Understanding Tenancy And Different Ways to Own Property

A paper cutout of a house

When two or more individuals own property whether it’s a home, or a piece of land, the relationship between the owners is known as “tenancy.” There are three common ways that a tenancy can be structured, and how it is done will determine such important considerations as whether an interest in the property will pass freely or by operation of law at an owner’s death and whether creditors can claim the property.

Tenancy comes in three common forms: tenancy in common, joint tenancy and tenancy by the entirety. Each has advantages and disadvantages so it is very important that the deed is properly drafted to accomplish its intended purpose. Otherwise, if the deed is not clear the state default rules will determine which form of tenancy applies and in Pennsylvania the default rule is tenancy in common.

Tenancy in common allows an owner the greatest flexibility to transfer the property. Each co-tenant in a tenancy in common has an interest in the property and is free to transfer this interest during life or through a will. The co-tenants can have different ownership interests; for example, three owners could own 3 percent, 27 percent and 70 percent of the property, respectively, as tenants in common. Each tenant can sever his relationship with the other tenants by conveying his interest to another party. This third party then becomes a tenant in common with the other co-tenants.

Joint tenants, on the other hand, must have equal ownership interests in the property. So, three owners would each have a one-third interest in the property. If one of the joint tenants dies, his interest immediately ceases to exist and the remaining joint tenants own the entire property. The advantage to joint tenancy is that it avoids having an owner’s interest probated upon his death since his interest passes by operation of law. This is why jointly owned property is considered non-probate property.

Another advantage is if a joint tenant needs to apply for Medicaid in Pennsylvania the State will not put a Medicaid lien on the property if it is a primary residence of both joint tenants. A disadvantage to both joint tenancy and tenancy in common, however, is that creditors can attach the tenant’s property to satisfy a debt. For example, if a co-tenant defaults on his debts, his creditors can sue in a “partition proceeding” to have the property interests divided and the property sold, even over the other owners’ objections.

A third form of tenancy is tenancy by the entirety which avoids this problem, but it is available only to married or, where applicable, civilly united couples. Tenancy by the entirety is based on the societal value of protecting the family. One tenant cannot convey his interest on his own, unlike with the other tenancies. Upon the death of one spouse, his interest automatically passes to the other spouse by operation of law, as with joint tenancy, and the creditors of one spouse cannot attach the property or force its sale to recover debts unless both spouses consent.

Creditors may place a lien on property held in tenancy by the entirety, but if the debtor spouse dies before the other spouse, the other spouse will take ownership of the property free and clear of the debt. This is why both husband and wife are required to sign the mortgage on their property for the mortgage to be valid.

If you have any questions about tenancy or need a deed updated or prepared feel free to contact Gregory J. Spadea at 610-521-0604 from Spadea & Associates, LLC in Ridley Park Pennsylvania.

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