Land partition actions in Pennsylvania can seem scary to the uninitiated. The procedures appear arcane at first glance — a seeming relic from earlier times in the Commonwealth. Crazy words such as “purpart” and “owelty” are strewn about the Rules and case law which add another layer of mystique and needless complexity to partition actions. However, boiled down to its bare essentials, a partition action is simple — it’s merely a dispute between competing joint owners of property who are fighting over getting the biggest piece of the pie for themselves. And within that fight are certain basic questions that need to be resolved: (1) Who are the owners of the property? (2) Can the property be physically divided so that each owner gets their fair share? (3) If so, how should it be divided, and should anyone get certain additional payments? (4) If it can’t be physically divided fairly, should the property be sold in its entirety and, how should the proceeds be distributed? It is, at its core, the same simple fight that goes on in most civil litigation — how do we maximize our client’s recovery and get them what they rightly deserve?
That being said, partition actions do have their own unique set of rules and procedures which, if not followed, can lead to pitfalls and bad results. Practitioners who undertake a partition action on behalf of their client should take note of these three keys to obtaining a successful result for their client:
Everything you need to know to successfully litigate a land partition action is contained in the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. Rules 1551 through 1574 provide a step-by-step guide for litigating a partition action. Although far from a model of clarity, and at times seemingly contradictory, the partition rules provide a detailed set of procedures for resolving ownership disputes between co-tenants of real property. Don’t be alarmed by the arcane terminology used in the Rules. The partition rules provide a comprehensive flow chart to litigate the case from start to finish. For example, the partition rules tell you exactly what must be pled in the Complaint (Rule 1554), who must be a party (Rule 1553), and the criteria that will be considered when determining how the property should be divided between the co-tenants, what credits (“owelty”) might be required to be paid between the co-tenants, or if the property should be sold in its entirety and the proceeds divvied up. (Rules 1561-1563, 1570).
Although there is not a large body of case law interpreting the partition rules, and much of what does exist is decades (even centuries) old, the Superior Court will occasionally issue an opinion addressing some of the vagaries of the Rules. See, e.g., Kapcsos v. Benshoff, 194 A.3d 139 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2018) (providing an overview of the “two-step process” of partition actions); Funk v. Empfield, 281 A.3d 315 (Pa. Super Ct. 2022) (addressing the need for a partition action to end in post-trial motion practice before an appeal can be filed). But by and large, the Rules provide a complete roadmap for litigating a partition action. Familiarizing yourself with the Rules, and following the processes laid out in the Rules to the letter, is of utmost importance.
Lastly, don’t be surprised if the Court is not overly knowledgeable about the partition rules. Partition actions are rarities in most counties, and some judges may never see one in their entire career. Your mastery of the rules can be a huge asset in such cases where the court may not be familiar with partition procedures.
Since real property often diffuses its way through generations of families by way of inheritances, partition actions more often than not involve disputes between family members — sibling vs. sibling, cousin vs. cousin, and even parent vs. child. Given these circumstances, the parties will naturally have certain emotional ties to the property. Perhaps it was a childhood home, a family summer cottage, or a family farmstead. Whatever the case, it is naturally difficult for the parties to strip their emotions out of the equation and think objectively about the litigation.
Your clients need to know that the litigation will almost assuredly be difficult from an emotional standpoint, that old family grievances will likely be brought to the forefront, and that such litigation does not usually lead to a family reconciliation (indeed, family reconciliations are usually never the end result of a partition action). Having your clients know this going into partition action is an important component of managing their expectations during what can be very contentious and stressful litigation.
Typically, pursuant to Rule 1558(b), the Court will select a Special Master to conduct a hearing on the issues surrounding the partition of the property and draft a report and recommendation (pursuant to Rules 1569 and 1570) as to if and how the property should be divided or sold. It goes without saying that the ideal Special Master has some background in real estate law. From the very outset of the case, you should begin thinking of lawyers who might act as a competent Special Master. While the Court has the authority under the Rules to select the Special Master without any input from the parties, it is not uncommon for the judge to ask the parties for suggestions. Having the names and credentials of several prospective Special Masters at hand will go a long way to ensuring the selection of a competent and diligent one.
The Special Master will act as the de facto judge and jury from the time of his or her appointment through the writing of his or her report. He or she will, in fact, become the most critical figure in the case since the Master’s Report will oftentimes be adopted wholesale by the court. He or she may also be appointed to take on additional roles if necessary, such as assisting in the sale of the property if so ordered. Since your client’s fate rests to a large extent in the hands of the Special Master, doing whatever you can do to ensure the selection of a good one is important for a successful outcome.
November 03, 2023
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