Oops … and a Further Oops in a Partition Suit

June 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

Sometimes in the euphoria of settlement, when the bright sunlight of concord and goodwill seems to dispel the gray clouds of discord and conflict, in our optimistic pursuit of a written agreement, we lose sight of the details, where devilment always lurks, and out of that inattention things can come dizzyingly unravelled, and then totally unhinged in a most discombobulating way.

That’s more or less what happened at the trial level in the case of Powell v. Gregory, decided by the COA on May 14, 2013.  

Siblings Julia Powell, Mary Margaret Gregory, and Bennie Evans believed that they owned a “forty” that had been their parents’ property, and which they came to own via heirship. The “forty” actually consisted of 37.98 acres, or so they thought.

Julia had acquired fee simple title to 2.02 acres from her parents, located in the NW corner of the “forty,” where a home she occupied was located.

The three could not agree on how to divide the property, so the sisters sued Bennie, asking for partition in kind of the surface acreage only.

After suit was filed, the siblings learned that what they thought was a “short forty” of some 38 acres was actually a “long forty” of 47.64 acres, nearly ten acres more than they had anticipated.

[Author’s note: Notice how what everybody believes to be true keeps turning out not to be so?]

After some negotiation, the parties presented the chancellor with an agreed judgment that included the words, “This is a final judgment” (Note: for the uninitiated, that language is required by local rule in that district in any judgment finally adjudicating the ultimate issue). The judgment had attached a county ownership plat showing the general designation of division, with Julia and Mary Margaret to receive 5.94 acres each, and Bennie to receive the remaining 35.64 acres. The parties agreed also to division of taxes and survey expenses. Excepted from the agreement would be Julia’s separate two-acre tract.

The chancellor signed the agreed judgment. No one appealed.

When the surveyor went out, he discovered that Julia’s house was actually 20 feet west of the western border of her “excepted property,” amidst the “heir property,” and not located on her excepted parcel. Julia refused honor the agreement. A year after the original agreed judgment was entered, Mary Margaret filed an action for contempt, and Julia in response filed for relief under MRCP 60(b)(6).

The chancellor ruled that the original agreed judgment was contractual and enforceable. He ordered that the description to Julia’s 2.02 acres be amended by deed to be where she said it was, and directed that the remaining acreage be divided among the three by acreage as originally agreed. He denied Mary Margaret’s request to hold Julia in contempt. Julia filed a battery of motions under R59(a), 59(e) and 60, all of which were overruled. She appealed.

So, did the COA’s decision finally untangle the knot? Well, in a word, no.

Judge Fair’s opinion indicates that the court would have liked to, but for one dispositively complicating factor: 

¶20. Based on the record before us, the chancellor would have been within his discretion in interpreting the intent of the parties in the agreed final judgment and fashioning a remedy to carry out that intent. However, we must reverse the second final judgment because of the issue of necessary parties. On November 4, 2010, Belissa, Julia’s daughter, recorded a warranty deed from Julia to herself dated November 3, with a description almost (because of what Julia claimed was a scrivener’s error creating a description that does not “close”) exactly matching that of the two acres described in her mother’s deed. So far as the record reveals, the court was not informed of the existence of Belissa’s deed until it was submitted into evidence at the hearing two months later.

So with a couple more runaway cars added to the trainwreck, back the parties go, now to bring Belissa aboard for Round Three of their unhappy saga that began more than five years ago with that hapless partition complaint. Unless something new is injected, my guess is that the outcome at ground level will be pretty much the same this next go-round as it has been up to now.

Clients always seem to be in such sure command of their facts, even when they have no legitimate basis therefor. When you take what they say at face value, especially in a matter as detail-and-fact dependent as a property case, you get what you pay for, so to speak.

PARTITION: BY SALE OR IN KIND?

February 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

Partition is the legal mechanism in Mississippi for dividing joint owners’ interests in real property when they can not otherwise agree to do so. The partition statute is MCA § 11-21-1, et seq.

