July 24, 2014
Last week I focused on first-time home buyers and new opportunities for state tax-exempt estate planning. This week’s post continues on the theme of family. Spouses who own Virginia property together may enjoy special protections against the claims of their individual creditors. This special form of ownership is called “Tenancy by the Entirety.” For this to arise, the husband and wife must own in unity of (a) time, (b) title, (c) interest and (d) possession. These requirements may be inferred if the deed specifically conveys to the husband and wife by tenancy by the entirety or with an intent to create a right of survivorship.
As far as creditors are concerned, the couple jointly owns an undivided 100% interest. This ancient doctrine continues to be applied by Virginia courts in contemporary real estate controversies. This post focuses on ways creditors may succeed in spite of this manner of holding title:
- Joint Consent. Neither spouse may sever the tenancy by his sole act. Likewise, one spouse cannot convey the property unilaterally. This becomes significant if one spouse attempts to mortgage the property without the consent of the other. However, the spouses may cause the termination of the tenancy by the entirety ownership or jointly liability for a lien or judgment. For example, when the owners take out a mortgage, if properly perfected, that lien will persevere against acts of divorce and/or bankruptcy unless exceptions apply. Also, if only one spouse files for bankruptcy, the tenancy by the entirety property remains outside of the Bankruptcy Estate.
- Divorce. Completion of a divorce transforms a tenancy by the entirety into a tenancy in common, the ordinary form of co-ownership. In equitable distribution, a Judge has considerable latitude in dividing up marital property.
- Death. Because of the right of survivorship, no transfer of title occurs to the survivor upon the death of a spouse. Upon death, the interest of the surviving spouse converts from a tenancy by the entirety to a sole ownership interest. At that time, the property then becomes subject to creditor claims.
- Fraud. If the husband and wife attempt to work a fraud on a creditor by improper use of a tenancy by the entirety conveyance, it is unlikely that the court would permit the fraud. However, if the couple sells real estate held in a tenancy by the entirety, the proceeds of that sale automatically also enjoy the same status as the real estate, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. A transfer from the husband and wife holding in tenancy by the entirety to the sole name of one of the spouses does not subject those funds to the claims of the other spouse’s creditors.
The gist of tenancy by the entirety flows intuitively from the legal understanding of marriage. It possesses a seemingly “magical” quality when it comes to protecting against many individual creditor claims. However, it can be difficult applying the doctrine to a family’s individual circumstances. If you have questions about Tenancy by the Entirety, whether as a spouse or a creditor, contact a qualified attorney.
U.S. v. Parr, File No. 3:10-cv-061 (W.D. Va. Oct. 6, 2011) (Moon, J.) (interpreting Va. law).
In Re Nagel, 298 B.R. 582 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2003).
May 2, 2014
Earlier this week, the National Basketball Association imposed a lifetime ban on Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Adventuress Vanessa Stiviano recorded racist and demeaning statements made by Sterling about Basketball Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The recordings subsequently leaked to the public.
In 1991, I watched the first NBA Finals for the first time. Magic Johnson led the Lakers against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The 1991 Finals made me a basketball fan. Magic was one of my favorite professional athletes. The news about Don Sterling is offensive and bizarre. Why is this scandal happening?
On March 7, 2013, Sterling’s wife, Rochelle, filed a lawsuit against Ms. Stiviano. The lawsuit alleges that Stiviano seduced Don for money. According to Rochelle, Stiviano used marital funds to purchase a $1.8 Million dollar duplex home in Los Angeles in December 2013. Rochelle seeks a court order reforming the deed to identify herself and her husband as the proper owners.
The LA Times reports that Mr. Sterling told Clippers President Andy Roeser that Stiviano said that she would “get even” with Rochelle for filing the lawsuit. Apr. 26, 2014, Bettina Boxall, Sterling’s Wife Describes Alleged Mistress as Gold Digger in Lawsuit. I wonder if Stiviano has additional embarrassing Sterling recordings that she has not yet leaked. There is a controversy over whether the recordings were consensual. How are these leaked recordings related to the lawsuit?
Rochelle alleges that Donald Sterling provided the money for Stiviano to purchase the duplex, “with the understanding that the Property would be owned by [Donald and Rochelle Sterling] and title would vest in the name of [Rochelle] and D. Sterling.” Curiously, Donald is not a Plaintiff or Defendant to this lawsuit where the spouse sues paramour. Rochelle alleges that, “D. Sterling either gifted said Property to Stiviano, without the knowledge, consent or authorization of Plaintiff, or, in the alternative, Stiviano fraudulently and wrongfully caused title to the Property to vest in her name.”
- The transfers made from Donald to Stiviano were gifts.
- Rochelle and Donald are not in divorce proceedings.
- Rochelle does not allege that any of the transfers were thefts.
- Mr. Sterling is an, “on the top of his game infamous real estate mogul.”
- Rochelle knew of Donald’s reputation for “gold plated dalliances” in general and his relationship with Stiviano in particular.
