Deed effective when signed; farm not subject to partition action
- by Roger McEowen
One of the perils of owning real estate in co-ownership is the right of a co-owner to force a partition and sale. That usually happens when one or more of the co-owners wishes to liquidate their interest or wants outright ownership of a particular portion of the co-owned property. Typically, when a partition action is entered into in an ag setting, family members are involved and the proceeding is acrimonious. There are ways to eliminate the possibility of partition, such as by owning real estate in entity form, but often those steps have not been taken. This case involved an attempted partition of 40 acres by a parent, who claimed he owned the tract in co-tenancy with his son.
The son purchased the 40 acres via contract in 1993. The real estate contract named the son as the buyer, and he received a deed to the property in 1999 after completing the contract payments. But, the father had helped the son make the contract payments, and after the son signed the real estate contract in 1993 the father moved his personal property, equipment and other items to the property, and also made certain improvements to the property. The son got married in 1999 and also filed for divorce in 1999. Before the divorce became final, the son executed an agreement with his father in early 2000 as well as a quitclaim deed conveying the land to himself and his father as tenants in common. The son’s wife did not sign the deed, and the deed was not recorded. A year later, the son’s divorce became final, and two years later (2003) the father recorded the deed. A month after that, the father filed a partition and sale action.
The son claimed that his father didn’t have an ownership interest in the property and that the partition action should, therefore, fail because the son’s wife didn’t sign the deed. The trial court, however, held that the deed was valid and ordered the property to be partitioned by sale. The Court of Appeals reversed and the Iowa Supreme Court upheld that reversal.
The Supreme Court pointed out that Iowa law requires a spouse to join in a conveyance of a homestead property for the conveyance to be valid. The father agreed, but argued that the deed was not effective until it was recorded – and that occurred after the son’s divorce was final. The Supreme Court noted that while a deed must be delivered to be effective, the presumption under Iowa law is that a deed is effective when it is signed. The father failed to present evidence to overcome that presumption. The father also argued that Iowa law did not require the spouse to sign the same deed to effectively convey title to him. Instead, the father argued, she could have signed a “like instrument” that legally described the homestead. The Court noted that while it was true that Iowa law required spouses to sign the same joint instrument before 1981, that requirement was changed by statute. But, the Court reasoned that the spouse’s signature on the stipulated dissolution decree did not suffice as a “like instrument” because it was not an instrument of conveyance of land to the father. It was simply a legal agreement between the parties to the divorce. The Court also commented that the trial judge had no discretion to fashion a remedy that seemed fair to the parties.
Consequently, the deed was executed when the son was married and his spouse was required to sign the deed to effectively convey title to the father. The father had no legal interest in the 40 acres, and his partition action failed. Martin v. Martin,720 N.W.2d 732 (Iowa Sup. Ct. 2006).