It seems from where I sit that almost all partition cases come before the court with near-unanimous agreement among the parties that, if the property must be divided, sale will be the most advantageous method.

Even in contested cases, the prevailing view appears to be that the property should be divided by sale. That is not the law in Mississippi, however. Partition in kind is the favored method of division.

In the case of Fuller v. Chimento, 824 So.2d 599, 601-2 (Miss. 2002), the Mississippi Supreme Court laid out the law on the subject:

A partition in kind is the preferred method of partition of property under Mississippi law. Overstreet v. Overstreet, 692 So.2d 88, 91 (Miss.1997); Shaw v. Shaw, 603 So.2d 287, 290 (Miss.1992); Unknown Heirs at Law of Blair v. Blair, 601 So.2d 848, 850 (Miss.1992); Monaghan v. Wagner, 487 So.2d 815, 820 (Miss.1986); Bailey v. Vaughn, 375 So.2d 1054, 1057 (Miss.1979); Mathis v. Quick, 271 So.2d 924, 926 (Miss.1973); Dailey v. Houston, 246 Miss. 667, 151 So.2d 919, 926 (1963); Carter v. Ford, 241 Miss. 511, 130 So.2d 852, 854 (1961); Blake v. St. Catherine Gravel Co., 218 Miss. 713, 67 So.2d 712, 714 (1953); Hilbun v. Hilbun, 134 Miss. 235, 98 So. 593, 594 (1924); Shorter v. Lesser, 98 Miss. 706, 54 So. 155, 156 (1911); Smith v. Stansel, 93 Miss. 69, 46 So. 538, 539 (1908). See also 7 Jeffrey Jackson & Mary Miller, Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 60:99, at 56 (2001).

The propriety of a partition sale or partition in kind is determined on a case-by-case basis. Wight v. Ingram-Day Lumber Co., 195 Miss. 823, 17 So.2d 196, 197 (1944). To justify a partition by sale, the party seeking the sale must bring his case squarely within Miss. Code Ann. § 11-21-11 (Supp.2001) which states in pertinent part that

If, upon hearing, the court be of the opinion that a sale of the lands, or any part thereof, will better promote the interest of all parties than a partition in kind, or if the court be satisfied that an equal division cannot be made, it shall order a sale of the lands, or such part thereof as may be deemed proper, and a division of the proceeds among the cotenants according to their respective interests.

The use of the conjunction “or” in this statutory scheme provides for a two-prong inquiry into the propriety of a partition sale. A partition sale can be had if it will (1) “better promote the interest of all parties than a partition in kind” or (2) “if the court be satisfied that an equal division [of the land] cannot be made.” Id. See Blair, 601 So.2d at 850. See also Dantone v. Dantone, 205 Miss. 420, 38 So.2d 908, 911 (1949); Cox v. Kyle, 75 Miss. 667, 23 So. 518, 519 (1898). “Affirmative proof of at least one of these statutory requirements must affirmatively appear in the record in order for the court to decree a partition by sale.” Blair, 601 So.2d at 850. Furthermore, a court has no right to divest a cotenant landowner of title to his property by sale over his protest unless these conditions are fully met. Shorter, 54 So. at 156.

 The joint owner seeking a partition sale has the burden of proving that the land is not susceptible of partition in kind and that a sale is the only feasible method of division. Overstreet, 692 So.2d at 90-91; Hogue v. Armstrong, 159 Miss. 875, 132 So. 446, 448 (1931).

It is permissible for the court to order partition by sale as to one parcel, and partition in kind as to another. The court’s action has to be supported by the requisite proof. I urge you to read the cases to get a feel for exactly what it is you need to prove.

When you have a partition suit and your client or the other party is objecting to a division in kind, you should expect your position to fail if you do not provide adequate evidence. If you want a sale, you must put on proof how sale will better promote the interests of the parties or that the property can not be equally divided in kind. The party wanting a sale has the burden of proof. If the party wanting a sale has met his burden of proof and you want division in kind, you must put on proof contradicting that of the party wanting a sale.

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