Joint ownership of a house is all about how you hold title and what your deed says. Moving in and contributing half the mortgage bill each month doesn't give you joint ownership – it just gives you one more check to write. Two people must either buy the house together so the original deed reflects both owners, or you can create a new deed, naming two owners, that supersedes the original one. There are several ways of doing this.
If your deed names you and your partner as joint tenants, it means you both have equal ownership of the house. Joint tenancies offer rights of survivorship. If you die, your ownership interest passes directly to your partner by operation of law. Even if your will says that you want to give your interest to someone else, the law takes precedence over this; your partner still gets the entire house. You can sell your ownership interest to someone else if you like – your partner doesn't have to agree or consent – but this changes the nature of some of the survivorship provisions. Ownership between your partner and the new co-owners becomes a tenancy in common instead.
Tenants in Common
If you and your partner hold title to your house as tenants in common, you might not have an equal ownership interest. This type of deed is useful if you're putting down 70 percent of the down payment and making 70 percent of the mortgage payments and other expenses. It wouldn't be fair for you to have only 50 percent ownership in this circumstance, so this type of joint ownership can provide that you own 70 percent of the property and your partner owns only 30 percent. If you ever sell, the proceeds are divided up in this way. Tenancies in common do not carry rights of survivorship – if one of you dies, your ownership interest passes to your beneficiaries or heirs according to your will or state law. As with a joint tenancy, you can sell your share of the house without your partner's consent.
Tenants by the Entirety
You can only hold title to your house as tenants by the entirety if you're married – and you can't do it in anticipation of marriage. If you go out and buy a house in May because you're going to get married in June, you must initially take ownership as either joint tenants or tenants in common. Then, after your wedding, you can change the deed to tenants by the entirety. You'd each have a 100-percent undivided ownership interest in the property, and neither of you can sell without the consent of the other. As with joint tenancies, tenancies by the entirety carry rights of survivorship.
Community property states don't recognize tenancies by the entirety. If you live in one of these states, you and your spouse already equally own all property you acquire during the marriage. If you want to include rights of survivorship, you must create a special community property deed saying so. Six states allow you to do this: Wisconsin, Texas, Nevada, California, Alaska and Arizona. This type of community property ownership is similar to a joint tenancy in other states that don't recognize community property law. Some states, such as California, offer married couples the option to choose between community property ownership or joint tenancy.
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