Ambiguous “survivor” reference creates a tenancy in common rather than a joint tenancy

Posted on July 7th, 2013 by Joseph William Singer.
Categories: Estates & future interests, Real estate transactions, Wills and inheritance.

A deed granting an interest to two siblings (Roger & Dana Waid) “or the survivor” was interpreted as created a tenancy in common rather than a joint tenancy. Young v. Waid, 2012 WL 2947590, (W.Va. 2012). Following the death of Roger, Dana would have had a 100 % interest in the property if they held as joint tenants (because of her right of survivorship) but only a 50 % interest (with 50% held by Roger’s heir or devisees) if they held as tenants in common. Applying an interpretive presumption in favor of tenancies in common, the West Virginia Supreme Court noted that the deed did not use the words “joint tenancy” or “right of survivorship” and that it was possible the words “to the survivor” were mere surplusage. The court found the language not clear enough to constitute an intent to create a right of survivorship, effectively privileging giving each sibling (and his or her descendants) the economic benefit of the property rather than assuming the grantor wanted to consolidate interests in the survivor of the siblings. The case pitted one canon of interpretation (do not interpret conveyances to include language that has no purpose) against another (preferring tenancies in common over joint tenancies). The common approach in the US is to prefer the tenancy in common because it  treats co-owners more equally than the joint tenancy which consolidates interests but disinherits the descendants of one of the owners.

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