Partition Proceedings: Equitable Treatment of Reimbursement for Taxes; Marriage Burden of Proof

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Property taxes paid on land held in co-tenancy are often paid by a single person to the benefit of the remaining co-tenants. Such is often the case when that person is farming the land or otherwise managing it in hopes preserving its family legacy or timber value. The other co-tenants often live elsewhere or thus somewhat indifferent to the responsibility of paying property taxes on land with which they have little contact. Sometimes the heirs receiving the benefit of owning a share of the land while not paying its carrying costs are not even aware that they own real property. For the taxpaying co-tenant, he or she must pay these costs or risk losing the land to foreclosure by the county.

When land or timber is sold – either by agreement of the co-tenants or by partition sale – the property tax-paying co-tenant should seek reimbursement for payment of property taxes under the theory of fairness that without such service, each co-tenant would receive less on their share diminished by foreclosure costs. Plus, the longer the land is ‘carried,’ the more it will have appreciated by the time of liquidation. In a voluntary sale, such reimbursement must be negotiated with the other co-tenants.

In a partition sale, such decision of fairness – how many years of payments should the paying co-tenant be reimbursed – is up to the court with jurisdiction over the proceeding. A recent North Carolina Court of Appeals case affirmed that the reimbursement period belongs to the ten-year statute of limitation category under N.C.G.S. §1-56.

The case of Lawrence v. Lawrence, COA19-668 (N.C.App 2020) concerned a Franklin County tract of land that had devolved by marriage, intestacy and quit-claiming to two individuals:  one, the widow of the original owner, the other her son. Because the original owner died intestate, his interest in the tract was shared by his widow and their three children. Two of the children quitclaimed their interest to their mother, who carried the burden of paying property taxes for the tract. In 2018, the widow filed a partition action with Franklin County Clerk of Court, seeking reimbursement for property taxes and mortgage payments paid on the property. Her son in his response to the partition proceeding argued that such payments were limited by a three-year statute of limitations, claiming the payments were part of an implied contractural relationship governed by N.C.G.S. §1-52(1).

The court reasoned – citing a rule that statutes of limitations are triggered by the substance under dispute, not the remedy sought – that a landowner who pays carrying costs on land for the benefit of others does so in a fiduciary capacity, not a contractural one. The court ruled both the basis of the widow’s partition filing requested reimbursement as an “equitable adjustment” to the proceeds. The court also reaffirmed earlier precedent that partition actions themselves are equitable proceedings, granting the court the “power to adjust all equities between the parties with respect to the property to be partitioned.” (citing Henson v. Henson, 236 N.C. 429, 430, 72 S.E.2d 873, 873- 74 [1952]). Thus, such equitable treatment qualified the request for N.C.G.S. §1-56, which provides a ten-year statute of limitations for matters not otherwise limited by other sections.

The Lawrence case also reaffirms the law regarding who bears the burden of proving an invalid marriage in such actions. In Lawrence he mother and father were married in New York, and the son – in a late responsive pleading – asserted that his mother had failed to prove that she was married to his father. Normally, a person alleging qualification to receive property by marriage has the burden of proving the marriage, as there is no presumption of marriage in law, and other heirs do not have the burden of proving an invalid marriage. However, in this case the mother presented a New York state marriage certificate, and the trial court ruled that such evidence was competent evidence to establish marriage, establishing a presumption of valid marriage. At this point, the burden of proving an invalid marriage shifts to the party seeking a ruling on its invalidity, which the son failed to do beyond proferring a family rumor that his parents had never married.