Transferring Joint Tenancy Real Estate After a Death

Property held in joint tenancy is usually easy to transfer to the survivor after the other owner dies.

Many people, especially couples, own their homes or other real estate in "joint tenancy." Holding title this way is often a good idea, because it allows a quick and easy transfer to the survivor when one co-owner dies. Joint tenancy property doesn’t go through probate (that’s its biggest selling point), but as executor you may be asked to help with getting the property into the name of the surviving co-owner.

(Real estate may also be held in a living trust. In that case, please see Transferring Real Estate Held in a Trust.)

Many couples also hold property in "tenancy by the entirety." It’s similar to joint tenancy, but is available only to married couples (or couples who have entered into a registered domestic partnership or civil union) in about half of the states.

Who Owns the Property When One Co-Owner Dies?

When one co-owner dies, property that was held in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship automatically belongs to the surviving owner (or owners). The owners are called joint tenants. In most states, joint tenants must own equal shares; for example, you can’t have one joint tenant who owns a half-interest in the property and two others who own a quarter-interest each. So if three siblings owned a house in joint tenancy, each would own a one-third interest; if one died, the two survivors would each own a half-interest. Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, and Vermont, however, allow joint tenants to own unequal shares.

How to Tell Whether Real Estate Was Held in Joint Tenancy

To see whether or not real estate owned by the deceased person was held in joint tenancy, check the deed that transferred the property into the names of the joint tenants. What you see may not be completely easy to understand. With luck, you’ll see something like “Stephen T. Jones and Maria L. Jones, as joint tenants with right of survivorship.” You might also see:

  • “Stephen T. Jones and Maria L. Jones, as joint tenants”
  • “Stephen T. Jones and Maria L. Jones, JTWROS” [joint tenants with right of survivorship]

If the deed simply lists two owners but doesn’t say how they are taking title to the property, you’ll have to find out what state law says. In some states, it’s presumed that unless spouses state otherwise, they intend to hold real estate as joint tenants when they take title to it together.

If you’re not sure whether or not real estate was held in joint tenancy, get expert advice from a local lawyer.

How to Transfer Joint Tenancy Property Into the Survivor’s Name

Legally, the surviving joint tenant owns the entire property, automatically, as of the moment of the joint tenant’s death. But the deed (and the property tax statement and the homeowner’s insurance bills) are all still in the names of both joint tenants.

To make it clear that the surviving joint tenant is now the sole owner of the property, the survivor should document the change in the public real estate records. Those records are kept in the local land records office, which may be called the County Recorder, Register of Deeds, or other name.

Real estate law is always local; the survivor will have to find out how things are done in the county where the property is situated. Generally, though, the survivor will need to record (file) one or both of these documents with the local land records office:

  • Statement, signed by the survivor, stating that the survivor is now the sole owner of the joint tenancy property
  • Certified copy of the death certificate

The statement is often called something like “Affidavit –Death of Joint Tenant” or “Affidavit of Surviving Spouse for Change of Title to Real Estate.” It may need to be notarized, in which case it’s called an affidavit; in some states, it only needs to be signed “under penalty of perjury” and is called a declaration.

Typically, the statement is about a page long and contains:

  • a legal description of the property (copied from the deed)
  • a statement that the property was held in joint tenancy
  • a reference to the deed that transferred the property to the joint tenants, including its date and where it was recorded (filed) in the local land records office
  • the name and date of death of the deceased joint tenant, and
  • the name and signature of the surviving sole owner.

Additional documents may be required by your state or county. To find out what documents are needed in your state, check the local court’s website, talk to someone at a title company, or consult a local probate lawyer.

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