Ownership of Property among Two Sets of Spouses

…the court held that a grant of real property to a husband and wife creates a tenancy by the entirety “unless expressly declared to be a joint tenancy or tenancy in common….”

“Rodriguez’s Right to 50% of the Property Was Created by Operation of Law”

In this case, the Deed to the subject real property indicated ownership of the property as follows:

“GILBERTO HERNANDEZ and CONSOLACION HERNANDEZ, HIS WIFE … AND ERLINDA QUE and ELPIDIO RODRIGUEZ, HER HUSBAND.”

As to the 50% interest in the property owned by movant  Elpidio Rodriguez and his wife, Erlinda Que, they owned their share as tenants by the entirety. Based upon the substantial case law in New York State, Mr. Rodriguez and Erlinda Que took ownership of their half-share as husband and wife, have continued as such until Erlinda Que’s death.

In Prario v. Novo, 168 Misc.2d 610 (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co. 1996), the court held that a grant of real property to a husband and wife creates a tenancy by the entirety “unless expressly declared to be a joint tenancy or tenancy in common.”  Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 6-2.2(b). A joint tenancy is subject to partition during the lifetimes of the joint tenants (24 N.Y.Jur.2d, Cotenancy and Partition, Section 33; 3A Warren’s Weed, New York Real Property, Partition, Section 3.03; id., vol. 2A, Joint Tenants, Section 4.01) whereas a tenancy by the entirety cannot be divided absent consent of both spouses or upon a divorce (24 N.Y.Jur.2d, Cotenancy and Partition, §§ 38, 56; 3A Warren’s Weed, op. cit., Partition, Section 3.12). The tenancy by the entirety can be changed by voluntary act of the couple, divorce or death.

In Goldman v. Goldman, 95 NY2d 120 (2000), the Court of Appeals noted that a tenancy by the entirety is a form of real property ownership available only to parties married at the time of the conveyance (Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d 203, 207, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809). As tenants by the entirety, both spouses enjoy an equal right to possession of and profits yielded by the property (Neilitz v. Neilitz, 307 N.Y. 882, 122 N.E.2d 924). Additionally, “each tenant may sell, mortgage or otherwise encumber his or her rights in the property, subject to the continuing rights of the other” (V.R.W., Inc. v. Klein, 68 N.Y.2d 560, 565, 510 N.Y.S.2d 848, 503 N.E.2d 496). Only if the legal relationship between the husband and wife is judicially altered through divorce, annulment or legal separation, does the tenancy by the entirety converts to a tenancy in common (Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d, supra, at 207, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809).

Courts have recognized that a tenancy by the entirety cannot be altered without the mutual consent of the spouses or divorce. In Sciacca v. Sciacca, 185 Misc.2d 105 (Sup. Ct. Queens Co. 2000), the court held that: “As articulated by the Court of Appeals in Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d 203, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809, a court cannot direct the disposition of property held by married couples as tenants by the entirety until the court first alters the marital status, such as by entering a judgment of divorce or separation. Indeed, the law is long-settled that neither entirety tenant may, without the consent of the other, dispose of any part of the property to defeat the right of survivorship.” Citing to Hiles v. Fisher, 144 N.Y. 306, 39 N.E. 337.)

The Court of Appeals held, in Hiles v. Fisher, 144 NY 306 (1895), that the husband had a right to mortgage his interest, which was a right to the use of an undivided half of the estate during the joint lives, and to the fee in case he survived his wife; and by the foreclosure and sale the plaintiff acquired this interest, and became a tenant, in common with the wife, of the premises, subject to her right of survivorship.

Revisiting this issue, in V.R.W., Inc. v. Klein, 68 NY2d 560 (1986), the Court of Appeals held:

What makes this right of survivorship unique and differentiates it from the right of survivorship inherent in an ordinary joint tenancy is that it remains fixed and cannot be destroyed without the consent of both spouses (see, Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d 203, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809; compare, Matter of Polizzo, 308 N.Y. 517, 127 N.E.2d 316; Matter of Suter, 258 N.Y. 104, 179 N.E. 310, with Matter of Klatzl, supra, 216 N.Y. at pp. 86-87, 110 N.E. 181; Hiles v. Fisher, supra). As long as the marriage remains legally intact, both parties continue to be seized of the whole, and the death of one merely results in the defeasance of the deceased spouse’s coextensive interest in the property (see, Stelz v. Shreck, supra, 128 N.Y. at p. 266, 28 N.E. 510; Bertles v. Nunan, supra, at p. 156). Similarly, involuntary partition is not available to either cotenant as a means of severing the tenancy by the entirety, since a contrary rule would permit a vindictive or irresponsible spouse to deprive the other of the comforts of the marital home (see, Kahn v. Kahn, supra, 43 N.Y.2d at p. 208, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809; Anello v. Anello, 22 A.D.2d 694, 253 N.Y.S.2d 759; Vollaro v. Vollaro, 144 App.Div. 242, 129 N.Y.S. 43).

Accordingly, the ownership interests of Mr. Rodriguez and Erlinda Que as “husband and wife” created a tenancy by the entirety. Upon the death of his wife, Mr. Rodriguez became the owner of her share by operation of law; any Last Will and Testament of Erlinda Que would not alter his rights.

Long-established New York law is that real property held as tenants by entirety does not pass under the Will of a decedent spouse. In re Rothko’s Estate, 77 Misc.2d 168 [Sur. Ct., NY Co. 1974]; In re Strong’s Will, 171 Misc. 445 [Sur. Ct., Monroe Co. 1939] (“A severance of a tenancy by the entirety cannot be effected by the unilateral last will of one of the spouses alone.” Citing to Levenson v. Levenson, 229 AD 402 [2 Dept. 1930]).

On the death of the first tenant by the entirety of real property, his estate ceases to have any interest in such property. Matter of Harris’ Estate, 88 Misc.2d 60 [1976], affirmed 61 AD2d 881.

by Richard A. Klass, Esq.

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copyr. 2012 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
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