News & Events

Joint Tenancy/Survivorship Property Now Severable by Unilateral Acts of Co-Owner

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently ruled that “a joint tenancy with an express right of survivorship can be severed by the unilateral actions of one of the co-tenants.”  Darryl F. Bryant, Sr. v. Darryl F. Bryant, Jr., No. M2014-02379-SC-R11-CV (filed 4/19/17). Applying the common-law doctrine of severance, the Court held that a conveyance by the co-owner destroyed the survivorship interests of the original joint tenants and relegated the parties to the status of tenants in common. The decision has significance to creditors’ rights, bankruptcy, financial services, estate planning, real estate and family law attorneys.

Prior to the Bryant decision, it was commonly understood that unilateral action by a co-tenant, via conveyance or encumbrance, did not destroy the co-tenancy but only entitled the transferee to enjoy the benefits of the survivorship interest if and only if, and when, the transferor would have become entitled to the benefits of ownership through, in Shakespearean terms, the co-owner’s “shuffl[ing] off this mortal coil.” In Bryant, the Court declared itself to be adopting the majority position on this issue.

The internecine battle resulted as follows:

  1. Mom conveyed Property to Mom and Son as joint tenants with right of survivorship;
  2. Mom then conveyed all her right, title and interests in the Property to Grandson (Son’s son);
  3. Mom died;
  4. Son sued Grandson for declaratory judgment that Son, through right of survivorship, solely owned the Property.

The Supreme Court rejected the determination by the Court of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, that Mom, by the second deed, had intended only to convey Mom’s “lifetime interest and contingent remainder to Grandson.” The trial court’s summary judgment in favor of Son was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Justice Sharon G. Lee dissented, arguing, inter alia, that the unfairness of the “majority” position justified and supported the contrary, minority view that unilateral action did not destroy the joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The majority responded as follows:

Our decision on the single issue presented in this case must be made in a holistic manner, taking into consideration the entire legal landscape of Tennessee’s property laws. We are mindful that lawyers and courts must extrapolate from our ruling and apply it, along with other property law principles, to resolve legal issues presented in countless factual circumstances.  By following the vast majority of jurisdictions on the issue raised in this case, we enable them to refer to the body of law in those other jurisdictions when presented with an unsettled question or an issue of narrow application.  In this way, our decision does not “diminish[] the effectiveness of deeds creating joint tenancies with right of survivorship,” but instead gives parties predictability and consistency in the formation and interpretation of those deeds.

 

Authored by William R. O'Bryan, Jr.