Attorney At Law: Everything you need to know about jointly owned property...

Attorney At Law: Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Various types of property, such as bank accounts and real estate, can be owned jointly with another person(s). Depending on the type of joint ownership, the property may pass automatically to the joint owner, outside of probate and those named in the will.

A will only governs assets in the decedent’s sole name that do not have a designated beneficiary. For example, if a co-owner of a checking, savings, or deposit account were to pass away, the account would automatically become solely owned by the surviving owner, outside of probate, and the will of the deceased owner would not apply.

Real estate can be jointly owned in several different ways, each coming with a different set of rules:

Joint Tenancy: Also known as “Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship,” Joint Tenancy provides that upon the death of a joint owner, that owner’s share automatically goes to the surviving joint owner and does not pass through probate and is not governed by a will. 

For example, if Mary and Bob owned property as Joint Tenants and Bob passed away, Mary would automatically become the sole owner even if Bob’s will directed that all his property should pass to his children. When Mary passes away the property would pass according to her will since she is now the sole owner. The main advantage of Joint Tenancy is that it avoids probate upon the death of the first Joint Tenant and probate (the process by which the court verifies the validity of a will) is typically costly and takes several months to complete.

Tenancy by the Entirety: Tenancy by the Entirety is a type of joint tenancy only available between spouses and is valid in a few states including New York. As with Joint Tenancy, upon the death of the first spouse their interest automatically passes to the surviving spouse outside of probate and is not governed by their will. 

In addition to avoiding probate, Tenancy by the Entirety provides several protections in that one spouse cannot mortgage or sell the property without the consent of the other spouse, nor can the creditor of one spouse place a lien or enforce a judgment against property held as tenants by the entirety. 

Tenancy in Common: Here, there is no right of survivorship and each owner’s share of the property passes to their chosen beneficiaries upon the owner’s death. Tenants in Common can have unequal interests in the property (e.g. 50%, 40%, 10%) and when one Tenant dies their beneficiaries will inherit their share and become co-owners with the other Tenants. 

A Tenant in Common’s share will pass according to their will (if they have one) which means the nominated Executor will have to probate the will by filing a petition with Surrogate’s Court. However, a Tenant in Common can still avoid probate if their share of the property is held in trust, in which case the terms of the trust (rather than their will) would control how the property passes at death and no court involvement would be needed.

A comprehensive estate plan with an experienced attorney ensures that probate and non-probate assets work in harmony. In addition, there are capital gains consequences when transferring ownership interests during your lifetime — and such “gifts” should never be done without consulting an attorney or accountant. 

One of the biggest problems we see with DIY wills is the testator failing to account for the different types of ownership and what assets pass through the will.

Nancy Burner, Esq. is the founder and managing partner at Burner Law Group, P.C with offices located in East Setauket, Westhampton Beach, New York City and East Hampton.