When two or more people own a home, either as a joint tenancy or tenancy in common, each individual owns a share (or interest) of the entire property. This means that specific areas of the house are not owned by any one individual, but instead, are shared as a whole. While joint tenants are similar to tenants in common in many ways, particularly with regard to their right of possession to a given property, there are some important differences.
Tenancy in Common
While none of the owners may claim a specific area of the property, tenants in common may have different ownership interests. For instance, Tenant A and Tenant B may each own 25 percent of the home, while Tenant C owns 50 percent. Tenancies in common also may be obtained at different times; so an individual may obtain an interest in the property years after one or more other individuals have entered into a tenancy in common ownership.
Joint tenants, on the other hand, must obtain equal shares of the property with the same deed, at the same time. The terms of either a joint tenancy or tenancy in common are spelled out in the deed, title, or other legally binding property ownership document. The default ownership characterization for married couples is joint tenancy in some states, and tenancy in common in others (see Top 10 Reasons for Unmarried Partners to Own Property as Joint Tenants).
A joint tenancy can be broken if one of the tenants transfers or sells his or her interest to another person, thus changing the ownership arrangement to a tenancy in common for all parties. However, a tenancy in common can be broken if one or more co-tenants buy out the others; if the property is sold and the proceeds distributed amongst the owners; or if a partition action is filed, which allows an heir to sell his or her stake. At this point, former tenants in common can choose to enter into a joint tenancy via written instrument if they so desire.
This type of holding title is most common between husbands and wives and among family members in general, since it allows the property to pass to the survivors without going through probate (saving time and money).
Right of Survivorship
One of the main differences between the two types of shared ownership is what happens to the property when one of the owners dies. When a property is owned by joint tenants, the interest of a deceased owner automatically gets transferred to the remaining surviving owners. For example, if three joint tenants own a house and one of them dies, the two remaining tenants each obtain a one-half share of the property. This is called the right of survivorship.
Tenants in common have no rights of survivorship. Unless the deceased individual's will or other instrument specifies that his or her interest in the property is to be divided among the surviving owners, a deceased tenant in common's interest belongs to the estate.
See FindLaw's Home Buying Guide to learn more about the differences between joint tenancy and tenancy in common, plus related matters.
An Attorney Can Help You Understand Joint Tenancy and Tenancy in Common
Decisions relating to real estate have huge financial consequences. Before deciding how to share ownership over what is likely the largest investment in your life, you may benefit from some professional advice. Consider meeting with a local real estate attorney before you make such important decisions.