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Clark v. Clark

July 18, 1994


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Richard A. Levie, Motions Judge), (Hon. Richard S. Salzman, Trial Judge)

Before Terry and Sullivan, Associate Judges and Gallagher, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry

TERRY, Associate Judge: This appeal is the latest chapter in the protracted litigation associated with a separation and divorce. *fn1 The issue before us is whether, under District of Columbia law, a husband can validly execute a quitclaim deed to his wife for a property that the two hold as tenants by the entireties, thereby extinguishing his own interest in the property. The trial court, on a motion for partial summary judgment, ruled against the husband, and a jury later found that he had "intended to relinquish permanently" his entire interest in the property when he gave his wife the quitclaim deed. He appeals; we affirm.


In March 1976 Raymond and Danielle Clark separated, but did not divorce. A few months after they separated, they bought a house in the Georgetown area for Mrs. Clark and their daughter to live in. Mr. Clark decided that he and Mrs. Clark should take title as tenants by the entireties, and that is what they did. *fn2

Two years later, while the parties were still separated but not yet divorced, Mr. Clark prepared, executed, and delivered to Mrs. Clark a quitclaim deed which said that he was conveying to Mrs. Clark "all of right, title, and interest" in the house they had purchased. *fn3 Mrs. Clark did not record the quitclaim deed, however, because her estranged husband -- who, Mrs. Clark believed, was also her attorney *fn4 -- told her not to. *fn5

The parties were finally divorced in 1979. Mr. Clark later remarried, and in 1988 he conveyed his interest in the Georgetown house as a gift to his new wife, Anne Lewis Clark, and recorded the deed of gift. Danielle Clark, his former wife, was not told of this supposed gift and did not discover it until she tried to sell the house in 1989. She thereupon filed this suit in the Superior Court seeking to invalidate Mr. Clark's gift to his second wife and asking that the Recorder of Deeds be ordered to record the 1978 quitclaim deed. *fn6 Mr. Clark and his second wife (appellants) moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that the quitclaim deed had no effect on the tenancy by the entireties, but the court denied the motion. The case then went to trial before a jury on the issue of Mr. Clark's intent in executing the deed. The jury returned a verdict against him, finding that Mr. Clark "intended to relinquish permanently all his right, title, and interest in the house to [his first wife] when he gave her a quitclaim deed to the property." The court entered judgment on the verdict and later denied appellants' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively, for a new trial.


The doctrine of tenancy by the entireties has long been established in the law of the District of Columbia. See Travis v. Benson, 360 A.2d 506, 509 (D.C. 1976); Settle v. Settle, 56 App. D.C. 50, 51, 8 F.2d 911, 912 (1925). It rests on the common law concept of husband and wife as a single, indivisible unit. As one treatise explains:

Because the husband and wife were considered one person, a true form of concurrent ownership between them was not conceptually possible; the tenancy by the entirety, in which the property was held in its entirety -- without undivided shares -- by the marital unit of husband and wife, was the only tenancy by which husband and wife could concurrently hold land.


The issue in this appeal is whether the quitclaim deed, which Mr. Clark executed while he and his former wife were still married and holding the property as tenants by the entireties, extinguished any interest that he had in the property. When appellants moved for judgment n.o.v., arguing that the quitclaim deed was invalid as a matter of law, the trial court denied the motion, citing 4A Powell, (supra) , at P 622 [3], *fn7 and Hogan v. Hogan, 102 U.S. App. D.C. 87, 250 F.2d 412 (1957). *fn8 Appellants maintain that the trial court's ruling must be reversed because it offends centuries of common law. We disagree.

Appellants argue that a tenancy by the entireties essentially locks a husband and wife into joint ownership. They assert that "an individual tenant by the entireties convey nothing to anyone acting alone because separately he owns nothing" and that "so long as [Mr. and Mrs. Clark] were still husband and wife, the common law prohibition against unilateral alienation and the right of survivorship remained intact." They conclude that the quitclaim deed from Mr. Clark to Mrs. Clark violated these principles and was therefore a nullity.

To support this argument, appellants rely heavily on Coleman v. Jackson, 109 U.S. App. D.C. 242, 286 F.2d 98 (1960), cert. denied, 366 U.S. 933, 6 L. Ed. 2d 391, 81 S. Ct. 1656 (1961). Coleman involved a dispute over property rights between Susie Jackson, the legal wife of Thomas Jackson, the decedent, and Alice Coleman, the woman with whom the decedent had lived, ostensibly as husband and wife, for over thirty years. The dispute concerned a house in the District of Columbia which Mr. Jackson and Ms. Coleman bought as tenants by the entireties a few years before Mr. Jackson's death. The trial court ruled that Mr. Jackson and Ms. Coleman could not have owned the property as tenants by the entireties because they were not married and that the conveyance to them created only a tenancy in common, without right of survivorship. The Court of Appeals agreed that they could not have ...

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