In a decision released this week, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld a ruling by the trial court that the court did not have authority to allow one member of an unmarried couple to buy out the other in order to separate their interests in a jointly held home — a solution routinely applied in divorce cases.
Dean Fusco and Robbin Austin had been in an almost 40 year relationship and for many years had shared a home that they had purchased together. When they broke up, Dean moved out of the home they had owned together for about 23 years and Robbin remained in the house but ultimately, like many estranged couples, they were unable to see eye-to-eye on a fair way of dividing their possessions including the equity in their house.
Since they were not married, Dean and Robbin could not take advantage of the relatively short process of divorce which typically takes between 5 and 12 months to accomplish except in the most hotly contested cases. Instead, they were relegated to the ordinary civil docket which often moves even more slowly. In order to receive his share of equity in the house, Dean had to file an action for partition — a procedure designed to separate joint ownership in real estate.
Not only is the procedure more cumbersome and, in most cases, more drawn out than divorce litigation, the remedies available are also limited.
Because Robbin was living in the home and wanted to remain there, she asked the court simply to determine what the house was worth and to award Dean his share based on the evidence of what he had contributed over the years both financially and in labor and management. That was, after all, what any divorce court could do and probably would if the parties were already separated.
The court said no. Historically, partition in Connecticut can have only two results. One is called ‘partition in kind’ . That means the property is literally divided up and each party walks away owning his or her part of the whole. That may work fine with open land or a farm, but can hardly work in a single family home.
The other option is ‘partition by sale’. This is used when the nature of the property doesn’t lend itself to a line drawn in the sand. So, because this was a single family home, that is what the court ordered.
Robin, who didn’t want her house sold, appealed the trial court’s decision.
There is a statute she pointed to that does allow the court to order one party the option of buying out the other even when they are not married and must go the partition route.
The statute did not apply here. The problem, according to the Appellate Court who denied the appeal, was that this third option only applies in a small class of cases in which the party to be bought out has an interest deemed to be “minimal”.
Even though Dean had contributed less than Robbin financially, he had worked on the house over the years and the trial court had not considered his interest to be minimal.
The lesson of this case is not that anyone considering buying a house with a significant other outside of marriage or civil union should marry. The lesson is that partners in real estate purchases, whether or not they are in love, need to have a clear written agreement about how their interests will be determined in the event that their partnership some day ends.