Appeals court to weigh rights to home of unmarried couple

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court is slated to hear a case in the next few weeks that could change life as we know it for a lot of people living together for years as an unmarried couple.

The question is, if only one person has their name on the deed, can they just toss the other person out whenever they feel like it, or does there have to be a hearing in court, first, to determine who has to leave?

The case involves a wealthy man named Sumner Slavin who sued his former romantic partner, Nannette Lewis, to force her out of the house in Brookline where they had been living together for eight years.

When the relationship went south, Slavin tried to kick Lewis to the street by going to court and accusing Lewis of trespassing on his property. As a trespasser, Lewis would have no rights, and would have to leave the house immediately, without the kind of due process people get when they’re married or tenants.

Lewis balked at Slavin’s lawsuit and filed her own case against him, arguing that she was not a trespasser, she was a long-term legal occupant and had an equitable interest in the home. She was directly involved in the purchase of the property with Slavin, as his business and romantic partner. Slavin paid for the house, but Lewis designed and renovated it, adding substantial value to the property.

Before you assume Lewis is some sort of gold digger, you should know that she is a wealthy woman in her own right, with a reputation as a world-class interior designer for such clients as Bob Kraft. Lewis also had a long history of buying, gutting, designing and rebuilding high-end properties with a different business partner before Slavin persuaded her to go into business with him instead.

When the renovations on the property she shared with Slavin were complete, they moved into the home together, and used it as their primary residence. Both referred to the home as “our property.”

The couple also purchased and renovated other properties together, with Slavin paying for the house and Lewis doing all the renovation work. They soon became engaged and had plans to marry.

When Slavin declared the relationship over, he filed a lawsuit to force Lewis to leave, claiming she was a “mere guest” and a trespasser, who should immediately vacate the premises simply because he wanted her out.

A judge refused to order Lewis to leave and the case quickly went to appeal.

The Appeals Court now must decide whether Slavin has the right to decide on his own that Lewis is a trespasser who must leave the home at his command or if Lewis is entitled to a due process hearing where a judge, not Slavin, determines her legal status.

In general, when a homeowner wants an occupant to leave, they must file a Summary Process case in the Housing Court, but Housing Court cases take time, and Slavin wanted Lewis out fast. Calling her a trespasser would allow him to skirt the requirements of Summary Process law and get Lewis out quickly.

Forcing a person to move out of a home where they have lived for years, especially when they have a vested interest in the property, is unconscionable. This is why Summary Process is so important. It ensures that people have a meaningful hearing in front of a judge, so their rights can be determined, before they become homeless.

Whether a person has any rights at all depends on whether they are considered an “occupant” or a trespasser. An occupant has rights, a trespasser does not. The courts have never ruled that a homeowner can unilaterally determine which label applies.

The court’s decision will have enormous impact on society, because many people live together as unmarried couples in a home owned by only one of them. The consequences are especially important for women who are financially dependent on their non-martial partners for their housing needs.

If a very wealthy woman can be treated like a trespasser at the whim of her boyfriend, what chance does a woman of lesser means have to avoid homelessness with the sweep of her romantic partner’s hand when he finds a new girlfriend, or acts out in a fit of anger or drunken rage?

If Slavin wins, a man could simply call the police and report his partner for trespassing. So long as only the man’s name is on the deed, police can forcibly remove and even arrest the woman, at his command, leaving her destitute on the street.

And you wonder why women still need the Equal Rights Amendment.

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