Words matter in the law. The inclusion or exclusion of one word or phrase in a document can have a significant impact on a situation. A good example is the inclusion of the “s” word in a deed; the word being “survivorship.”
When someone owns property with another person, there is a default rule as to ownership rights at death. Unless otherwise noted, co-owners hold property as “tenants in common.” This designation means that each owner holds an undivided partial interest. The key is that when one owner dies, his or her interest does not pass to the other owner, but rather passes through the estate of the deceased owner (for example, pursuant to the Will). On the other hand, if the deed uses the term “survivorship,” usually by stating “as joint tenants with right of survivorship,” then upon the death of one owner, his or her interest passes to the surviving owner(s).
As one can see, the actual wording can have significant legal ramifications. For example:
- Brother and sister inherited their family home after the death of their parents. The deed lists both of their names “as joint tenants with right of survivorship.” If brother dies, his interest goes to his sister and would not pass to his family pursuant to the terms of his Will.
- Husband and wife own their home as tenants in common. There is no survivorship language. When wife dies, her interest in the home does not automatically pass to her husband. The husband must take legal steps (such as probating his wife’s estate) in order to get the home into his name.
If you own property with someone else (even a spouse), it never hurts to check your deed and ensure it states what you think it states.