Involuntary Partition by Spouses for Homestead Property
January 7, 2014 § 2 Comments
Mississippi law provides, essentially, two avenues by which parties who share joint interests in real property may effect a partition of their interests: (1) the property interests may be divided by decree of a chancery court per MCA 11-21-3; or (2) the parties may reach a signed agreement, per MCA 11-21-1.
In 2009, the Mississippi legislature amended MCA 11-21-1, the voluntary agreement provision, to add the following language:
(2) Homestead property exempted from execution that is owned by spouses shall be subject to partition pursuant to the provisions of this section only, and not otherwise.
I think most practitioners read that language to mean that, unless the spouses agreed, there could be no partition of homestead property by partition action between them. Whether that interpretation is correct was the subject of a recent MSSC decision.
Elise Noone filed a complaint for divorce charging her husband, Frank, with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. The chancellor denied the divorce in 2011. The parties were joint tenants with right of survivorship in some 67 acres of land in Copiah County, upon which they claimed homstead. Since the divorce was denied, the property remained in joint ownership.
Elise then filed an action for declaratory judgment to determine whether the chancellor had the power to partition the property, or, at least, to the extent that the value of the property exceeded the $75,000 maximum amount of the homestead exemption, and, if so, asking the court to make a partition of the property. She then filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the language “exempted from execution” in MCA 11-21-1(2) limited application of the statute to the value of the property exempt from execution only. Frank countered that the language is not limiting, but intends that any homsetead property can be subject to partition only by agreement, and not otherwise.
The chancellor agreed with Frank, and Elise appealed.
The MSSC handed down its decision on December 12, 2013, in Noone v. Noone, Justice Coleman writing, for a unanimous court, explained:
¶7. Elise maintains that, by using the phrase “homestead property exempted from execution,” the Legislature meant specifically to incorporate Section 85-3-21, the homestead exemption statute. Section 85-3-21 allows one to hold up to $75,000 worth of his or her homestead property exempt from execution by creditors. Miss. Code Ann. § 85-3-21 (Rev. 2011). Creditors can access the value of homestead exempted property that exceeds $75,000. Id. Elise’s primary argument is that Section 11-21-1(2) applies only to the extent that the property is actually exempt from execution. In other words, she contends that the law applies the same way to spouses seeking to partition land by decree as to creditors – the law creates a limit on homestead property exempt from execution, and that limit is applicable in all situations where homestead property is invoked. If she were correct, because the Noones’ property is valued at more than $600,000, Elise would still be able to partition the large majority of the property.
¶8. The issue, in the narrowest sense, is the interpretation of the phrase “homestead property exempted from execution.” Miss. Code Ann. § 11-21-1(2) (Supp. 2013). When the meaning of a statute is plain and unambiguous, “the court should simply apply the statute according to its plain meaning and should not use principles of statutory construction.” City of Natchez, Miss. v. Sullivan, 612 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Miss. 1992) (citations omitted). The potential meanings of “homestead property exempted from execution” are two: (1) the phrase could mean that the entire homestead property is under the ambit of Section 11-21-1, and therefore partition must be by written agreement of the owners; or (2) the phrase could mean that Section 11-21-1 applies only to the $75,000 that is exempt from execution by creditors under Section 85-3-21.
¶9. If the interpretation of that phrase were a true matter of first impression for the Court, then the latter reading might be plausible. However, in similar contexts, the Court has restricted the meaning of “homestead property exempted from execution” to the former. See Hendry v. Hendry, 300 So. 2d 147, 148 (Miss. 1974) (“Homestead value is relevant only in considering the claims of creditors in relation to the homestead upon which exemption is claimed.”); accord Stockett v. Stockett, 337 So. 2d 1237, 1240 (Miss. 1976). Hendry and Stockett have foreclosed any ambiguity. Therefore, in the instant case, the Court is tasked with nothing more than applying the logic underlying Hendry and Stockett.
¶10. In Hendry v. Hendry, a husband sold homestead property without obtaining his wife’s approval. Hendry, 300 So. 2d at 148. Pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 89-1-29 (Rev. 2011), a conveyance so made cannot be upheld. Section 89-1-29 provides, generally, that a conveyance of a “homestead exempted from execution” is not valid or binding unless signed by the owner’s spouse. Id. The Hendry Court held the value limitation on homestead property relevant only to creditors. Hendry, 300 So. 2d at 149. Therefore, the law voided the entire conveyance – not just the portion subject to exemption from creditors. Id.
¶11. The Stockett Court discussed the issue even more explicitly. Stockett, 337 So. 2d at 1239-41. In Stockett, the decedent left all of his property equally to his wife and son. Id. at 1238. The son tried to partition the homestead property of the widow (formerly owned by the decedent) but was denied because of Mississippi Code Section 91-1-23, which limits a devisee’s right to partition a decedent’s “exempt property” occupied by the widow of the deceased. Id. The decedent’s son argued that Section 91-1-23 protected the property only to the extent the value equaled the amount exempt from execution. Stockett, 337 So. 2d at 1239. The Court disagreed, holding that the limit found in Section 85-3-21 protects creditors, while Section 91-1-23 protects widows. Id. at 1240-41; see Miss. Code Ann. §91-1-23 (Rev. 2013). The Stockett Court wrote:
We have not varied in this interpretation of these statutes since 1905 when we said, in Moody v. Moody, 86 Miss. 323, 38 So. 322[, 323 (1905)]: “The limit of value placed by law on the amount of land which can be held as exempt is solely for the protection and benefit of creditors-to prevent unreasonable amounts from being held exempt from execution to the prejudice of those to whom just debts might be due. But the question of value has no place in a consideration of the rights of the surviving widow to the use and occupancy of the homestead. . . .”
Stockett, 337 So. 2d at 1240.
¶12. Both Section 91-1-23 and Section 11-21-1 invoke the exemption from creditors found in Section 85-3-21. However, the reasoning employed by the Stockett Court applies to the case sub judice. Just as Section 91-1-23 protects widows from involuntary partition, Section 11-21-1 protects spouses from involuntary partition. Neither statute protects creditors. The phrase “homestead property exempt from execution” serves as a descriptive phrase identifying the property that one (or, in the instant case, a married couple) inhabits. As shown above, we repeatedly have held that the Legislature’s decision to use the phrase “homestead property exempt from execution” in other statutes identifies the specific type of property that the Legislature wants to protect. The phrase is not, as Elise argues, intended to bring the specific limitations on creditors’ rights to other, unrelated statutes.
That’s a pretty definitive decision. The statute is to be read as protective of spouses, and any interpretation that conflicts with that intent will be rejected.