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How can I sell my inherited, co-owned property?

By From page C3 | March 16, 2013

Q: This is a little different question than what I have read in your column. When my father died, he left my sister and me some property which included a small cabin and an empty lot. Then my sister died with no will, so the property went to her husband and three kids. That means there are now five people on the title. I do not have a relationship with them but would like to put the property on the market because I can no longer afford paying the bills that go along with the two properties. I have sent letters and called and left messages on their answering machine but no response. So I am writing to you to see if there is an answer to this problem. I hope I wrote enough information for you. Thank you.

A: That’s plenty of information. And it’s a common problem.

For my entire career I’ve had to deal with properties, many of them rural, that ended up being owned by 20 or more people with varying degrees of ownership.

They came to own their interests in these properties the same way your sister’s family did, through inheritance.

Sometimes things go on like this for multiple generations, with property owners not even knowing they have an interest in some real estate somewhere.

The answer to your question is simple. Doing it is a bit more involved.

To my knowledge there are only two types of lawsuits you can’t lose: divorce and partition.

If you want to get a divorce, the judge will give it to you regardless of how your spouse feels about it. It’s the same for a real estate partition action.

As the name implies, a lawsuit for partition seeks to separate the financial interests of two or more co-owners of a piece of property.

Logistically, you file a lawsuit and sue the other owners, demanding that the property be sold and the proceeds divided.

At that point the co-owners can work together on the sale, one or more co-owners can get together to purchase just your interest, or the court will force the sale.

Those are about the only three choices.

And just like in a divorce, though the actual judgment of the court isn’t in question, the arguments will be over the amount of money each co-owner gets from the sale.

The costs of the sale are paid off the top. So your Realtor and any closing costs get paid by everybody.

Then comes what I’ve always thought was an oddity in the law.

The lawyer for the co-owner who files the lawsuit gets paid from the sale proceeds.

The theory is that the lawsuit was filed for the good of all the owners and therefore the co-owner who files the suit shouldn’t have to pay his lawyer all by himself. Instead, it should come out of the sale proceeds.

That’s always sounded odd to me, but it is what it is.

Regarding who gets how much, this is where you’ll want to have saved all the documentation for anything you’ve paid to maintain the property.

For example, if you’ve made mortgage payment, tax payments, maintenance, etc. for which you paid more than your fair share, you will be entitled to offsets which can help get you reimbursed from the sales proceeds.

The process isn’t hard, but it is technical and involves most of the same rules and procedures as any superior court lawsuit.

Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at [email protected]

Tim Jones


Discussion | 2 comments

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  • LilMarch 16, 2013 - 8:22 am

    How did they get put on the deed? I thought in California if somebody on a deed died, the surviving person on the deed inherited the entire property?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksMarch 16, 2013 - 8:48 am

    Lil, the sister died after having been willed the property, so that portion of ownership stayed with her family. Hope they can work this out.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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