Joint Tenancy Is Not Severed by an Incomplete Partition Proceeding

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC” or the ‘Court”) recently issued a noteworthy decision in a case involving the rights of joint tenants and their heirs when one joint tenant passes away during a partition proceeding.

The case of Brattle v. Howard arose out of a petition to partition filed in the Massachusetts Land Court (the “Land Court”) regarding two adjacent parcels of land in Dorchester, which were owned by joint tenants, Charles R. Dunn and Barbara A. Howard. Before the property could be partitioned, but after the joint tenants had entered into an agreement to sell the property, Dunn passed away; and, subsequently, Howard filed a motion to dismiss the petition claiming that she owned the property outright as the surviving joint tenant. After the Land Court denied the motion, Howard appealed. The SJC took up the case to address the question of whether proceedings initiated to partition a piece of real property prior to one joint tenant’s death sever the joint tenancy and terminate the surviving joint tenant’s right of survivorship.

The SJC held that the incomplete partition proceedings did not terminate the joint tenancy. It similarly held that the agreement to sell the subject property did not deprive Howard of her right of survivorship. The Court also held that Dunn’s heirs did not have standing to continue the partition action in order to sever the joint tenancy and sell the subject property; and, due to their lack of standing, the Land Court did not retain jurisdiction over the “defective” partition action. As a result, the SJC reversed the Land Court’s denial of Howard’s motion to dismiss, effectively granting her sole ownership of the subject property.

The Four “Unities” of Title

In ruling in favor of Howard, the SJC focused on the issue of whether the incomplete partition proceedings and the pending sale of the subject property severed any of the four “unities” that are necessary to maintain ownership of real estate by joint tenancy. These are: (i) unity of interest, (ii) unity of title, (iii) unity of time and (iv) unity of possession. As the Court noted, “[a] joint tenancy is severed when any one of the four unities is destroyed, including due to a unilateral act of one of the parties.”

The Court held that the incomplete petition proceedings and the pending sale did not sever any of the four unities. Writing for the Court, Justice Elspeth B. Cypher stated, “Howard argues that, with respect to a partition by sale, the operative act that upsets the four unities . . . is the commissioner’s conveyance of the property by deed to a buyer. We agree.”

Since Howard took sole ownership of the subject real estate through survivorship, Dunn’s heirs did not have standing to ask the Land Court to continue with the partition proceedings. The Court wrote that to find otherwise would lead to an “absurd” result, as it would deprive joint tenants of, “the ability to maintain their joint tenancy until the completion of [a] partition or to remain joint tenants if they agreed to dismissal of the petition.”


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