A while back, I asked readers who were involved with family cottages (or summer homes or cabins or whatever you want to call them) to tell me their stories. I was curious about how many generations the property had been in your family; how you handled carrying costs, improvements, scheduling and use; whether your property was governed by a tenancy in common or other legal arrangement; and whether that arrangement was rocky or smooth. Some first-rate sociology had already been done in this area, but I was curious enough to want to supplement with some casual empiricism.
I recently posted the article that grew out of these inquiries on SSRN. Forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review, the article discusses how “identity property” is passed along from one generation to the next. Identity property is that which is valued for what it represents about self and family—a sort of ratcheted-down version of Margaret Radin’s “personhood property.” In the absence of more sophisticated estate planning, identity property is often inherited by the decedent’s children, who take as tenants in common. Standard doctrine relies on familial bonds and the unilateral right of partition to mitigate bilateral monopoly problems and to foster cooperation in the management of the children’s common resource. I argue that with identity property, this standard account is often wrong. Because courts favor partition by sale, the exit of one tenant often means that the remaining co-tenants will be forced to sell the identity property. Because the remaining tenants perceive the property as non-fungible, the threat of exit can be powerful enough to exacerbate bilateral monopoly problems and decrease the likelihood of cooperation.
The article makes use of some of the stories that readers of Concurring Opinions told about their family cottages to elucidate how devisees modify the default rules of a tenancy in common, particularly the right of partition. What I found most interesting about these stories was how willing some individuals were to radically restrict their right of exit from the co-tenancy and the corresponding belief that a strong right of exit would ultimately work against their collective interest. The Article ultimately argues that when it comes to identity property, the right of exit through partition should not be as absolute as current law allows.
For those who are interested in learning more, the abstract and article are available here.
p.s. And for those of you who are gearing up for another season in property that is jointly owned with other relatives, rest assured that not one single person who responded to my request reported an entirely smooth arrangement!