Many people, especially couples, own their homes or other real estate in "joint tenancy." Joint tenancy with right of survivorship (often abbreviated "JTWROS") is a type of joint ownership that gives co-owners survivorship rights, meaning that when one co-owner dies, the other co-owner(s) automatically owns the entire property.
Contrast that with "tenancy in common," a type of joint ownership without survivorship rights: In a tenancy in common, a co-owner's share of the property passes directly to that co-owner's inheritors or heirs upon death rather than to the other co-owner(s).
Joint tenancy property doesn't go through probate (that's its biggest advantage). But even though the deceased person's share of the real estate automatically goes to the surviving co-owner(s), the real estate must still be transferred into the name(s) of the surviving co-owner(s).
Example: Jasper and Katie own a home as joint tenants with right of survivorship; each owns half the home. When Jasper dies, his half of the home automatically goes to Katie. She now owns the entire home. However, she must still take steps to transfer the home's title, which is currently in both her name and Jasper's, to her name alone.
Many couples also hold property in "tenancy by the entirety." This method of property ownership is similar to joint tenancy in that it comes with the right of survivorship. However, tenancy by the entirety is available only in about half of the states and only to married couples (or couples who've entered into a registered domestic partnership or civil union) in those states.
While owning a property as tenants by the entirety can have different outcomes from owning the property as joint tenants (such as what happens if the couple gets divorced or whether the property is protected from creditors), the process for retitling the property, discussed below, is essentially the same.
When one co-owner dies, property owned in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship automatically belongs to the surviving owner (or owners). The owners are called joint tenants.
A note on terminology: In most states, "joint tenancy" is used synonymously with "joint tenancy with right of survivorship." However, a few states require you to use the entire phrase (or the abbreviation "JTWROS") if you want to indicate survivorship rights.
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. For instance, if three siblings owned a house in joint tenancy, each would own a one-third interest. So, if one died, the two survivors would each own a half-interest. (Only a few states allow joint tenants to own unequal shares, and only if the deed transferring the property says so.)
To find out whether or not real estate owned by a person who's died was held in joint tenancy, check the deed. What you see might not be straightforward. 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:
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 spouses intend to hold real estate as joint tenants or tenants by the entirety when they take title to it together unless the deed states otherwise. And in most states, if two people who aren't married own real estate together and the deed doesn't specify how they own it, they're presumed to own it as tenants in common rather than as joint tenants.
If you're not sure whether or not real estate was held in joint tenancy, get expert advice from a lawyer.
Legally, the surviving joint tenant owns the entire property automatically, as of the moment of the other joint tenant's death. No probate is necessary, which can save significant time and money. But the deed (and the property tax statement and the homeowner's insurance bills) are all still in the names of both joint tenants, so the surviving joint tenant must take a few additional steps.
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 could be called:
The local land records office could also be part of the County Clerk's Office. (In California, it's part of the Office of the Clerk-Recorder.)
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:
The statement is often called something like
Most offices will require this statement to be notarized. Typically, the statement is about a page long and contains:
Your state or county might require additional documents. To find out the requirements in your county, call or check the website of the local land records office, talk to someone at a title company, or consult a probate lawyer.