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.
January 24, 2014
On January 10, 2014, the Supreme Court of Virginia decided CNX Gas Company, LLC v. Rasnake, interpreting disputed language in a 95-year-old deed. The Court determined who owned the mineral rights in a parcel of land in Russell County in Southwest Virginia. The contested deed contained both (a) words conveying a parcel and (b) limiting language that excepted certain property from the transaction. Ultimately, the words of conveyance prevailed over the words of limitation! The opinion is a useful collection of some of the rules about how to prepare, interpret or litigate a deed.
In 1887, Jacob & Mary Fuller conveyed the coal in a 414 acre tract in Russell County to Joseph Doran and W.A. Dick. In 1918, W.T. Fuller conveyed to Unice Nuckles a 75 acre portion of the Fuller family tract except that, “[t]his sale is not ment (sic) to convey any coals or minerals. The same being sold and deeded to other parties heretofore.”
Over 90 years later, CNX Gas Company holds a lease from the successor to Ms. Nuckles for the mineral rights (excluding coal) in the 75 acre tract. CNX produces coalbed methane from the parcel. Coalbed methane is a natural gas extracted from coal mines and sold as energy. The opinion does not discuss how methane is a “mineral.” The parties likely stipulated to that based on authorities not mentioned. The successors to W.T. Fuller sue CNX over the non-coal mineral rights. To resolve the dispute, the Court has to decide what the above-quoted language meant. Have the non-coal mineral rights been legally conveyed or not? Royalties to the coalbed methane hang in the balance.
When I initially read these facts, I wondered if perhaps I was missing something. Did the 1887 deed say something about non-coal minerals? Was there some other deed prior to 1918 conveying the minerals? Perhaps there was an unrecorded deed known to the parties in 1918. Since the opinion states the parties stipulated to the facts, the title examination must have revealed the answer to both questions to be “no.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia applied the following legal rules to resolve the title dispute:
- Is the language capable of being understood by reasonable persons in more than one way? One could assume the answer to be “yes,” since the issue found its way to the highest court in the Commonwealth. But lawyers have a reputation for torturing unambiguous language, so the question is appropriate. The Supreme Court found the deed ambiguous.
- Which interpretation favors the grantee (recipient)? Since the Grantors (usually sellers) are the ones who sign the deed conveying the property, it is only fair to assume that they chose their language carefully.
- Can the language of the deed be considered holistically? Since W.T. Fuller included all of those phrases in the deed, it is reasonable to harmonize them rather than pick and choose certain sections that favor one side over the other.
- Is the limiting language clear and unequivocal? A deed must have, among other things, words of conveyance, which generally describe the lot or parcel of land transferred. A deed may also include other language limiting or reserving certain interests excepted from the transfer, such as certain mineral rights. Unless the limiting language contrary to the general grant is expressed clearly and unequivocally, it will not be upheld in court.
The Supreme Court of Virginia applied these rules to find that the only “coals or minerals” not included in CNX’s leasehold interest are the coal rights conveyed to Joseph Doran and W.A. Dick in 1887. The Court entered judgment upholding CNX’s rights to extract the coalbed methane from the 75 acre tract. Words of conveyance prevailed.
P.S. – There is one other principle that the Court could have mentioned: when interpreting legal documents, the specific prevails over the general. Since the 1914 deed made reference to previous conveyances of natural resource rights, the plaintiffs’ stipulation to the absence of any other deeds locked them in.