Joint Tenancy Law and Legal Definition

Joint tenancy is a form of ownership by two or more individuals together. It differs from other types of co-ownership in that the surviving joint tenant immediately becomes the owner of the whole property upon the death of the other joint tenant. This is called a "right of survivorship." State law, which varies by state, controls the creation of a joint tenancy in both real and personal property, such as houses, bank accounts, and corporate stocks. Generally, for transfers to two or more persons who are not husband and wife, the deed or conveyance must expressly state an intention to create a joint tenancy by noting that the property will be held not as tenants in common but as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Joint tenancy property passes outside of probate, however, it may be severed so that the property becomes part of one person's estate and passes to that person's heirs.

A joint tenancy between a husband and wife is generally known as a tenancy by the entirety. Tenancy by the entirety has some characteristics different than other joint tenancies, such as the inability of one joint tenant to sever the ownership and differences in tax treatment.

Each joint tenant has an equal, undivided interest in the whole property. Each joint tenant may enter onto, take possession of the whole, occupy, and use every portion of the common property at all times and in all circumstances.

All joint tenants, and their spouses, must sign deeds and contracts to transfer or sell real estate. The right of survivorship can be eliminated by ending the joint tenancy before a tenant's death through a process called "severance". Severance means that the joint tenants disrupt the unity of their interests in the property through mutual agreement or unilateral action so that they become tenants in common instead of joint tenants. A joint tenant may convey his or her interest to a third party, depending on applicable state law. This conversion would in effect terminate the joint tenancy and create a tenancy in common.