As discussed previously, real estate owned by more than one person can usually be described as one of the following:
- Tenants in Common,
- Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship, or
- Tenancy by the Entirety.
The rights associated with a tenant by the entirety is rooted in ancient common-law principles. Tenancy by the entirety has always been a form of real property ownership available only to those who were actually married at the time of conveyance. At common law, husband and wife were deemed a single legal entity, and a conveyance of property to both created an indivisible interest so that both parties were deemed seized of the whole.
The specific rights arising from this unique form of co-ownership are the logical corollary of the legal fiction that husband and wife were but one person. Although that fiction and the related rule prohibiting married women from owning property have long since been discarded, the special status of spouses jointly holding property has been continued into modern real property law. Following the enactment of the Married Women’s Acts of 1849, both spouses had an equal right to possession of the property, and each had a right to demand that possession, as well as any profits yielded by the property, be shared. While these features of tenancies by the entirety are also characteristic of tenancies in common, the tenancy by the entirety is further distinguished by the fact that it confers on the surviving spouse a right to absolute ownership of the property upon the other spouse’s death.
What makes this right of survivorship unique and differentiates it from the right of survivorship inherent in an ordinary joint tenancy is that it remains fixed and cannot be destroyed without the consent of both spouses. As long as the marriage remains legally intact, both parties continue to be seized of the whole, and the death of one merely results in the defeasance of the deceased spouse’s coextensive interest in the property. Similarly, involuntary partition is not available to either cotenant as a means of severing the tenancy by the entirety, since a contrary rule would permit a vindictive or irresponsible spouse to deprive the other of the comforts of the marital home.
To be continued….
Aaron E. Futterman, CPA, Esq. is a partner in the law firm of Futterman & Lanza, LLP with offices in Smithtown, NY and clients throughout Suffolk, Nassau, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Richmond, New York, Westchester and Rockland Counties. He concentrates his practice to Elder Law, Medicaid Planning, Medicaid Applications, Estate Planning, Probate, Estate Taxes, and Estate Administration.