The hazards of drafting survivorship deeds for consumers

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Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

More than a decade has elapsed since our Supreme Court surprised dirt lawyers with Smith v. Cutler,* the case that told us there were already in place two survivorship forms of ownership in South Carolina. We apparently missed that day in law school! The two forms of ownership are joint tenancy (which we knew and loved) and tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship (which slipped by us somehow). This is a mini-history lesson about how we got to this state of the law and a reminder for dirt lawyers to carefully draft deeds.

Under the common law in South Carolina, tenancy in common is the favored form of ownership. A deed to George Clooney and Amal Clooney (whether George and Amal are married or not) will result in a tenancy in common. At the death of George or Amal, the deceased’s fifty percent interest in the property will pass by will or intestacy laws. Joint tenancy was not favored in South Carolina, and there was no tenancy by the entirety that would have saved the property from probate (and creditors) for a married couple.

A rather convoluted 1953 case** interpreted a deed that intended to create a tenancy by the entirety as creating a shared interest in property between husband and wife referred to as a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of ownership. This is the case that the Smith v. Cutler Court referred to as creating the form of ownership we missed.

It’s not technically true that all of us missed this form of ownership. Some practitioners did use the language from the 1953 case to create a survivorship form of ownership. The magic language is “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple.”  Other practitioners routinely used the common law language: “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.”

Conveying title from a person to himself and another person establishing survivorship was not possible in South Carolina prior to 1996 because the old common law requirement of unities of title could not be met. To create a survivorship form of ownership, the property owner conveyed to a straw party, who would then convey to the husband and wife, complying with the unities of title requirement and establishing survivorship.

A 1996 statutory amendment to §62-2-804 rectified this problem by providing that a deed can create a right of survivorship where one party conveys to himself and another person. The straw party is no longer needed. This statute was given retroactive effect.

In 2000, our legislature added §27-7-40, which provides that a joint tenancy may be created, “in addition to any other method which may exist by law” by the familiar words “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common”.  The statute addresses methods for severing joint tenancies which typically results in a tenancy in common. For example, unless the family court decides otherwise, a divorce severs a joint tenancy held by husband and wife, vesting title in them as tenants in common.  A deed from a joint tenant to another severs the joint tenancy. A conveyance of the interest of a joint tenant by a court severs the joint tenancy.

Following the enactment of §27-7-40, most practitioners used the language set out in the statute to create a joint tenancy, “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Five years later, Smith v. Cutler required us to examine our drafting practices with fresh eyes. The court held that a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship is capable of being defeated by the unilateral act of one tenant, but a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not capable of being severed by a unilateral act and is also not subject to partition.

Real estate lawyers in the resort areas in our state are often asked to draft survivorship deeds because couples from other states as accustomed to tenancy by the entirety. Until Smith v. Cutler, most practitioners did not believe different estates were created by the different language commonly in use. We believed joint tenancy was created in both cases.

Now, clients should be advised about the different estates and should choose the form of ownership they prefer. I’ve discussed this issue with many lawyers who advise married couples to create the indestructible form of ownership. Others who seek survivorship are often advised to create joint tenancy under the statute.  I see many deeds from the midlands and upstate that use the traditional tenancy in common form of ownership. I’ve heard estate planners prefer tenancy in common so the distribution at death can be directed by will. Lawyers who draft deeds for consumers need to be aware of and need to address the various forms of ownership with their clients.

One final thought on the survivorship issue in South Carolina. Do we now have a form of ownership that protects property from creditors of one of the owners? If a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not subject to partition, then it may not be reachable by the creditors of one of the owners. Let me know if you see a case that makes such a determination. It would be an interesting development.

 

366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

** Davis v. Davis, 223 S.C. 182, 75 S.E.2d 45 (1953)

 

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