The Big Move: I’ve lived in my home for 30 years, but my ex-husband is forcing me to sell it. Do I have squatter’s rights?

United States

Dear MarketWatch,

I own a home with my ex-husband. He agreed to pay my half of the mortgage. In the final judgment, the judge said I should “keep” the property we owned in Palm Coast, Fla., and my ex should “keep” the Tampa home.

He ultimately short sold the Tampa property without my signature or approval, even though it was marital property. I have lived in the Palm Coast property for 30 years — 15 with my ex and 15 since the separation and divorce.

I thought “keep” meant keep, and the judge who is presiding over the lawsuit my ex has brought to partition the property agreed.

However, the first judge did not include the legal description of the property. Therefore, it was not a legal conveyance, and the second judge ordered the partition of the property, summary judgment.

Do I have any rights? The house was part of my settlement. I understand that it gets partitioned, but shouldn’t I be allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale? This house was where I was going to live in retirement.

I have remodeled and maintained this property on my own, and all of the insurance claims paid out went to him because he was the one in the mortgage. He kept this money and never used it to repair my home.

I am 60. I cannot afford to take on a mortgage. Don’t I at least have squatter’s rights? Can I bring legal action against the title company who facilitated the sale of the Tampa marital property, without my permission?


Spurned in Sunny Florida

‘The Big Move’ is a MarketWatch column looking at the ins and outs of real estate, from navigating the search for a new home to applying for a mortgage.

Do you have a question about buying or selling a home? Do you want to know where your next move should be? Email Jacob Passy at

Dear Spurned,

A financial expert once told me that going through a divorce is like experiencing your own personal recession. If you were to ask my colleague, The Moneyist, he could list of myriad stories where the dissolution of a marriage had major financial consequences. I’ve even interviewed a woman who said her divorce cost her around $ 1 million in retirement savings — the experience even inspired her to become a financial analyst who specializes in divorce cases.

I mention all of this to underscore that you’re not alone in feeling like you were wronged by your ex-husband — and that the precarious financial state you’re now in is unfair or unjust. That, however, doesn’t inherently mean that he’s done anything wrong, or that the judge made the wrong decision.

Florida state law spells out that, in a divorce, marital assets are to be divided equitably. But equitable doesn’t mean equal. In many cases, yes, assets will be split 50-50. But there will be situations where a judge may decide that splitting the marital property in half isn’t fair. That might be the case here.

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Without knowing how the rest of your assets were divided or whether your ex-husband was ordered to pay you alimony, it’s difficult for me to pass immediate judgment on what transpired. If the first judge spelled out that the Tampa property would go completely to your ex-husband, it stands to reason that he was within his rights to sell it without your consent.

That said, it sounds as though the second judge revised the terms of the divorce settlement, and reassessed how the property you two mutually owned in your marriage would be divided. If you believe that the second judge erred in revising the settlement, you could consider pursuing an appeal. I will warn you, though, that there is a time limit within which this appeal must be recorded, and it may be too late.

Assuming the second judge partitioned the home you’re currently living in, you will get a portion of the proceeds of any sale that were to occur. If the home was portioned in half, you would receive half the proceeds. Your ex-husband could attempt to force the sale through the court, but otherwise the two of you could seek to maximize your profit from the sale.

You could consider pursuing legal action, whether that be against your ex-husband, the title company associated with the sale of the Tampa home or the judge who neglected to record the terms of your original divorce settlement properly.

Just because you live in the home does not mean you have squatter’s rights. In Florida, a person must meet specific requirements to qualify as a squatter under so-called “adverse possession” laws.

I would venture to say that by definition, as a co-owner of the property, you would not qualify. One condition squatters in Florida must meet is hostile possession, meaning that they did not have permission from the property’s owner to live in it. Since you’re the owner, it would be difficult to argue that you didn’t give yourself permission to be there.

To be sure, you could consider pursuing legal action, whether that be against your ex-husband, the title company associated with the sale of the Tampa home or the judge who neglected to record the terms of your original divorce settlement properly. If you decide to approach lawyers about such a case, I would tread with caution. Don’t hire someone because they’re saying what you want to hear. If you are advised by multiple attorneys against pursuing legal action, trust their judgment.

You might find that a more valuable use of your time, energy and money would be to hire a financial adviser who could guide you through this volatile time in your life. If and when your current home is sold, you will receive some sort of profit. What you do with that money could determine how financially protected you are in the future, whether that means putting it toward the down payment on a new home, investing it or saving it to use for future rent payments.

Additionally, I want you to give yourself space to mourn. I can only imagine how stressful and unsettling this all has been for you. Allow yourself to feel those emotions now, so that hopefully you can make these next crucial decisions with a clear mind. I wish you the best of luck as you navigate these hurdles.

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