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What's the Difference Between Joint Tenancy and Tenancy in Common?

joint tenants or tenants in common carrying boxes to move into their new home

When two or more people own a home, either as a joint tenancy or tenancy in common, each person owns a share of the entire property. This means that specific areas of the house are not owned by 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.

This article covers the basic differences between joint tenants and tenants in common. See Buying a House with Someone in FindLaw's Real Estate Law section to learn more.

Tenancy in Common

While none of the owners may claim a specific area of the property, tenants in common may have unequal shares and different ownership interests. For instance, Tenant A and Tenant B may each own 25% of the home, while Tenant C owns 50%. Tenancies in common also may be obtained at different times, so an individual may get an interest in the property years after one or more other individuals have entered into a tenancy in common ownership.

Joint Tenancy

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 outlined in the deed, title, or other legally binding property ownership document. The default ownership 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).

Terminating Joint Tenancy vs. Tenancy in Common 

A joint tenancy can be broken if one of the co-owners transfers or sells his or her interest to another person, thus changing the ownership arrangement to a tenancy in common for all parties. 

A tenancy in common can be broken if one of the following occurs:

  • One or more co-tenants buys out the others
  • The property is sold and the proceeds distributed amongst the owners
  • 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 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 owner's will or other instrument specifies that their interest in the property is to be divided among the surviving owners, a deceased person'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.

An Attorney Can Help You Understand Joint Tenancy and Tenancy in Common

Decisions relating to real estate have huge financial outcomes. 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.

Next Steps

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