property

The difference between joint tenants and tenants in common

You own property with another person and you are in the process of making a Will.

Of course, you want your interest in the property to go to your intended beneficiaries.

Your solicitor asks you if you own the property as “joint tenants” or as “tenants in common“. You stop and think…

Until now, you had no idea that there was any difference between joint tenants and tenants in common and had probably never considered it.

The concepts are the same for any asset, but are more commonly used in relation to land. So what is the difference?

What is tenants in common?

The simplest way to think about owning real estate (or real property) as tenants in common is that each owner has a legal interest in the land in a defined or specific share or proportion.

For example, the phrase “as tenants in common in equal shares” means that each owner has an equal interest in the land (so in the case of 2 owners, they each hold a 50% interest and in the case of 3 owners, they each hold a 1/3 interest).

Where property is owned as tenants in common but in unequal shares, the proportion of ownership is specifically stated (such as “John Smith as to 1/4 share and Bob Brown as to 3/4 share as tenants in common”).

With tenants in common, each owner (subject of course to any Co-Ownership Agreement or encumbrance such as a Mortgage or Caveat) may freely transfer or dispose of their share of the property, including in their Will when they die.

On their death, their interest in the property will be included in the inventory of property annexed to the grant of Probate or if they don’t have a Will, annexed to the grant of Letters of Administration.

What does joint tenancy mean?

Joint tenants however each own the whole of the relevant asset. The concept is that the co-owners’ ownership of the asset overlaps such that on the death of one joint tenant, the remaining joint tenant/s will continue to hold the whole of the asset. This is known as the “right of survivorship“.

A deceased joint tenant’s interest in the property does not form part of their estate and is not available for distribution to the beneficiaries of that person’s Will. Often this is overlooked by those drafting Wills.

The same principles apply to bank accounts held jointly.

It is for this reason that most married couples (or those in longer term relationships) hold their property or at least their principal place of residence as joint tenants. There are however, sometimes good reasons for holding property differently as part of an overall Estate Plan. Blended families for example often necessitate this right of survivorship not being given effect to so as to more fairly distribute their estate on their death.

Other situations where a joint tenancy may be appropriate for those not in a relationship like marriage is a Lease by parties to a Partnership – the death of one partner would then not necessarily affect the continuation of the Lease.

Severing a joint tenancy

If you hold property as joint tenants with another person it is possible to sever the joint tenancy – which then converts it to a tenancy in common in equal shares.

This can be done unilaterally by lodging the appropriate documentation at NSW Land Registry Services (formerly NSW Land & Property Information and the Land Titles Office) and is often done by lawyers when parties to a marriage or de facto relationship no longer wish for the other party to own the entire property on their death, such as when they separate or get divorced.

Mixed tenancies

It is also possible to have a combination of both a “joint tenancy” and a “tenancy in common“, such as where a property is owned by 2 families. For example,  a husband and wife may own one half of the land but they own it jointly as between them (so that if one passes away, the other continues to own it) and the brother of the husband owns the other half absolutely.

The title to the property would show “John Smith and Mary Smith as joint tenants as to 50% and David Smith as to 50% as tenants in common”.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to estate planning, changing the tenancy of a property or documenting a co-habitation or property use agreement, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au.

This information is general only and is not a substitute for proper legal advice. Please contact McKillop Legal to discuss your needs.

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Forcing the sale of land in NSW

Where land is owned by multiple people (whether as joint tenants or tenants in common), any one of the owners can approach the Supreme Court to seek an order for the appointment of a trustee for sale and for the property to be sold.

Ordinarily, the owners can come to agreement on the need for a sale and the basis on which it is to be conducted. For example, following some negotiations or a mediation, the co-owners may agree to:

  • sale by auction with an agreed reserve price;
  • sale by public treaty with an agreed price; or
  • sale by one owner to another, with agreement on how the price is determined (such as agreeing on a valuer or methodology).

When co-owners are in a dispute however as to whether a property should be sold, when and on what terms, the provisions of section 66G of the Conveyancing Act 1919 (NSW) can be utilized to force the sale of the property, even where the other owner (or owners) do not want to sell it.

Once appointed, the trustee has the legal power to sell the property on the best terms available and to engage real estate agents, valuers and lawyers/conveyancers as may be required. So as to help ensure that the property sells for fair market value and to avoid any breach of trust allegations from any of the owners for not obtaining the best price possible, it is sensible for a trustee to sell at public auction

A usual order made is that the unsuccessful party (usually the defendant/respondent) pays the plaintiff /applicant’s legal costs. The costs risk arising from litigation (which can be substantial in amount) is usually a key factor in out of court settlements being made.

Applications for the appointment of a statutory trustee for sale are generally only refused in special circumstances, such as where the is a prior agreement not to sell, around the terms of any sale or to sell only when certain conditions are met (which is why any co-ownership agreements ought to be in writing as verbal evidence can be less persuasive).

Usually, after a successful application is made and the property is sold, the proceeds of sale after payment of:

  • any encumbrances (such as mortgages and unregistered mortgages secured by caveats);
  • the costs of sale (real estate agent and auctioneer fees and marketing costs etc); and
  • the trustee’s costs

are held on trust by the appointed trustee and then distributed proportionally according to ownership.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to family disagreements in relation to land or estates or any business or commercial dispute, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au.

This information is general only and is not a substitute for proper legal advice. Please contact McKillop Legal to discuss your legal needs.

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Do you own land in NSW through a family trust structure?

Do you own land in NSW through a family trust structure? If so, then take note…

Revenue NSW (previously the NSW Office of State Revenue) automatically applies the Land Tax Surcharge on land tax assessments for properties owned through a family trust. The surcharge, which was introduced as part of the 2016 NSW budget, is currently at 2%, and can be significant.  There is a similar application to stamp duty also.

This surcharge does not apply where Revenue NSW has been advised of the fact that the trust deed specifically excludes foreign persons or entities as potential beneficiaries.

Revenue NSW may allow trustees up to 6 months from an assessment date to update their trust deed to remove foreign persons as beneficiaries. After the deed is updated and Revenue NSW is satisfied with the changes, the trustee can then apply for the surcharge to be refunded.

We have assisted several clients to update their trust deeds at the time of initial registration for land tax (to exclude foreign persons or entities as potential beneficiaries) however, where there is an existing trust with an existing landholding, this may be something that needs to be monitored and updated, so check your assessments.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to land tax, trust deed amendments or any other commercial law matter, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au.

This information is general only and is not a substitute for proper legal advice. Please contact McKillop Legal to discuss your legal needs.

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