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Partition Actions in Florida

Written by Jeffrey Skatoff • March 22nd, 2015

Real Estate Litigation,  Resources,  Other Resources,  

Partition actions are often used to force the sale of jointly owned property when the owners cannot agree amongst themselves what to do with the property.  Florida law provides a general framework on how a partition action is to proceed, but the details are left to the discretion of the trial court.

A recent case from Florida illustrates the practical difficulties that trial courts face when trying to force the sale of property in the midst of feuding family members.  In Marks v. Stein2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 4025 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2d Dist. Mar. 20, 2015), two sisters inherited a house from their deceased mother.  Each inherited a one-half tenant-in-common interest in the property.  The sisters disagreed about what to do with the house, and eventually one sister, Ms. Marks, filed the partition action seeking a sale.  (Ms. Stein died and was replaced in the litigation by her husband, Mr. Stein.)  The trial court agreed that the property should be sold in a private sale, but also wanted to allow either sister to purchase the property.  Ms. Marks filed a motion for summary judgment, which the court granted, in part, as follows, by issuing the following judgment:

The property is indivisible and cannot be partitioned in kind.

The Plaintiff and the Defendant shall engage [a named appraiser] to perform a real estate appraisal ("Appraisal") determining the market value of the residence (the "Property") . . . .

Plaintiff and Defendant shall both advance onehalf of the cost of the Appraisal. The parties shall engage [a named real estate sales person], a real estate agent . . . in Tampa, Florida, to list the Property for sale at the price specified in the Appraisal for a period up to and including June 30, 2014. The Parties may list the property "As Is".

If a sale of the Property is concluded on or before June 30, 2014, the net proceeds shall be deposited with the Court to await disposition by the Court pursuant to Section 64.071, Florida Statutes (2013).

If a sale of the Property is not concluded on or before June 30, 2014, the Court shall enter an Order requiring the sale of the Property at a public auction pursuant to Section 64.071, Florida Statutes (2013).

The Parties may move to reset the judicial sale identified in paragraph 7 of this order if exceptional circumstances present themselves for doing so.

Either Party may make an offer at any time to purchase the other Party's interest.

If during the Listing Period, any offers to purchase the property are received whereby one party wishes to accept the offer but the other party does not, the parties may seek emergency relief of the Court wherein the - 4 - Court shall decide whether the offer is reasonable and viable under the circumstance[s] and whether or not to accept the offer.

The Court retains jurisdiction to enter orders necessary to enforce this Judgment and the equitable distribution of sale proceeds and any award of costs and attorney's fees.

Thus the final judgment gave the parties approximately six and one-half months to negotiate a private sale of the property.

The parties obtained an appraisal at $450,000, but the property was never listed.  Instead, Mr. Stein made an offer to buy the property, and the parties made several counter offers with each other.  

At a subsequent hearing, the court gave the parties a deadline to submit a sealed bid to purchase the property, by 5:00, January 24, 2014.  The Court issued this order on January 21, 2014.    Ms. Marks submitted a bid of $556,000, and Mr. Stein submitted a bid of $601,755.  Before the Court ruled on which bid to accept, Ms. Marks filed a notice with the court that an unrelated third party had made an offer of $656,000.  

At a further hearing, Ms. Marks argued that under the final judgment of partition, the parties had until June 30, 2014 within which to close as third party sale of the property.  Mr. Stein argued that, in accordance with the January 21, 2014 order, he had submitted the high bid by the deadline of January 24, 2014.  The Court ruled on February 5, 2014 that the offer made by the third party would be accepted, but that, if the third party did not close within 30 days, Mr. Stein's offer of $601,755 would be deemed accepted. 

The third party buyer backed out, and the Court then ordered that Mr. Stein's offer would go through.  

The appellate court boiled down the tangled series of judgments and orders, as follows:

Whether the trial court erred when it departed from the provisions in the earlier partition judgment and imposed an expedited bidding process that was neither stipulated to by the parties nor authorized by chapter 64, which governs actions for partition.

The appellate court's framing of the issue pretty much sums up the court's conclusion.

The court started its analysis by summarizing the three ways in which property can be sold in a partition action.  The trial court may (i) order a private sale under the supervision of the clerk or a magistrate, (ii) order a judicial sale by public auction, or (iii) a judicially sanctioned private sale, pursuant to the case of Carlsen v. Carlsen, 346 So. 2d 132, 133 (Fla. 2d DCA 1977).  

Commonly the trial judge affords the parties an opportunity to negotiate between themselves or arrange a private sale to a third party. We find no fault with this procedure. On the contrary, much can be said for any reasonable arrangement whereby formerly married parties are enabled to conserve their investments and property interests. Id. at 133. In Carlsen, we concluded that if a trial court follows this procedure, two requirements must be met.

First, "the judgment must fix some reasonable deadline for such arrangements to be completed," and any private sale is subject to approval by the court. Id. at 133-34. Second, the judgment must provide that "if disposition of the [property] is not amicably resolved within a specified reasonable period of time," judicial sale of the property shall take place in accordance with chapter 64.

In reversing the trial court's procedure the appellate court explained as follows:

Although the extent to which the parties stipulated to the provisions of the partition judgment is not clear from our limited record, it is undisputed that they requested the opportunity to negotiate a private sale as their preferred alternative to a judicial sale. On this basis, the trial court was authorized to order the procedure for private sale approved in Carlsen. This is exactly what the trial court did in the partition judgment. In its judgment, the court allowed approximately six and one-half months for the parties to negotiate a private sale—by requiring them to list the property on the open market and authorizing them to either sell the property to a third party or to negotiate a buyout with each other. Consistent with the teaching of Carlsen, the trial court provided that if the property had not been sold by June 30, 2014, it would order a judicial sale in accordance with section 64.071.

Consistent with Carlsen, nothing in the partition judgment gave either party a basis to compel the other to accept his or her bid for the property. Instead, the judgment appropriately contemplated the opportunity for a private sale on the open market, whereby the parties could voluntarily negotiate a sale either between themselves or to a third party within a period of six and one-half months. But instead of ordering the parties to follow the procedure in the partition judgment and to engage the named real estate agent to list the property, the trial court in its January 21 order deviated from its charted course and imposed the January 24 deadline, by which the parties were to submit their highest bids to one another.

Consistent with Carlsen, nothing in the partition judgment gave either party a basis to compel the other to accept his or her bid for the property. Instead, the judgment appropriately contemplated the opportunity for a private sale on the open market, whereby the parties could voluntarily negotiate a sale either between themselves or to a third party within a period of six and one-half months. But instead of ordering the parties to follow the procedure in the partition judgment and to engage the named real estate agent to list the property, the trial court in its January 21 order deviated from its charted course and imposed the January 24 deadline, by which the parties were to submit their highest bids to one another. 

Jeffrey Skatoff handles partition actions throughout the State of Florida.  He can be reached at (561) 842-4868.