Q: I was hoping you could answer a question I have. First, I’ll provide some background.
My sister and I are tenants in common with no formal agreement. After our last parent died in 2004, I transferred their utilities into my name. One of the bills was for the meter to the mutual pumphouse for the well, which provides water to both dwellings, hers and mine.
When our relationship deteriorated, since we don’t speak any longer (her choice), I’ve been dealing with her attorney. I told him that since I’ve paid the entire bill through 2020, that she should at least pay the entire bill for 2019, which she did.
After I made that offer, I reconsidered. I visited her attorney, as well as sending him a letter, which stated she should be responsible for paying the entire bill for the next 14 years, to make it more equitable.
So, my question to you is, can I give her attorney notice that in 30 days I will be shutting off service to the pumphouse, which will give her ample time to transfer the service into her name?
Your assistance would be extremely helpful and most appreciated.
Thank you, in advance.
A: You raise a very good question about the relationship between co-owners of real estate. But first, to help catch readers up, a primer on how title can be held.
There are more than eight distinct ways to hold title to property in California. I say “more” because there are also some special ways for government and corporations to take title, but they aren’t relevant here.
There are several ways to hold title if only one person owns the entire property. And several more if the property is co-owned by two or more people. How you hold title affects each owner’s rights with regard to the property.
Typically, the deed to the property will specify how title is held. But if two or more people own the property, and the deed doesn’t say otherwise, then the law presumes it’s held as tenants-in-common.
One of the hallmarks of a tenancy in common is that each owner owns an undivided interest in the whole property.
For example, you said there are two houses on the property, “hers and mine.” You also said there are no formal agreements. If you wanted to move into her house, you could legally do so without notice and without her permission since you own an undivided interest in the whole property. Of course, she could do the same with your house.
So to start the analysis, you can see that both houses belong to both of you and the water is going to both of you in both houses. OK, that’s confusing, but you get the idea.
Tenants in common are partners. Just like business partners in any business. As such, they owe certain legal duties to each other, not the least of which is to protect the property for each other.
So, though you didn’t mention it, destroying the pumphouse would be a breach of that duty. So would turning off the water that feeds the property. Besides, it sounds like if you do that, and she doesn’t put it in her name, then you won’t be taking showers for a while.
On the flip side, your sister is responsible for half of the cost of running and maintaining the property. That’s half the cost of property taxes, fire and flood control, maintenance and utilities. So she’s been responsible for half of the utility bills since she became a co-owner.
The better approach is simply to sue your sister for the amount of the bill that she hasn’t paid. That’s the way it’s typically done between co-owners.
You won’t be able to get a court to order her to pay the bill for the next 14 years, but you should be able to get a judge to give you a money judgment for the amount she hasn’t paid.
One last thing.
Since this has been going on for 14 years, you will run into some statute of limitations problems with trying to collect on bills from that long ago. You may want to speak with an attorney to try and hash that out.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you’d like to have answered in this column, you can send an email to [email protected].