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I live in the US (Massachusetts) and I jointly own a house, along with my wife and her parents (who live with us). I have noticed a frustrating trend recently with the other co-owners making repairs/modifications without informing me beforehand or asking my consent. For example, the other week my Father-in-law made a new doorway in the fenced storage area under the deck in our back yard, which I was not consulted about. I have tried discussing it with them on several occasions, but my protests seem to be falling on deaf ears.

So, I am wondering if I have any legal options to prevent them from unilaterally making modifications to the house? For example, could I apply for a court injunction to prevent them making modifications without my express consent?

Edit: Of course, they are my family and I'm not saying I would like to see them dragged off and put in jail/punished. But, if push comes to shove and the 'diplomatic' approach fails, I am thinking that a court summons or some type of official court order might have a 'wake up and smell the coffee' effect of showing them that I am dead serious about asserting and defending any legal rights that I (may) have, as a joint owner.

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    I would think that legal means should be the last resort, especially given the relationships. Have you tried any interpersonal approaches yet? – mikeazo Aug 7 '18 at 19:19
  • @mikeazo I have certainly tried to discuss it with them on several occasions, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears (I will edit my question to add that detail). Thanks for your suggestion. I might well ask on that SE site as well, to approach the problem from a different angle. However, I am still interested in the legal aspect, in case the interpersonal approach doesn't work and/or things get 'out of hand'. – Time4Tea Aug 7 '18 at 19:31
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I jointly own a house, along with my wife and her parents

could I apply for a court injunction to prevent them making modifications without my express consent?

Imagine you were the only owner of the house but had split personality. Once in a while something would switch in your mind making you try to modify/sell/demolish the house. When it happens, a close friend would talk you back into your normal state. Scared of what you could have done, you apply for a court injunction to prevent yourself making modifications etc. to the house. Unless the court decides you are no longer in legal capacity, it rejects your application.

Legally, join ownership is no different in this context. You have to deal with your joint co-owners like you would have to deal with your other personality in the example above.

  • I've never seen that analogy used before, but the conclusion regarding the legal rule that applies is correct. – ohwilleke Aug 8 '18 at 2:35
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I am wondering if I have any legal options to prevent them from unilaterally making modifications to the house? For example, could I apply for a court injunction to prevent them making modifications without my express consent?

No. You could ask a court, but it should reject your request.

They are within their rights to do so unilaterally, and to get credit in any subsequent sale for the value they added from their unilateral improvements.

Your only other options are to force a partition of the property (usually with a sheriff's sale of the property at auction with the proceeds divided among the owners according to their entitlements in equity), or to convince everyone to voluntarily enter into a mutual agreement imposing some rules or putting the property into an entity with a management structure (possibly driven by the threat of a partition action).

  • Thanks. It's interesting that you say they would "get credit for their unilateral improvements in any subsequent sale. In that case, I assume the flip-side would also be true: that if they did something that reduced the value of the property, then I would have a case that the reduction should be taken from their share? Although, I'm guessing I would need to have some evidence (e-mails?) to show that I objected to the modification at the time? To take it to the extreme, if they bulldozed the house, would I have grounds to sue for compensation for my share? – Time4Tea Aug 8 '18 at 13:28
  • @Time4Tea Probably. Certainly, if they bulldozed the house you could charge them at least in a final accounting, either on a tort theory or for "economic waste." There aren't many cases that are factually on point presenting that situation. – ohwilleke Aug 9 '18 at 4:31
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Generally, a co-owner has full legal access to the whole property and the right to use and enjoy its entiriety, not just a portion of it.

So, say, if your father-in-law wanted to plant a tree, he could do so (because its his property), any where on the property, without your consent. If your wife wanted to plant tulips, she could do so without your consent.

Basically, your assumption that your consent is necessary is not legally correct (socially, it might be nice but...). While you can ask a court for any kind of injunction you'd like, you are not necessarily going to get it. It may change if you think, for example, your father-in-law is constructing something that that is dangerous to your property or the people living there(e.g. a chimney, unless he is/was a licensed builder of chimney, also see below), but otherwise this is more of a social family problem than a legal one.

However, this isn't to say that your co-owners can do everything without your consent. There are generally only one or two things your co-owners cannot legally do without your consent, depending on your type of co-ownership:

  1. They cannot mortgage or encumber the property. Note that if your father-in-law hired someone to build the doorway, and did not pay them in full immediately, this could be grounds for an injunction (because that unpaid work could produce a lien against the whole property, which is an encumbrance).

  2. They may or may not be able to sell (their ownership share of) the property without your consent (unless they have a court order). If your joint ownership is a "tenancy-in-common", they need your permission to sell; if you have a "joint-tenancy" they do not need your permission to sell, but cannot sell the whole property, but only their interest in it (their share, if you will).

Note that I'd avoid discussing if you are tenants-in-common or joint-tenants with your spouse and in-laws. The two are largely the same, with the main difference being what happens when someone dies, which tends to be a touchy subject.

  • Thank you for your answer, this is interesting. The thing is, whilst they may have the legal right to unilaterally make a modification, surely I also have a legal right to prevent it from happening, as I also own the property? For example, I could tear out his tree the following day and that would also be legal, or I could block their way as they attempt to remodel the bathroom. So, as far as the law is concerned, this area is effectively a no-man's-land? – Time4Tea Aug 7 '18 at 21:53
  • For the most part, yes, although I would feel more comfortable saying you have the right . Certainly, I believe you would have the right to pull out the tree (IANAL) provided you did it safely; blocking his way is less certain for me, as you are curtailing his rights, but I think you could probably remodel his remodel back to the original. Again I'd encourage you to think of this as less of a legal problem and more of a social one. – sharur Aug 7 '18 at 22:06
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    "They cannot mortgage or encumber the property." and "They may or may not be able to sell (their ownership share of) the property without your consent (unless they have a court order)." Both of these claims are legally inaccurate. The owner of a tenancy in common interest in property may sell or encumber what they own, an undivided interest in the whole. Mostly commercial lenders and buyers won't be interested in that deal, but one has the legal authority to do so. A purported transfer or encumbrance of a joint tenancy interest converts it to a tenancy in common by operation of law. (more) – ohwilleke Aug 8 '18 at 2:38
  • (Continued) The only kind of ownership to which the no mortgage or transfer without unanimous consent rule applies is called a "tenancy by entireties" which can only be formed between a husband and wife (and no one else) and only exists in a handful of states in the Eastern U.S., the most memorable of which to me is MA since my brother owns his house in that form of tenancy. – ohwilleke Aug 8 '18 at 2:39

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