A Massachusetts case illustrates the care that must be exercised when giving property interests to others and how those interests are titled. Donald and Suzanne Bragdon owned their home as Tenants by Entirety, a form of holding title available only to married individuals. They subsequently conveyed one-half of their home to their daughter, Laurie Durken, and her partner, Terrence McCarthy as co-joint tenants between all four of them, but also retained a life estate in the property. A retained life estate divides property ownership into two parts – one part for the living owner, and one part for the residual owner that only vests after the living owner’s death.
So, we have three forms of holding title going on here – a tenancy by entirety for half the house between Donald and Suzanne, a joint tenancy between all four individuals for the other half of the house, and a retained life estate in the entire property by Donald and Suzanne. Whether or not this was intentional planning I do not know, but it’s a recipe for disaster and it nearly occurred for Donald and Suzanne but for the protection against forced division that their various titling gave them.
Sadly, Laurie and Terrence sought to partition the property – essentially force the sale of it presumably because they needed the money. As you would expect, Donald and Suzanne objected to this idea of forcibly selling their home, and ultimately the conflict wound up in court. Laurie and Terrence argued that they owned a “possessory” right in the property regardless of the existence of the retained life estate that gave them the right to partition. Donald and Suzanne said the life estate superseded any right of possession Laurie and Terrence may have until after their deaths.
After examination of the deeds executed between the four, the courts agreed with Donald and Suzanne.
McCarthy and Durkan relinquished their prior possessory undivided one-half interest in the property by voluntarily signing onto the 2013 deed as grantors. Thus, the Bragdons are entitled to the benefit of the presumption that one who signs an instrument has read and understood its contents and has assented to its terms and legal effect. By the 2013 deed, the Bragdons hold a life estate in 100% of the property, and McCarthy and Durkan hold the remainder interest in 100% of the property. As McCarthy and Durkan do not hold any present possessory interest in the property, they are not entitled to partition. Their petition for partition must be dismissed.
The lesson here is to seek competent legal advice when it comes to gifting property interests to 3rd parties and forms of holding title. A knowledgeable attorney will not only understand the operation of title law but can also give guidance and warnings about these kinds of what-if scenarios. In this case, an ounce of prevention would have been worth more than the pound of cure.