When two or more people buy the same piece of property, they must take title together on the deed. You may take title, or ownership, with other people in more than one way, with two common tenancies known as "joint tenants" and "tenants in common." Each tenancy type has different legal implications and rules.
A joint tenant has an ownership interest in the property that is equal to the interest of the other joint tenants. For example, four joint tenants of the same property each own one-fourth of the property. With other tenancy types, such as tenants in common, tenants may own unequal percentages of interest in the property.
Right of Survivorship
A joint tenancy creates a right of survivorship among the owners. If one joint tenant dies, his ownership interest automatically passes in equal shares to the surviving joint tenants. For example, if three joint tenants own a property and one tenant dies, the surviving two tenants each have a one-half interest in the property. The deceased joint tenant's heirs do not receive any interest in the property, even if the joint tenant left the property to his heirs in his will. A joint tenancy allows the surviving tenants to receive a deceased tenant's interest automatically, without having to include the property in the deceased tenant's probate estate proceedings.
A deed must state a joint tenancy in most cases. For example, placing the words "as joint tenants" after the names of the new owners on a deed will create a legal joint tenancy. If two or more people take title on a deed without specifying a joint tenancy, their tenancy is usually presumed as tenants in common by law. If two people take title as joint tenants but have unequal ownership percentages shown on the deed, the two are considered tenants in common.
Debts and Liabilities
Under a joint tenancy, the entire property is subject to the debts and liabilities of all the living joint tenants. If one tenant is sued in court and the plaintiff wins a judgment, he may be able to file a lien against the house to enforce payment. The lien affects the interest of all the joint owners, not just the one person who was sued.
A joint tenant must have the right to the entire property. If the deed contains language that restricts one of the tenant's rights, the owners become tenants in common. For instance, say "John" and "Jane" are joint tenants on a deed, but the deed says John can't live in the house during March and April. Because John doesn't have full rights to the property, John and Jane are actually tenants in common.
Joint tenants must take ownership of the property together at the same time. If they take ownership at different times, they become tenants in common. For example, John deeds one-half interest to Jane on a deed that says she's a joint tenant. Two weeks later, he deeds the other half-interest to Mark on a deed that says Mark is a joint tenant. Jane and Mark are actually tenants in common because they took ownership at different times.