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Shared Ownership of Land

When two or more individuals wish to hold title to real estate together, there are three choices as to how that group may hold title.  The choices are:

  1. Tenants by the Entireties
  2. Joint Tenancy
  3. Tenancy in Common

The first type of shared ownership is Tenants by the Entireties, sometimes called joint tenants by the entireties.  Only married people may hold title in this fashion.  The law treats the married couple as a single marital unit and does not allow one spouse to sell any portion of the jointly held property without the joinder of the other spouse.  Similarly, one spouse may not voluntarily place a lien on the property in the form of a judgment or mortgage.  Also, a creditor with a claim against only one spouse may not lien the property by placing a judgment on it nor may that creditor sell the property by a Sheriff's Sale.  Thus, even though one spouse may be in extreme financial difficulty, the creditors of that spouse may not reach any portion of the jointly held real estate.  The exception to this rule is that the U.S. Government can place a Federal tax lien of just one spouse on property held by a married couple as Tenants by the Entireties.  Joint tenants by the entireties is further characterized by the doctrine of survivorship.  Survivorship means that when one spouse dies, his or her interest in the property automatically passes to the surviving spouse, making the surviving spouse the sole owner of the property. 

A second type of shared ownership is known as Joint Tenancy, or Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (JTROS or JTWROS).  Any two or more people may hold title in this fashion, and are called joint tenants.  A characteristic of Joint Tenancy is that each joint tenant must own the same share.  For example, if there are three joint owners, then, each must own one third.  This way of ownership is also characterized by survivorship in that the surviving joint tenant or tenants will take the deceased joint tenant's share.  For example, if three people are joint tenants who each own one third, upon the death of one of the joint tenants, the two surviving joint tenants automatically will each own fifty percent (50%).

A third type of shared ownership is called Tenancy in Common.  Any two or more people may hold title in this fashion, and are called co-tenants.  Unlike the other two forms, Tenancy in Common does not follow the principle of survivorship.  As a result, if one of the co-tenants dies, that co-tenant's share passes into his or her estate to be distributed by the will or, if there is no will, by the Intestate laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Unlike Joint Tenancy and Tenancy by the Entireties, co-tenants holding property in common may own differing shares.  For example, one co-tenant may own ten percent (10%) and another ninety percent (90%).

Under both Joint Tenancy and Tenancy in Common, any of the owners may sell or encumber his or her individual share, but may not sell or encumber the whole piece without the approval of all owners.  Similarly, a creditor of one owner may only lien or sell by Sheriff's Sale that portion of the property owned by that owner.

PLEASE NOTE:  The terms “tenant” or “tenancy” as discussed above are legal terms relating to the ownership of land, and do not refer to a renter in a landlord-tenant relationship. 2/16

If you need to consult with an attorney on shared ownership of land issues, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.