QWithin the next year, I will be buying property in the District. The property and the mortgage will be in my name, but my boyfriend will be living in the property with me. Is there a domestic-relations law that would allow the house to be split and sold if, in the future, we should split up while we are both living there? Is there some way that I would have to relinquish half of my rights or ownership in the property because he will be paying half of the mortgage and utilities?
AAs long as you will be the only one on the title, you need not be concerned that you will lose the house, or even a portion of it. However, just to be cautious, you and your boyfriend should enter into a written agreement that spells out your respective rights and responsibilities.
Your boyfriend will be paying half the mortgage and half the cost of utilities. Does he have any interest in obtaining half of the property in the future, whether you remain a couple? Does he believe that he will be obtaining any ownership rights because he is making these payments?
What about furniture? Will you be furnishing the entire house, or will your friend share these expenses?
What happens should you decide to split? Will you be able to afford to carry the house on your own, or will you need to get a roommate to assist you financially?
If both of you were to go on the title, the law is universal in the United States. The courts will not allow two or more people to own property together when one of the parties wants out of the relationship. This would result in a "partition suit," where one owner sues the others to force a sale of the jointly held property.
According to many legal commentators, "partition is a right much favored," because it is designed to promote peace. Once the litigation is over, the parties may continue to feud, but at least the property issues will have been resolved.
But because you will own the property in your own name, as "sole owner," partition is not applicable. You do, however, want to avoid giving your friend any opportunity to claim an interest in the property. Now, while you are still speaking with each other, is the time to prepare and sign a written agreement spelling out the issues that can arise from your living arrangement.
Here are some of the issues that should be discussed, agreed upon and then put in writing:
* How much will he pay you on a monthly basis?
* What is the money for? Perhaps the best approach is to just call the monthly payment a "contribution to living expenses," rather than earmarking it for specific items.
* There are strong laws in our area protecting tenants. Your agreement should state that your friend is not a tenant under applicable landlord-tenant laws, even though he is paying you money. Try to avoid using the word "rent" in your agreement.
* What happens should you decide to sell the property? Will he vacate when you do?
* What happens should he not make the monthly payment? Do you have the right to sue him or ask him to vacate?
* What about food? Will you keep separate kitchens or will this be shared?
* Will your friend have access to the entire house, or will you want some space for yourself?
These are some of the difficult questions that you must resolve before you buy the house. I recognize that it is tough to discuss these issues, especially since this is your boyfriend. But couples split. If you are unable to discuss these matters now, think of how much more difficult it will be if problems occur.
While it may be advisable for both of you to retain your own lawyers for the purpose of drafting this agreement, you do not need a formal document. As long as there is a legible agreement, signed by both parties, that should suffice.
We are in a litigious environment. Anyone can sue anyone for anything. While I am satisfied that your boyfriend will not have any valid claim of ownership against your title, the written agreement is the best way to assure you that he will not be able to make a claim in the future.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington lawyer. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address.