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What is joint tenancy?
Joint tenancy is a form of property ownership in which two or more individuals own a property with equal interest and enjoy equal rights to the property. Joint tenancy is most common among married couples, although this property right is also available to business partners, friends purchasing property together, and relatives.
A joint tenancy is established at the same time that a property is purchased. Every tenant holds the same amount of interest equally divided up between them.
One of the most popular reasons to hold property in joint tenancy is to bypass the probate process. In a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, when a tenant dies, the joint tenancy interest automatically transfers from the deceased tenant to the surviving one, without the need to go through probate court. This is important for joint tenants who need to continue living in the property or using it for business. Individuals who hold property in joint tenancy can’t leave the property to someone who isn’t a joint tenant.
To create a joint tenancy, the tenants must meet the following requirements, which are called “four unities”:
- All tenants must obtain the property at the same time.
- All tenants must have acquired the title of property by the same document.
- All tenants must share equal interest in the property.
- All tenants must exercise equal rights to ownership.
If any of the above conditions are not met, the court may assume that a tenancy in common exists instead of joint tenancy. A tenant in common may hold a larger share of the property than other tenants. The tenant is also usually free to dispose of his or her share without the restrictions of joint tenancy.
A joint tenancy can be terminated at any time by any of the joint tenants if any of the four conditions listed above are breached. Terminating a joint tenancy before one of the tenants dies is called severance, and typically leads to a tenancy in common between the surviving tenants. Unlike in a tenancy by the entirety, a joint tenancy can be terminated by a creditor attempting to extract a debt from one tenant if that tenant refuses to pay, even if the other tenants do not owe any debts.
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Joint tenancy example
An individual who owns, lives in, or uses a piece of property with a spouse, friend, or business partner is an ideal candidate for owning property in joint tenancy. For example, assume that two lawyers decide to go into business together, and they purchase a commercial building for their office space. They decide to hold the building in joint tenancy so that, if one of them dies, the business can continue to operate during the asset-distribution process of probate. The surviving individual retains ownership of the property and can continue to use the building to operate the law firm.