Joint Property Ownership Pitfalls and Solutions

joint property ownershipOur law firm has worked on a couple of cases lately involving joint property ownership; that is, property owned by a group of several individuals. Owning a piece of land or real estate with a group of individuals or family members can lead to many problems, a few of which we will discuss here.

What Happens to Real Estate When a Person Dies?

In Tennessee, real property typically passes outside of Probate in accordance with the publicly recorded property documents in the County where the property is located.  A person can also plan for the disposition of real property in a Will or Trust.  If you die owning real property in your sole name, though, it can cause significant problems for your Beneficiaries that can be avoided by proper planning.

In both cases I mentioned above, the group of individuals came into joint property ownership because of intestate succession (i.e., dying without a Will).  You may think that you do not need a Will because your property will pass to your heirs regardless.  However, there are many problems and burdens that your heirs will face if property passes to them through intestate succession.  Here’s what can happen if a landowner dies without a Will:

  • Land may pass to heirs who do not wish to be landowners.
  • Land may pass to heirs who do not know that they are now landowners (i.e. lost heirs).
  • Land may pass to heirs who are not prepared for the responsibility of owning real estate (i.e. paying real estate taxes, maintaining insurance, upkeep of the property)
  • If there is a mortgage, payments may be required very soon after the death of the original owner and before any inherited owner has a chance to determine how to address the new ownership – i.e. sell the property, allow it to be foreclosed upon, etc.
  • The title to the property will be unclear and extra effort will be required to determine all legal owners in a joint property ownership situation. It can be very difficult to locate heirs and to determine with certainty who all owns a piece of property, especially if some of the original heirs have died, or if the family isn’t in close contact or is spread across the country. A title search may be required, and title searches can be expensive.

Increased Costs for Inherited Owners

When a piece of property passes through intestate succession, when ownership is unclear, or when a piece of property is owned by a large group of individuals, there will be extra expense involved when the property is sold. As a general matter, the entire sales process will take longer than usual. Each separate legal owner must be found and consulted with.  Then, each owner must agree to all parts of the sale process (i.e. negotiating the price, negotiating and completing repairs, and signing all required paperwork).  It can be very difficult getting a group of family members or individuals to all cooperate and agree during the course of a real estate transaction.

Inherited owners who want to sell property can expect to have to do some additional work with the buyer’s title company such as filing probate documents, getting releases from TennCare, and dealing with potential creditors of the deceased person.  A title company may require proceeds to be escrowed for up to a year after the deceased person’s death.

Legal Issues of One Owner Can Affect Other Owners

Inherited and multiple owners can also come with their own personal problems.  A judgment lien or a bankruptcy filing of one inherited owner will immediately attach to the inherited property, which could cause delays and problems for any co-owners wishing to sell the property.

Ways to Avoid Common Problems of Joint Property Ownership

If you must own property with a group of individuals or family members, or if you desire to pass property to a group of people, there are ways you can accomplish joint property ownership which lessen the burden and expense involved. Speak with an Estate Planning Attorney or Property Lawyer about the best way to achieve your personal goals. For example, more effective “joint ownership” can be achieved in the following ways:

  1. Own as Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship. This type of ownership is common with married couples, but it can also be used with any individuals wishing to create this type of joint tenancy.  Upon the death of one joint tenant, the remaining tenant owns the property outright.  This results in protection from a debtor-tenant’s creditors because liens can only attach to the right of the debtor-tenant, which is nothing more than a “potential survivorship right.”  This protection ends if the non-debtor tenant dies and the debtor- tenant then owns the property outright.  One negative of this type of ownership is that the property will only pass to the other joint tenant, so the Estate of the first to die loses any equity to pass on to other individuals.  In addition, potential gift tax issues may arise since the Grantor is “gifting” rights to the property to the person they are creating a joint tenancy with.
  2. Own the Property in a Limited Liability Corporation.  Ask a business organization attorney about property ownership through an LLC. The rights of the members will depend on the structure of the LLC. Creating an LLC requires maintenance of paperwork to the State to keep the LLC active which will be required if the LLC wants to sell the property.
  3. Put the Property Into a Living Trust.  This is achieved by conveying the property to a Trustee on behalf of a Trust. (A Trust itself can’t own property; rather it must be an individual Trustee on behalf of the Trust.)  The property will then be maintained and distributed in accordance with the Trust Agreement.  A Living Trust allows the Grantor to make changes during his or her lifetime (therefore keeping control and autonomy) but also allows for the streamlining of management and an easy transition of the property upon the death of the original Grantor.  The successor Trustee can sell or manage the property outside of Probate, and depending on the Trust terms, without the input of or disruption to the Beneficiaries.

Beneficiary Deeds

Tennessee does not offer this, but some states allow the use of a Beneficiary Deed to clarify how a property is to pass upon the owner’s death. Essentially, a Beneficiary Deed lets a person name a beneficiary and only takes effect upon the death of the owner. Ask your Estate Planning Attorney about the availability of Beneficiary Deeds if you own property in multiple states.

Right to Partition

If you are tied up in joint property ownership, or if you own a piece of property with a group of individuals or family members and you want to end the relationship and go your separate way, you can. In Tennessee, you have the legal right to what is called “partition.” Speak with a civil litigation attorney about filing a partition lawsuit. In this kind of lawsuit, you ask the judge to partition the property, either “in kind” or “by sale.”

Need Help with a Property Ownership Issue?

Have questions about joint property ownership or other real estate issues? Please call us at 901-372-5003 or send Wiseman Bray PLLC an email.

Law FAQ: I’ve been named as Trustee of a trust….what do I do now?

The most important thing to remember when you step in as trustee is that these are not your assets.  You are safeguarding them for others:  for the grantor (if living) and for the beneficiaries, who will receive them after the grantor dies.  As a trustee, you have certain responsibilities.  For example:

-You must follow the instructions in the trust document.

-You cannot mix trust assets with your own.  You must keep separate checking accounts and investments.

-You cannot use trust assets for your own benefit (unless the trust authorizes it).

-You must treat trust beneficiaries the same; you cannot favor one over another (unless the trust says you can).

-Trust assets must be invested in a prudent (conservative) manner, in a way that will result in reasonable growth with minimum risk.

-You are responsible for keeping accurate records, filing tax returns and reporting to the beneficiaries as the trust requires.

But you can have professionals help you, especially with the accounting and investing.  You will also probably need to consult with an attorney from time to time.  However, as trustee, you are ultimately responsible to the beneficiaries for prudent management of the trust assets.

Please contact us if you need assistance in serving in the role of a trustee or if you have any related question.

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