A partition action is a lawsuit in which a co-owner of property can force the sale of a property and have the court determine how the proceeds are divided. In some cases, instead of a sale, the court will order the property be physically divided and distributed to the co-owners. It is used when co-owners disagree. A common question asked of real estate attorneys regards whether the plaintiff can recover their attorney fees for bringing the action. The answer is, maybe, a partial yes. The reason is that the statute gives the court discretion. CCP 874.010 describes “reasonable attorney’s fees incurred or paid by a party for the common benefit. “ When the services of attorneys for both parties are for the common benefit, the court may award fees to both parties. In the event the property is divided rather than sold, the costs awarded become a lien on the parties’ interest in the property. The person who is owed the money can even ask the court to sell the liened portion in order to get paid.
But the question remains- what is “for the common benefit”? Filing the action and getting it before the court is. In my experience contested litigation regarding the relative interests of the parties is likely not. After the sale of the property, the costs are reimbursed before any distribution to the parties. Generally, the court apportions the costs of partition among the co-owners in proportion to their interest in the property, or as it otherwise deems equitable. In an interesting decision, the court chose equity, and only awarded the defendants’ attorney fees – the plaintiff had been so manipulative in trying to take the property from her siblings that the court refused to award her fees.
In Hong-Chuan Lin v. Ing-Jieh Jeng, the parties’ parents came to the United States and wanted to buy a house. As they did not have credit, plaintiff “Jane”, who was a real estate agent, obtained the loan. On the parents’ insistence, Jane’s brother Jack was on the loan with her and the two took title as joint tenants. Jack made all the payments on this house. They sold this house and bought another for their parents. The mother and several siblings contributed towards the down payment, and Jane and Jack again were on the loan. However, this time the deed listed Jane as 85% owner, and Jack holding only 15%. Jane then had her parents and her sister sign a written lease, requiring them to pay rent to Jane, though she never told her brothers that she was collecting rent. Jane took all the tax deductions for the mortgage.