Many people use joint ownership (the holding of title by two or more people), without really thinking about it. It is often used as a substitute for estate planning because it is cheaper, which is why some call it the “poor man’s will”. It may seem like a simple and inexpensive way to avoid probate (the costly court review of your transfers at death), but it is not a good idea in most cases, and can be fraught with unexpected peril. Joint property ownership disputes can really cost you.
What Is Joint Ownership?
Joint ownership occurs when the names of two or more people are placed on bank accounts, stocks, bonds, or deeds to real property. Then, when one of the joint tenants die, the surviving joint tenants own the entire property automatically by operation of law, meaning it happens without going to court or requesting any change. When the first joint owner passes, the survivors own it all regardless of the will of the deceased joint tenant.
The Disadvantages of Joint Ownership
1. Vulnerable to Creditors
Joint ownership property is subject to the claims of a joint owner’s creditors. If one joint owner experiences financial difficulties, then his creditors may be able to reach into his interest in the joint ownership property, creating an unexpected co-owner. This new co-owner could, if they wished, file a partition action to force a sale of the property.
2. Unexpected Use of Joint Ownership Property
There is nothing to prevent one joint owner from unexpectedly using the joint ownership property for his or her own benefit, thereby eliminating or reducing the value of the joint ownership property to the other owner. For example, you may show up to your vacation home one day and find some unsuspecting B&B guests had it rented to them by the other owner.
3. Unequal Distributions Among Children
If the parent of three children adds the name of one of her children to a joint ownership property before passing away, the entire property will pass solely to that one child. What starts out as a matter of convenience (i.e. being able to sign on a bank account), could lead to a family battle royale.
4. Reconveying Joint Ownership Property is Difficult
In order to convey joint ownership property back to the original owner, both joint owners must agree, and must be willing to sign the deed and all of the paperwork. If one owner refuses to do so, then reconveying the property to one owner may require a court order.
5. The Incapacitation of a Joint Owner Could be Devastating
If one joint owner becomes sick or mentally incapacitated, then it may not be possible to sell the property without the appointment of a guardian and the approval of a probate court. If the sale is approved, the probate court could order that the incapacitated joint owner’s share of the sale be placed in a separate guardianship account to pay for their care, effectively leaving the seller with only one half of the sale proceeds.
6. Divorce Divisions
If a joint owner is married, then it is possible that a divorce court might regard the joint ownership property as marital property and award all, or a portion of it, to a joint owner’s soon-to-be ex-spouse.
Examples of Joint Ownership Gone Awry
Case No. 1
John and Martha had been married for many years, but John was in the early stages of dementia. He and Martha began drifting apart. They both agreed that John would live in their marital home for the rest of his days and that Martha would live in another state until John died. Then, after John died, Martha would come back to live in their home. This might well have worked out all right for John and Martha, except that, after Martha was gone, John’s neighbor, Willie, saw a way to make some easy money.
Willie befriended John, and eventually talked John into divorcing Martha. Willie kindly helped John fill out all of his divorce paperwork, and convinced John to swear (falsely) in his affidavit that Martha had deserted him and that he did not even know where she was. The divorce court accepted John’s (Willie’s) lies and granted John a divorce from Martha. John was awarded all of the parties’ martial property, including John and Martha’s marital home.
John’s health steadily deteriorated, and a few weeks before John’s death, Willie convinced John to make him a joint owner of his home, so that he could better help John take care of it.
When John died, Willie became the sole owner of the home automatically, and, being the weasel that he was, Willie immediately borrowed $100,000 from a local bank by mortgaging John and Martha’s home, which was now his.
You can imagine Martha’s surprise when she returned to her marital home and discovered that not only was Willie it’s sole owner, but he was now living in it.
Case No. 2 — The Bad Actions of One Joint Owner Costs Both
After Joyce’s husband passed away, her son Dan offered to help her take care of her home. She made him joint owner of the property so that he could do things like pay utilities. Well, Dan was an idealistic man and held many strong beliefs, including that federal income tax was unconstitutional. True to his convictions, and unbeknownst to Joyce, Dan had not paid any federal income tax for the last ten years. Unfortunately for Joyce, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) got around to investigating Dan’s finances and discovered his joint property interest in Joyce’s home. The IRS asserted a tax lien against Dan’s interest in the jointly owned property and Joyce was forced to pay back all of Dan’s back taxes to the IRS, together with interest and penalties, in order to continue living undisturbed in her own home.
Case No. 3 — The Need for Guardianship Costs Both
Bill and Mary had been married happily for 58 years. They had always owned their home jointly with the understanding that when one of them passed away, the other would receive the home. Unfortunately, a little after her 87th birthday, Mary was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Bill wanted to do what was best for his wife, so he decided to sell their home so he could provide care for Mary. It would not be that simple. Because Mary was considered mentally incapacitated, Bill had to hire a probate attorney to set up guardianship for Mary and her estate, and appoint himself as the guardian. He then had to hire the attorney again so he could sell the house. When the house was sold, the probate court ordered Bill to set up a separate account for Mary’s half of proceeds, and every time he wanted to use that money for something, he had to hire his expensive probate attorney and petition the court for approval. This was certainly not what Bill and Mary had in mind for their last few years of life.
Although joint ownership seems like a simple and inexpensive way to avoid probate, it is littered with traps. Luckily, there are other options such as using a living trust or an LLC for asset protection. Call 800-600-1760 to learn more about protecting your property the right way.