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You fall in love, buy a house together and you're getting married, and it falls apart - what now?

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

You tried your best, but now You and the prior love of your life own a house together and you are "divorcing", but the problem is you were never married, and therefore, you can't get a divorce. What do you do?

Well, the simple answer is that you work it out, but what if you can't? Well, that's when the courts of Missouri give you a simple solution (on paper anyway) to work it out. It is called a "partition action", which in normal speak means that you and your former significant other walk up to the judge and say "sell my house and give me half".

Sounds simple enough, but there are many complicated potential twists in a lawsuit such as this. It's pretty simple if both of you were on the mortgage and both of you put half of your paycheck each month into the mortgage. You never had a joint bank account and you always paid the month on time. And when it was time to call Jonny Handyman in, you both split his bill in half, you wrote checks, and you both kept the invoice and the paid in full invoice for your share.

The reality is that this will never happen. In most domestic partnerships (i.e. a euphemism for two unmarried, cohabitating adults (Yikes, another euphemism), the courts will look to find evidence to create an equitable split of the asset(s). This could be cars, houses, horses, or even golf carts (should you live in the sprawling outskirts of a major city).

There are two things you can consider if you absolutely must buy property if you are not married at least in the State of Missouri. The first is that if you buy any property or purchase any vehicle or other asset that has a title, you should include the magic words when purchasing the property as "joint tenants with rights of survivorship" or "JTWOS". This is automatic if you are married, and if you were to buy an asset, you would want it treated as a marital asset, despite being married - at least for the most part. Therefore, if you are not married, and you don't include the JTWOS language in the deed, then your partner's parents, or children may have title to the house the two of you bought, improved and dreamed of providing. Your fiancee dies, and now his parents are trying to kick you out of your house, because, they now own it via his estate - something you probably want to avoid.

The second thing is that you need to keep receipts, or keep time. In today's age, you will often have a household where partners provide different things. Two scenarios come to mind, the first, a couple purchases a home and one pays for the mortgage, and the other pays and performs the improvements. The second is that one pays for the mortgage and the improvements and the other takes care of the kids, the cleaning and the day to day of the household. Just because one pays for all of the payments, doesn't mean they are entitled to all of the equity in the property when it is sold.

The key is what can you ultimately prove to a judge. The spouse making the payments has direct deposit, direct withdrawal, and a clear paper trail. The other partner has sweat equity, time spent with children and other intangibles. If they can be proven, they can be just as valuable, if not more valuable than the cash contributions.

You should always meet with a lawyer, especially before you decide to purchase property or any other asset with any other person who you are not legally married to prior to making that purchase - especially in Missouri, but most of us do not have that forethought.

Regardless, you should always keep receipts, keep a journal, keep a calendar, and of course any bank statements and receipts. Make sure you have witnesses, and a list of people who saw you painting the house on the second Saturday in September 20 years ago. What is better is that if you are young, get legally married before you have any joint assets, because the divorce actions protect you in all of these situations, and everything is taken into account in a family lawsuit versus a partition lawsuit.

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