A tenancy is a form of concurrent property ownership in which two or more people share interest in the same property. A tenancy may grant a right to inherit another tenant's interests upon death. However, not all tenancies grant an automatic right of inheritance, known as a "right of survivorship."
Tenancy in Common
Tenancies in common are estates that are shared by two or more people. Whenever real estate is given to or purchased by two or more individuals who are not married, a tenancy in common is assumed. Co-tenants of a tenancy in common may own different percentage shares of the tenancy, but all have the right to possess the entire parcel. Tenancies in common do not include a right of survivorship. This means a co-tenant is not entitled to another co-tenant's share upon death automatically. Instead, each co-tenant has the right to give his interest to anyone, either during his lifetime or via his last will and testament.
Tenancy in the Entirety
A tenancy in the entirety may be created only in a marital context. When a married couple has a tenancy in the entirety, spouses own the estate as a single entity. This type of tenancy carries with it a right of survivorship. However, it can be terminated through the mutual consent of the spouses or by divorce. In other words, if a tenancy in the entirety was never terminated and one spouse dies, the entire property automatically goes to the surviving spouse.
A joint tenancy carries a right of survivorship. In other words, the last surviving tenant in a joint tenancy ends up with the entire estate. These tenancies are created by specific wording in a deed or will. Generally, if a devise lacks the words "with right of survivorship," a tenancy in common is presumed. Joint tenancies give each tenant the right to possess the property and each co-tenant has the same percentage share. Unlike co-tenants in a tenancy in common, joint tenants cannot devise their interests to anyone else in a will because upon death, the deceased person's interest in the property immediately goes to the surviving tenant.
Terminating a Joint Tenancy
In order for a joint tenancy to be formed, it must contain four unions: all tenants must acquire their interest at the same time; all tenants must have the same percentage interest; all tenants must have the same title to the property; and all tenants must have the same rights of possession. If one of these unities is destroyed, the joint tenancy reverts to the default tenancy in common. Thus, if termination of a joint tenancy is desired, a joint tenant must destroy one of the unities. For example, a joint tenant could sell a portion of his interest to a third party. This would make it so that the tenants acquired interest at different times and also would not have the same percentage interest. If the joint tenancy is destroyed, the right of survivorship is destroyed as well.