Bryant v. Bryant: Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Co-Owner of Joint Tenancy May Unilaterally Sever the Joint Tenancy and Destroy the Right of Survivorship

The Supreme Court of Tennessee recently released an opinion in Bryant v. Bryant that, although two people have expressly created a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship, the survivorship interests of the joint tenants may be severed by the unilateral action of one joint tenant, and that doing so converts the estate into a tenancy in common.

In this case, the property was originally conveyed through the execution of a quitclaim deed by Molly Bryant conveying the property to Ms. Bryant and her son, Darryl Bryant, Sr., to create “a joint tenancy with right of survivorship.” This conveyance allows for the property to be jointly owned, and, upon the death of one, the surviving owner takes complete ownership of the property.

Soon thereafter, however, Ms. Bryant executed a second quitclaim deed, this time conveying the property to her grandson, Darryl F. Bryant, Jr. with whom she was living in the home on the Property until her death. Mr. Bryant, Sr. filed a complaint against his son in 2014, arguing that any interest conveyed by Ms. Bryant would have terminated at her death and that the property was now entirely owned by him by rights of survivorship.

The Court explains various stances taken in other states regarding severance of a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship. In the majority view, under the common-law doctrine of severance, a unilateral action by one joint tenant severs the interest and converts it into a tenancy in common. In the minority view used in Michigan and Oregon, the interest remains intact and cannot be defeated by the unilateral action of one joint tenant. The minority view, which is favored by a dissenting Justice Lee in Bryant, aims to factor in the intent of the parties in creating the right of survivorship and protect both parties from a co-tenant who may be suffering from “buyer’s remorse.” Here, in adopting the majority approach of the other states, the Court holds that any co-owner of a joint tenancy with an express right of survivorship may, at his or her will and without the consent of the co-owner, sever the joint tenancy converting the estate into a tenancy in common.

Unmarried individuals should be cautious when considering the establishment of a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship and contemplate the potential issues associated with such a conveyance. Furthermore, in certain situations trust agreements and general partnership agreements may be utilized to best accommodate the desires of the parties should they not desire to permit a party to freely convey a survivorship interest prior to death without the other party’s consent.

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