The Meaning of Tenancy by the Entirety

Tenancy by the entirety is form of real property ownership in which title is vested in a husband and wife together as a couple, as though they formed a single person. It is one of several types of concurrent estates currently possible in common law regimes.

In general, any form of joint tenancy, or joint ownership, requires that two people acquire their interest at the same time, as part of the same transaction. Their interests in the property must be equal, and the property must remain whole rather than being divided between them. For tenancy by the entirety to apply, a fifth requirement is added: the two people in question must be married to each other. One of the two tenants by the entirety is not allowed to sell their share of the property separately from that of their spouse’s share.

The main difference between tenancy by the entirety and standard forms of joint tenancy, according to lawyer Thomas Moens, is that in most cases one of the two (or more) joint tenants can decide separately to sell their interest in the property. At that time, the joint tenancy ends. In contrast, in tenancy by the entirety, the property legally belongs to the couple rather than to either individual person.

There are several benefits to tenancy by the entirety, says Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute. Neither spouse can decide independently to sell the property, and if one of them experiences serious debt problems, the creditors are not allowed to seize the property to collect on the debt. In addition, if one of the persons dies, their surviving partner inherits full interest in the property without needing to go through the full legal process normally connected with estates, which could involve going to court. It also means, of course, that one of the owners cannot bequeath their share of the property to a child while their partner still lives, since full ownership transfers automatically to the surviving spouse.

The specific rules surrounding tenancy by the entirety vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some states require a couple to specify during the purchase of property that they will be holding it in this manner; others apply these principles to any purchase by a married couple; and still other states do not permit tenancy by the entirety at all. For this reason, if you are curious about the laws and opportunities where you live, you should consult a lawyer who can provide you with professional advice relevant to your particular situation.