Partition Case Dismissed Because Joint Owners Had Given One Owner a Life Estate

In a recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in the case of Stokely v. Stokely, it upheld the trial court’s decision in a Tennessee partition case in which the trial court had dismissed the claims of the joint owners who sought to partition the land in question.  The case is notable for a couple of points.

First, it is authority that establishes that, in Tennessee, real estate cannot be partitioned when one joint owner has a life estate (at least as long as that joint owner is alive). This is an exception to the general rule that any joint owner is entitled to a partition whenever that owner so desires one. Second, it reiterates the rule that, when you sign legal documents, you cannot avoid the consequences by claiming that you did not fully understand what you signed.

Here are the basic facts of the case:

  • Mother owned a house and land (“Property”) in which she lived with one of her children, Anna
  • Including Anna, there were seven siblings (“Siblings”)
  • Mother died without a will in 2003
  • Because Mother died without a will, all of her children, Siblings, inherited an equal interest in the Property
  • After Mother’s death, Siblings signed a Quitclaim Deed granting Anna a life estate in the Property
  • Some of the Siblings signed the Quitclaim Deed themselves, but the signature of four of them was effectuated by the use of a Power of Attorney they gave to a brother, who was one of the Siblings
  • The Power of Attorney expressly referenced that it was given so that the brother could sign a Quitclaim Deed reserving a life estate to Anna

Disagreements arose between the Siblings. In 2015, four of the Siblings filed a partition case in order to have the Property partitioned.  The trial court dismissed the partition case on two separate grounds. First, it found that a partition could not occur due to the life estate held by Anna. Second, it held that the cause of action to reform the Quitclaim Deed to rescind the life estate given to Anna, which was asserted by the Siblings who had filed the case, was barred by the statute of limitations.

Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeals upheld the rulings of the trial court. The statute of limitation defense was a no brainer.  The applicable statute of limitation (to reform the Quitclaim Deed) was ten years and the action was filed over eleven years after the Quitclaim Deed was signed.

On appeal, the Siblings who had filed the partition lawsuit argued that the trial court should have found that the reserving of the life estate to Anna in the Quitclaim Deed was the result of a mutual mistake. Under Tennessee law, a court may reform an instrument which is the result of mutual mistake.

The Court of Appeals stated the obvious: The Quitclaim Deed was unambiguous and was not the result of any legally cognizable mistake. It also took the ink to remind readers that, when someone has the ability and opportunity to understand the consequences of a legal document, like a Quitclaim Deed, that person cannot later claim mistake as a defense.

One lesson from this case is that the Siblings, instead of granting a life estate to Anna, maybe should have given her an estate for a certain number of years, such as five or ten years. They could have always extended the life estate when the initial period ended.  This case also illustrates how difficult it can be, in many cases, for siblings to own inherited property for very long jointly.  Many Tennessee partition cases result when there are only two joint owners.  In this case there were seven, so there were bound to be issues at some point.

This post was written by attorney J. Ross Pepper.

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