Brief Fact Summary.
An unmarried couple purchased a house together. When they separated, Anderson (Defendant) stayed in the home and made the mortgage payments. Several years later, Cummings (Plaintiff) claimed a one-half interest in the property.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Unless the contract states otherwise, cotenants’ interest in property is proportional to their respective investments in that property.
Plaintiff and Defendant purchased a house together as tenants in common, in anticipation of marriage. The contract between them implied equal contributions to the house payments, but did not express the respective interests in the property. The couple separated and Plaintiff left the home. Defendant continued to reside in the home and took over the entirety of the payments. Several years later, Plaintiff sued for partition, claiming a one-half interest in the property under the original contract. The trial court found that Plaintiff had abandoned her interest and that it was therefore extinguished. The appellate court reversed, finding that Plaintiff had a one-half interest under the terms of the original contract. Defendant appealed.
Without contractual language stating otherwise, are cotenants’ interests in property determined by their respective contributions to the property?
(Rosellini, J.) Yes. Unless the contract states otherwise, cotenants’ interest in property is proportional to their respective investments in that property. When the instrument creating a cotenancy does not expressly state the respective interests in the property of the cotenants, it is presumed that the interests are equal. However, this presumption can be overcome in instances where the cotenants contributed unequally. In those cases, the presumption is that the cotenants intend their interests in the property to be proportional to their respective contributions, unless a gift is intended. In this case, the contributions were unequal and there is no evidence that Defendant intended to make a gift to Plaintiff. The appellate court ruling is reversed except as affirmed or modified, and remanded.
This opinion does not address situations where the contract states that the cotenants will hold equal interests, but the parties contribute unequally. In that situation, a court may treat the original contract as modified by the unequal contributions, or may treat the inequality in contributions as a gift.