Joint tenants hold equal and undivided interests in a parcel, with a right of survivorship. When a joint tenant dies, the deceased’s interest does not descend to heirs. Instead, the entire ownership remains in the surviving joint tenant or tenants. This transfer occurs automatically upon the death of the joint tenant.
Michigan recognizes two types of joint tenancies: (a) the standard form, which can be unilaterally severed; and (b) a joint tenancy with express words of survivorship in the granting instrument which cannot be unilaterally severed.
The recent Michigan Supreme Court of Jackson v Estate of Green, involved a dispute between two joint tenants, one of whom sought to partition the properties held by both joint tenants. While the matter was pending before the Court, the joint tenant seeking a partition suddenly died.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the joint tenancy at issue was a “standard joint tenancy” because the deed granting them a joint tenancy did not include express language identifying the parties as having a “joint tenancy with full rights of survivorship”. As a result, the Court held that the joint tenancy could be severed by one of the parties without the consent of the others. However, the Court also ruled that the severance occurred only upon a Court’s Order. Merely filing a Complaint in Court did not sever the joint tenancy. Therefore, the decedent’s estate had no interest in the subject property upon the decedent’s death. Instead, the Court ruled that the title to the subject property vested in the surviving joint tenant immediately upon the other joint tenant’s death.
This case not only explains at what point in time a partition action severs a joint tenancy, but highlights the importance of using express words of survivorship in the granting instrument if the parties intend to secure their rights of survivorship.
This article was written by Natalie C. Najarian, Associate at Demorest Law Firm.