taken a vow of poverty, even Le would not have benefitted from partition by sale. As the assignee of Le’s divorce benefits, Lance would have been the beneficiary of any proceeds from the sale of the property.

Because Le made no effort to segregate the fees incurred for partition by sale from the fees that benefited her (or Lance) alone and because she asked the court to order Respondents to pay attorney fees billed starting from seven months before the partition action was filed, the Court affirmed the lower court’s denial of her motion for attorney fees. Respondents recovered costs on appeal.

How the Underwood Law Firm Can Help

As we’ve seen, in partition actions, how the court decides to award attorney fees and court costs among the parties may depend on the facts alleged in the parties’ pleadings and evidence that attorney fees were incurred for the common benefit of all the parties.

Our knowledgeable attorneys are available to help you navigate the complex web of case law and statutes surrounding partitions. As there are many different ways to waive the right of partition, you may benefit from good legal advice on the topic. If you find yourself contemplating a partition, or if you are faced with defending against a partition lawsuit, then please contact Underwood Law Firm, P.C. for an initial consultation.

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