Beware adding person to deed as joint tenant

Mailbag

November 25, 2001

Dear Mr. Azrael, I have a friend who is a senior citizen and she has her son on the deed of her home as a joint tenant.

She lives in the house, pays the mortgage, the taxes, the insurance, the repairs, etc., and he contributes absolutely nothing toward the property. He denies her access to buildings on the property, and he has destroyed and vandalized the property.

He wanted his mother to sell the house, but she refused; he has filed in court to force a sale of the house.

She put $67,000 down on the property and has made all the payments. Her investment, without repairs or extra money on the principal comes to $135,000. The property has been appraised for $170,000.

If the house is sold, does it mean it has to be sold for at least $270,000, of which his half of the $135,000 would go to her? Could the court order his name removed from the deed, or does the house have to be sold in order to get rid of him?

It doesn't seem fair that the house has to be sold in order to get his name off the deed. He doesn't live in the house, it is her home, and she is a senior citizen. What rights does she have?

Carrie White

Taneytown

Dear Ms. White,

This sad case of an ungrateful son should serve as a warning to anyone who considers adding another person as a joint tenant on their property deed.

Unless the deed specifies otherwise, all joint tenants have equal rights and obligations to the property. If the joint tenants disagree about the use or operation of the property, either one can force a court-ordered sale.

In the situation you describe, it's quite unlikely that a court will order the son's name removed from the deed. His mother would have to show she was tricked or defrauded by her son into adding his name before a court could grant the remedy of canceling the son's ownership.

It's probable that the house will have to be sold in order to break the joint tenancy and remove the son from the title.

Besides ordering a sale, a court also has the power to decide how the net proceeds of sale will be divided between the mother and son. The division does not necessarily have to be 50-50. If the mother can show that her payments for mortgage, taxes, insurance and repairs exceed the fair rental value of the home or that the son's vandalism caused damage to the property, a court may award the mother a greater share of the sale proceeds.

The mother could have easily avoided her current problem if she had created a life estate instead of a joint tenancy.

Using a life estate deed, the mother could have reserved to herself the full power to sell, mortgage, occupy, lease or deal with the property during her lifetime without interference from her son. At the same time, a life estate deed could provide that the son (or anyone the mother chose) would receive the property upon the mother's death, unless she sold or conveyed it while she was living.

There's a lesson to be learned from this mother's experience: Think it through before you sign over an interest in your property.

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