Don Sterling’s health history is an issue. ESPN reports today that Mr. Sterling has prostrate cancer.
I try to avoid predicting the outcome of pending motions, especially those in California, where I do not practice law. Can a California Judge base a ruling on new facts introduced by a defendant on demurrer?
Rochelle alleges that she and Donald are the real owners of the duplex because either:
- Donald and his wife were supposed to be the grantees on the deed, and somehow the name got switched to Stiviano; or
- Donald secreted the funds to Stiviano out of the family estate without Rochelle’s knowledge.
These allegations seem contradictory. In the first case, there was an intention for the paramour to be the nominal purchaser for the benefit of the husband and wife. Did Rochelle condone Don’s relationship with Stiviano? The alternative alleges waste of marital assets, but outside a divorce proceeding. The “constructive trust” remedy sought by Rochelle is a flexible one. However, a spouse usually cannot invalidate transfers to a “other woman” absent theft, fraud, incapacity or other conduct that voids the intent of the philanderer.
This demurrer is set for hearing on July 8, 2014. Many things could happen before then. Don Sterling’s health is an issue. The media will shift their focus to other sports after the NBA Finals and Draft wrap up in late June. Will the NBA successfully force Sterling to sell the Clippers? His lawyers will research the admissibility of the Stiviano tapes thoroughly. Regardless as to how deep they go into the playoffs, the Clippers will have an eventful off-season.
January 28, 2014
On my Friday morning commute, I heard a guest on the radio show, Elliot in the Morning talking about his parents’ divorce, marriages and the legal fate of a family home. I rarely partake of EITM, but this time I stopped to listen (relevant portions of recording between minute marks 8:20-16:30 on YouTube).
Tommy Johnagin on Elliot in the Morning: Comedian Tommy Johnagin explained that when he was seven, his mother divorced his previous stepfather and married Johnagin’s current stepfather (none of this takes place in Virginia). The families lived in a small town. The current stepfather previously built a home with his own hands for himself and his ex-wife. When the current stepfather and his ex-wife divorced, the ex-wife got the house. Johnagin’s mother’s previous husband then married her current husband’s ex-wife (confused yet?). So Johnagin’s previous stepfather is now living in the home built with the sweat of the current stepfather’s brow. Johnagin commented to Elliot Segal: “I don’t even understand how this works.” In this portion of the interview, I was impressed with how Johnagin weaved some earthy insights into family life with funny personal narrative, such a recent chance encounter with the previous stepfather in the checkout line at the local Wal-mart.
What are the ways a family home can possibly reach this kind of outcome in divorce? Although the facts are different, the Supreme Court of Virginia published a January 10, 2014 opinion, Shebelskie vs. Brown, that discusses a possible route.
Betty & Larry Brown in the Virginia Court System: Betty and Larry Brown completed a divorce in Florida. One of their homes was Windemere, a landmark Tudor mansion in Richmond. (V.L.W. subscribers see July 22, 2013, “A Partition Suit Blows Up,” Virginia Lawyers Weekly) Sometimes, when an out-of-state divorce requires divvying up Virginia property, the parties will file an Equitable Distribution action in Virginia and the house matter will be referred to a court-appointed Commissioner. For reasons not discussed in the court opinion, this phase of the Brown divorce did not proceed this way. Instead, Larry filed a partition suit in Richmond, seeking an order that Windemere be sold.
In Virginia, when co-owners of real estate cannot agree on what to do with real estate, one party may file with the court a request for Partition and a Judicial Sale. See, Va. Code section 8.01-81, et sec. Partition traditionally involves dividing the parcel equitably into smaller parcels. When the land cannot conveniently be divided into smaller chunks because that would destroy the value of any improvements, the Court will usually grant a sale of the entire property. The monetary proceeds of the sale are then divided. Lawyers try to use partition suits as a last resort because they are a very expensive way to sell a house and more likely to lead to further title litigation. The deputy clerk called the Browns’ names week after week on the Richmond Circuit Court motions’ docket. The Court ordered a Judicial Sale. Finally, Betty obtained confirmation from the Court that she could go to closing on the house to buy-out Larry. The facts suggest that spousal support owed by Larry would end up helping to pay for the buy-out.
In the trial court, the parties litigated over attorneys’ fees and awards of sanctions issued by the judge against some of the attorneys. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the sanctions award. (I invite my trial lawyer readers to take a look at the Court’s interpretation of the term, “motion” in the sanctions statute)
The Stepfather’s House, Revisited: How does the house that one man built for himself and his family end up in the possession of his ex-wife and his current wife’s ex-husband? Most likely, the home was part of the marital estate in the divorce and went to the ex-wife either in a settlement or by court order.
In a way, Tommy Johnagin’s current stepfather should be flattered that both his ex-wife and her subsequent husband desired the house he built. As a builder, he can construct another one.
In the interview, Johnagin commented that he felt content with the stepfather he got in the step-parent “lottery.” In the end, a good stepfather makes a bigger difference in someone’s life than title to a mansion or an appellate court victory.