Real estate is not something you should handle with informal agreements or understandings, especially when you are involved with a partner. That includes romantic partners. After all, couples break up, and when they do, that “implied agreement” regarding the house you shared is unlikely to stand up in court.
Ex-Partner’s Death Precludes Possible Evidence of Oral Agreement
Here is a recent example from upstate New York. A boyfriend and girlfriend shared a house in Plattsburgh. They were originally both on the deed as joint tenants with rights of survivorship—meaning that if one partner died, the other would automatically assume 100% ownership of the property. However, about 10 years into the relationship the boyfriend signed a quitclaim deed transferring his one-half interest to the girlfriend outright.
About five years after this transfer took place, the couple ended their relationship. The ex-boyfriend subsequently sued the ex-girlfriend, claiming he was entitled to get his one-half interest in the house back. He alleged there was some sort of an agreement with her on this subject.
Unfortunately, the ex-girlfriend died while the lawsuit was pending. (The lawsuit continue against her estate.) The trial judge accordingly refused to allow any evidence or testimony regarding the plaintiff’s alleged discussions with the deceased about the purported agreement. This is due to a legal rule known as the “Dead Man’s Statute,” which generally “precludes a party or person interested in the underlying event from offering testimony concerning a personal transaction or communication with the decedent.”
Absent any evidence of an agreement, the plaintiff was the only witness in support of his own case. By his own testimony, he was advised by legal counsel at the time he signed the quitclaim deed “that he was giving up all ‘right, title and interest’ in the property by transferring his interest to decedent.” In other words, it was an unconditional gift.
The plaintiff also suggested he was under the impression that his ex-girlfriend would leave an interest in the real property to his children under her will. But as the Appellate Division, Third Department, explained in its own order affirming the trial judge’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s case, there was no evidence that he relied on any such promise before making the transfer. The Third Department also rejected the plaintiff’s claims the defendant was “unjustly enriched” because he continued to make “ongoing contributions” for the property’s maintenance while he continued to live there after signing the quitclaim deed. As the court explained, that was simply him paying for his own personal enjoyment of the property; it did not unfairly “enrich” his ex-girlfriend.