In a partition proceeding in West Virginia in which a party opposes the sale of property, the economic value of the property is not the exclusive test for deciding whether to partition in kind or by sale. Evidence of long-standing ownership, coupled with sentimental or emotional interests in the property, may also be considered in deciding whether the interests of the party opposing the sale will be prejudiced by the property's sale, even with an inconvenience to the party seeking a sale.
This is a dispute involving approximately 75 acres of land situate in Lincoln County, West Virginia. The record indicates that "the Caudill family has owned the land for nearly 100 years." The property "consists of a farmhouse, constructed around 1920, several small barns, and a garden." Prior to 2001, the property was owned exclusively by the Caudill family. However, in 2001 Ark Land acquired a 67.5% undivided interest in the land by purchasing the property interests of several Caudill family members. Ark Land attempted to purchase the remaining property interests held by the Caudill heirs, but they refused to sell. Ark Land sought to purchase all of the property for the express purpose of extracting coal by surface mining. After the Caudill heirs refused to sell their interest in the land, Ark Land filed a complaint in the Circuit Court seeking to have the land partitioned and sold. The circuit court appointed three commissioners, pursuant to W. Va. Code § 37-4-3 (1957) (Repl. Vol. 1997), to conduct an evidentiary hearing. The commissioners subsequently concluded that the property could not be conveniently partitioned in kind. The Caudill heirs objected to the report filed by the commissioners. The circuit court held a de novo review that involved testimony from lay and expert witnesses. On October 30, 2002, the circuit court entered an order directing the partition and sale of the property. On January 7, 2003 the circuit court entered an "agreed order" that permitted the property to be sold, with a deposit of $ 50,000 being made, pending an appeal by the Caudill heirs. The circuit court entered an order on February 5, 2003, certifying that its October 30, 2002, order was a final order under Rule 54(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. From this ruling the Caudill heirs appealed.
Should the economic value of the property be the sole decisive factor in determining whether to partition in kind or by sale?
The Court held the fact that the corporation's proposed use of the property caused it to be worth more money, as opposed to maintaining it as a family homestead, did not control when deciding whether to order that the property be partitioned in kind or partitioned by a sale. Partition in kind was the preferred partition method, and the partitioning sale statute, W. Va. Code § 37-4-3, was to be construed narrowly. Evidence of the heirs' long-standing ownership of the property, and their sentimental or emotional interests in it, could be considered and controlled because the property could be partitioned in kind, even though it caused some economic inconvenience to the corporation. The corporation's self-created enhancement of the property's value, based on the corporation's expectation that it could mine coal on it, was not a determinative factor in forcing the heirs to give up their rights through a forced partition by sale.