The independent nature of the statutorily required “interlocutory judgment” in a California partition action is rarely seen among civil litigation judgments, which may cause confusion among those who are not familiar with partition law. Generally, a case has only one judgment, and that judgment answers all issues in the case. Even if that judgment is amended, both the original and amended judgment attempted to resolve every question in the case. During the case, the court will issue interim orders (not judgments) that answer discrete questions in the case such a rulings on a demurrer or discovery dispute.
The Interlocutory Judgment of Partition Under California Code of Civil Procedure 872.720(a)
However, in partitions, a California partition statute exists providing that the court “shall” enter an “interlocutory judgment” as follows:
If the court finds that the plaintiff is entitled to partition, it shall make an interlocutory judgment that determines the interests of the parties in the property and orders the partition of the property and, unless it is to be later determined, the manner of partition.
California Code of Civil Procedure 872.720(a)
Miller & Starr explains that: “If the court finds that the plaintiff is entitled to partition, it must make an interlocutory judgment that determines the interests in the property and orders partition of the property.” As a recent California Court of Appeal ruling found, “a viable interlocutory partition judgment must include both a determination of the parties’ interests and order partition. But while it may, it need not, include the manner of partition.” Summers v. Superior Court (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 138, 142, as modified (June 27, 2018).
Summers v. Superior Court (2018) Ownership Interests Determined Before Partition Judgment Entered
The Interlocutory Judgment is Decided “First” to Ensure that the Case is a Partition
Citing “C.C.P. 872.720(a),” Witkin, a leading secondary source on California law, explains that, “[i]n an action for partition, the court first makes an interlocutory order or decree directing partition and determining the respective interests of the parties.”
An Interlocutory Judgment Decides Only Some of the Issues in a Case
“A judgment is interlocutory if further judicial action is essential to a final determination of the rights of the parties.”
“An interlocutory judgment or order is a provisional determination of some or all issues in the cause…. But interlocutory judgment has a narrower, more specific, and more useful meaning. In certain kinds of cases (usually equitable actions), it is desirable to have a preliminary determination of the respective rights of the parties before taking evidence or further steps to settle the controversy. Roughly classified, the principal situations are the following: (1) Unresolved issues. Where the ultimate judgment will be unconditional, but basic issues of law must be determined before evidence is heard and a final judgment rendered; e.g., an interlocutory order determining the right to an accounting, then taking of the account and judgment for the amount found due … (3) Statutory decrees. Statutory types of interlocutory decrees, such as an interlocutory order for partition.” Interestingly, every partition includes a final accounting, meaning an interlocutory judgment of partition meets both of the examples set forth above.
“An interlocutory decree in an action for the partition of real property, although preliminary to the final judgment of conformation, is conclusive as to the matters determined therein.”
Order of Operations in a Partition Action
Many general civil litigators will erroneously believe that a partition trial must decide all issues in the case. However, the law provides that the order of operations first calls for an interlocutory judgment of partition, followed by a sale and final division of proceeds. As one court set forth: “In an action for partition, the trial court determines the plaintiff’s right to partition (§ 872.710), the interests of the parties in the property (§ 872.610), and the manner of partition (§§ 872.810-872.840). The court then issues an interlocutory judgment. (§ 872.720.) The court appoints a referee to divide or sell the property. (§§ 873.010, subd. (a), 873.210, 873.510, 873.790.) The court then orders the proceeds of sale disbursed (§ 873.810) and enters a judgment of partition (§ 874.210).”
Many courts refer to this as the first phase of a partition being the entry of an interlocutory judgment, which is followed by the second phase of a partition being the accounting of offsets and distribution of proceeds, in a sale, or division of the property, in a partition in-kind. While some attorneys may refer to this as the first trial and second trial, the reality is that many partitions are decided without trial, especially on the first phase of an interlocutory judgment of partition.
For example, a recent Court of Appeal decision described the two step partition process as follows:
In the first phase of the trial, the court on May 19, 2016, denied the relief sought by Cremoux in her cross-complaint and ordered partition of the property. In the second phase of the trial in August 2016, the trial court heard evidence concerning Cremoux’s initial investment in the property and the parties’ respective contributions for expenses related to the property, including repairs and improvements.
The Partition Accounting Will Depend Upon the Interlocutory Judgment of Partition
Once the property is sold, partition law provides that the funds ultimately result in a: “Distribution of the residue among the parties in proportion to their shares as determined by the court.” California Code of Civil Procedure 873.820. Indeed: “Except as otherwise provided in this article, the court shall apportion the costs of partition among the parties in proportion to their interests or make such other apportionment as may be equitable.” California Code of Civil Procedure 874.040.
In other words, if the interlocutory judgment finds the parties to be 50/50 owners, the proceeds will be distributed 50/50 absent some other finding on offsets.
However: “The ordering of an accounting under the partition statute falls under the wide range of discretion accorded a court in equity.” “Because an action for partition is an equitable proceeding, it is governed by the principle that ‘[a] court of equity has broad powers and comparatively unlimited discretion to do equity without being bound by any strict rules of procedure.’”
Frivolous Delay Tactics by Defendants Attempting to Undermine the Statutory Procedure for an Interlocutory Judgment of Partition
One of the most common attempted delay tactics by defendants is to claim that the court must determine all offsets before ordering a sale of the property. This, they claim, means that the court must decide how many lightbulbs the defendant changed, determine the cost of each lightbulb, and find that the defendant owes their fractional share for those lightbulbs. The law on interlocutory judgments provides just the opposite that the interlocutory judgment of partition can be entered, and offsets decided later before a final judgment. Hiring a skilled partition attorney in California will ensure that the case is handled appropriately to bring about a prompt resolution.
Contact an Experienced Partition Attorney in California
If you want to end your co-ownership relationship, but your co-owner won’t agree, a partition action is your only option. Our experienced partition lawyers have years of experience ending co-ownership disputes and can help you unlock the equity in your property. For a free, 15-minute consultation with an experienced partition attorney at Talkov Law, call (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or fill out a contact form online.