The partition remedy can come to the rescue in a great variety of circumstances and the following provides an example of how involuntary co-ownership can arise even from a homicide. Preliminarily, Mr. Pecherer was not involved in this case in any way. It is included here because it illustrates how the application of an entirely legal doctrine unrelated to real estate law can result in an involuntary co-tenancy.
Many may have heard of the murder of Felix Polk by his wife, Susan Polk. The story is told in detail here which hopefully will remain accessible. In summary, after a long a tumultuous marriage that produced three children, Susan Polk murdered her husband Felix in the family home. That home was situated in Orinda, California, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, and was the community property of the couple.
Had Felix died of natural causes, his share of the community property, specifically of the Orinda residence, would automatically have gone to his wife, Susan who together with her one-half community share then would have owned the entire home. However, there is a long standing legal doctrine that the perpetrator of a homicide may not profit from their evil deed. As a result, the husband’s community interest in the home went not to Susan, but to their three children (in equal shares) either because they were secondary beneficiaries under his estate plan, or by intestate succession. Thus, after the dust settled and Felix’s estate was distributed, the children owned half the house and Susan owned the other half, all as tenants in common.
Two of the children were in their majority and one was a minor. The adult children, who had witnessed the chaos of the marriage, wanted nothing further to do with continuing ownership of the house proposed that the home be sold and the proceeds divided in conformity with the ownership shares. Susan refused, insisting that the house was hers notwithstanding the distribution from Felix’s estate.
A guardian ad litum was appointed for the minor child and the children sued to partition the property by sale. (Susan was incarcerated, having been convicted of the murder and obviously, did not retain custody of the minor child.) As the legal discussion shows, here, there are few defenses to a partition action and there were none available here. The court entered an interlocutory judgment of partition ordering the property sold and appointing a professional receiver as the Referee. The property was listed through a conventional residential brokerage. Marketing the property proved to be a difficult task as overcoming the stigma of a murder having been committed in the home was formidable. Ultimately, the home was sold for a considerable discount from what would have been its normal market price.
This example illustrates how involuntary co-ownership can arise from the application of unanticipated legal doctrines. It is unlikely that Susan was thinking about ownership of the home when she pulled the trigger. However, the prohibition against profiting from the killing of another reflects a very strong public policy and here, as a result of that doctrine, Susan became an involuntary co-owner with her children who were alienated from her for obvious reasons. The case also illustrates how a partition dispute can be inter-generational. More information about the Polk murder case can be found at the above reference.