Central Coast Law Aug. 7, 2017

Any property a person holds in joint tenancy automatically passes down to the surviving joint tenant(s) when one of those tenants passes away. This is referred to as a “right of survivorship,” and it’s the easiest way to transfer property that multiple people owned once they have all passed away.

The right of survivorship is the principle that guides how married couples pass on property to each other. Major assets, such as homes, motor vehicles, and retirement accounts, are all likely to have multiple names on the title. In some cases, other family members or unrelated partners might also own property as joint tenants, such as with a vacation home or business-related assets.

Jointly owned property will pass to the other property owners regardless of what the deceased party’s will states. To that end, even if a person leaves a house to a surviving child, that child would not inherit the house if a joint tenant still survives, regardless of whether that tenant is in the will.

In some cases, you may need to do some extra research to determine who is the joint owner of an asset. On a bank or brokerage account, for example, it is common practice to list the joint owners with abbreviations, which might cause some confusion for a person looking at the paperwork and who is unfamiliar with the deal. The wording of the contract or title for the owned asset might also play a role in how property held in joint tenancy can be inherited.

Transferring jointly owned property

In most situations, all a surviving owner needs to do to transfer jointly held property is fill out a simple form and submit a copy of the death certificate to clear the title and become the sole owner of the property.

In the case of a stock held in certificate form rather than in a brokerage account, you will need to have that stock reissued in your name, if you are the surviving owner. To do this, return the original stock certificate to the transfer agent at the corporation. The transfer agent is, in most cases, a separate entity that manages the stock programs of various companies. This agent will provide you with further instructions regarding the information you must provide.

In the case of real estate, a surviving owner must submit a document to be kept on record in the county’s recorder office, showing one joint owner has passed away and that the survivor who filed the document is now the property’s sole owner. The survivor may do this through an affidavit that contains the following:

  • A complete legal description of the property

  • A statement that the property had previously been held in joint tenancy

  • Information identifying the prior document that established that joint tenancy (typically a document identification number, or a book and page number of the record)

  • The name and date of the death of the recently deceased owner

  • The surviving owner’s name

  • A copy of the death certificate of the deceased owner

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