Married couples have a special way to jointly own property in some states that has advantages over regular joint ownership. If you are married and own property jointly, you should make sure you have the right form of ownership.
Joint tenants must have equal ownership interests in the property. If one of the joint tenants dies, his or her interest immediately ceases to exist and the remaining joint tenant owns the entire property. The advantage to joint tenancy is that it avoids having an owner's interest probated upon his death. The disadvantage is that creditors can attach one tenant's property to satisfy the other's debt.
Some states give married couples another option to own property jointly and avoid probate, but also have protection from creditors. Tenancy by the entirety has the same right of survivorship as a joint tenancy, but one spouse cannot sell his or her interest without the other spouse's permission. The creditors of one spouse cannot attach the property or force its sale to recover debts unless both spouses consent. Creditors may place a lien on property held in tenancy by the entirety, but if the debtor dies before the other spouse, the other spouse takes ownership of the property free and clear of the debt. This is why if you have a tenancy by the entirety, both the husband and wife are required to sign the mortgage on their property for the mortgage to be valid.
Tenancy by the entirety is available in half of all states and the District of Columbia. Some states recognize it for all property; other states only recognize it for real estate. States with tenancy by the entirety are: Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.
If you own joint property with a spouse in a state with tenancy by the entirety, you should check to make sure the property is owned as tenants by the entirety. In addition, unmarried couples who buy property and subsequently marry each other should check if they can re-title the deed as tenants by the entirety to avail themselves of the greater protections this form of tenancy offers.
One big disadvantage to tenancy by the entirety, from an estate planning perspective, is it guaranties a probate following the death of the second spouse to die. Avoiding probate requires the formation of a trust and transfer of the property to the trust. In some state, you can have your cake and eat it too. That is, you can create a trust to avoid probate (among other advantages) AND hold your property inside the trusts in tenancy by the entirety.
Another disadvantage of tenancy by the entirety is the loss of the double step up in basis at the death of the first spouse to die. If you think the surviving spouse might want to sell the property after the first spouse dies, community property with right of survivorship is preferable. Even better, choose community property with right of survivorship inside a trust to obtain the double step up in basis AND avoid probate at the second death.
For more information about joint ownership, click here.