Forms of Real Estate Ownership

There are different forms of real estate ownership that vary according to the number of owners or to some types of property. The form of ownership determines the legal rights and obligations of the owners, and will affect transferability and inheritability of the property, and how it would be treated under bankruptcy. The owner may be 1 or more people, or it could be some other legal entity, such as a corporation.

Ownership in severalty (aka tenancy in severalty) is when real estate is owned by a single person or legal entity, providing the owner with the most complete control of the land. The name is derived from the fact that the owner is "severed" from other owners. A sole owner is free to do anything with the property that is within the law — sell it, lease it, gift it, or pass it to heirs without anyone else's permission.

Concurrent Estates

A concurrent estate is an estate owned or controlled by more than 1 person or entity. There are various ways that real estate can be co-owned, which affects the rights and liabilities of the individual owners, but only when the property is conveyed, either through a sale or after death.

Tenancy in Common

A tenancy in common is when the concurrent owners own a fractional interest in the property, which may vary according to owner or, usually, it is divided equally. The title to the real estate will list all the owners and their share of ownership if it is not equal. If ownership share is not specified, then the ownership is divided equally. For example, if 4 people own a property, then each has a 25% ownership interest in the entire property — the property is not divided in any way. Each co-owner has unity of possession. However, unlike joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety, each co-owner can sell, mortgage, devise, or convey his interest — but not the entire property — without the consent of the other co-owners.

When the deed listing concurrent owners does not indicate the form of ownership, and the co-owners are not married, then the form of ownership is as a tenancy in common. If the co-owners are married, then the form of co-ownership can be a tenancy be the entirety, community property in community-property states, or, less commonly, a joint tenancy.

Joint Tenancy

Joint tenancy is like a tenancy in common, but the main difference is that the joint tenants have an undivided interest with rights of survivorship. However, in some states, the deed must explicitly confer the right of survivorship. An undivided interest is an ownership right to use and possess the entire property. However, no single co-owner can mortgage, sell, devise, or otherwise convey any piece of the property without the consent of all joint tenants. Often, joint tenants are relatives who have received the property from a will.

When a joint tenant dies, the right of survivorship entitles each surviving co-owner to an equal share of the deceased's share of ownership — thus, each joint tenant maintains an equal share with the surviving joint tenants. The last joint tenant will own the land as a tenant in severalty, and will enjoy all the rights as the sole owner of the property.

A joint tenancy can only be created by intention or by will, not by implication or operation of law. The deed must explicitly stipulate a joint tenancy, and the owners must be explicitly identified as joint tenants.

A joint tenancy can be terminated when any of the joint tenants severs their interest from the joint tenancy and conveys their ownership interest to another party, who then becomes a tenant in common with the remaining joint tenants, but the original joint tenants retain their rights and interest. A joint tenancy can also be terminated by a partition suit, which is a lawsuit to either partition the property so that 1 or more of the joint tenants has title to a specific portion of the property, or the court can have it sold, with the proceeds of the sale divided equally among the joint tenants.

Tenancy by the Entirety

A tenancy by the entirety is like a joint tenancy, with the tenants having an undivided interest in the property and with rights of survivorship, but differs from it in that there can only be 2 tenants, they must be married, and their ownership interest cannot be conveyed without the consent and signature of both tenants. In many states, if a married couple buys property, and the deed does not stipulate the form of ownership, then a tenancy by the entirety is assumed; in other states, it must be explicitly stated in the deed.

A tenancy by the entirety can be terminated:

Community Property

Although state laws vary widely, in the 10 states with community property laws, the property owned by a spouse is classified as either separate property or community property.

Separate property is property owned by 1 spouse, and includes property acquired before marriage, property received from a gift or will, and income earned from separate property. For example, if a wife acquired property before her marriage, and she is currently renting it out, then that income remains her separate property.

Community property is any property or income received during marriage that is not separate property.


Oftentimes, land is transferred to a trust for the benefit of minors or incapacitated adults. A trust is a legal device created when a trustor (aka grantor), the creator of the trust, transfers assets to the trust to be invested or handled by a trustee, in whose name the assets are titled, for the benefit of the beneficiaries. The trustee can be a person, but is often a trust company, a corporation that provides this service. The trustee is usually compensated by fee that is paid from the earnings from the trust. After paying expenses for running the trust and the trustee's fee, the remaining income generated from the assets is usually paid to the beneficiaries.

A trust may exist indefinitely, or may be terminated upon certain conditions, such as when the beneficiaries reach a certain age, in which case, the assets of the trust are passed to the beneficiaries.

A trust can be created while the trustor is alive or through the trustor's will. A living trust is created during the trustor's lifetime, and, usually, the trustor is also the trustee, which allows the trustor to continue to control and benefit from the assets. The main purpose of a living trust is to avoid the time and expense of probate. Upon the death of the trustor, the trust's assets can pass directly to the beneficiaries without the need to have the assets distributed through probate court.

A testamentary trust is created by a will. Property for a testamentary trust is subject to probate, but the trust document determines who gets that property. If the trust is discretionary, then the trustee will also have some influence on the distribution of the property.

Land Trusts

A land trust has only land for its asset. The land trust usually lasts for a stipulated period, after which the land is sold and the proceeds are paid to the beneficiary.

The title to the property is transferred to the trustee usually for the beneficial interest of the trustor, when the trustor also names himself the beneficiary. The beneficial interest in the land trust is legally classified as personal property rather than real property, but the beneficiary is still entitled to control and to possess it and is entitled to any income earned by the land or to the proceeds of its sale.

There are several benefits to a land trust. Because the deed is in the trustee's name, the name of the beneficiary does not appear, so the beneficiary can maintain secrecy as to actual ownership. The beneficiary's benefit can be assigned to someone else without a new deed, and can be used as collateral for a loan, but without a mortgage being recorded. Because the beneficiary's interest is personal, when the beneficiary dies, the assets of the trust are subject to the laws of the state in which the beneficiary lived, even if the trust had land in multiple states. This avoids probate costs in those other states, since the transfer of real estate must be done in accordance with the laws of the state in which the land is located.

Real Estate Ownership by Business Entities

Since corporations are legal persons, they can hold title to real estate just as a real person. Although partnerships are not legal persons, and cannot generally hold title to property in the partnership name, most states have adopted the Uniform Partnership Act (UPA) for general partnerships, and the Uniform Limited Partnership Act (ULPA) for limited partnerships, that allow partnerships to hold title to real estate in the partnership's name.

A real estate syndicate is 2 or more people or business entities who pooled their money to invest in real estate. A joint venture is similar except that it is created for a specific business purpose for a definite duration. These entities cannot hold title to real estate, except as tenants in common or as joint tenants of the individual members of the syndicate or joint venture, or as a trust, partnership, or corporation.