Monday, May 17, 2010

The Pitfalls of Joint Ownership (Part 1 of 3)*

Joint property, also known as joint tenancy with right of survivorship ("JTWROS"), is nothing but a planning pitfall.  Although JTWROS has been assailed for years by many estate planning experts, it remains--unfortunately--a very popular form of property ownership.  JTWROS is a pitfall because you cannot control where such property passes after your death.

In joint tenancy, each person owns the entire asset, not a part of the asset.  This legal fiction of two or more people owning 100% of the same asset is derived from the full name given to joint tenancy: "joint tenancy with right of survivorship."  "Right of survivorship" means that whoever dies last owns the property.  The previous joint tenants merely had the use of the property while they were alive.

JTWROS property is "uncontrollable."  Even if a joint tenant intends to have his or her share pass to loved ones, the property is not controlled by the instructions in the joint tenant's will or trust.  JTWROS property automatically passes to its surviving owners by operation of law.

Property that is owned in JTWROS can be a trap--the term itself has nice connotations.  It implies "the two of us," a partnership, a marriage of title as well as love.  On the surface, at least, it appears to be the right way for people who care for each other to own property.  It's psychologically pleasing, which for many people is the real advantage of owning their property jointly.

As with many other latent problems, JTWROS is easy and convenient.  Odds are that when you were married (if you are), one of the first financial actions you and your spouse took was to open a checking or savings account.  The clerk who helped set up your account put it in your joint names when you answered yes to, "Both names on the account?"  The same is true of your first house or your first care. It seems that all of those involved (primarily clerks and salespeople), whether or not they knew what they were doing, took control of your planning and titled your property in joint tenancy.

For most people, the disadvantages of JTWROS far exceed any advantages.  Some of the more devastating pitfalls of JTWROS are:

(1) There is no control, and property may pass to unintended heirs;
(2) There are no planning opportunities;
(3) For married couples, probate is at best delayed, not totally avoided; and
(4) For non-spousal owners, unintentional gift taxes and death taxes can be generated.

In part 2 of this article, we'll explore each of those problems in more detail.  Our goal is to help you gain a clear understanding of why you should avoid titling assets in joint tenancy, and to suggest other ways you might own property that will enable you to maintain the control you desire.

*Article adapted from Planning Partners Press.

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