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In re Estate of Michael

    Brief Fact Summary. A grant by deed in 1947 made by Joyce King of property known as “King Farm” was made to two couples as tenants by the entirety. The language of the deed after the two tenancies by the entirety was created included the words “with right of survivorship. The parties’ dispute centered on whether the couple’s respective one-half interests were held as tenants in common or as joint tenants.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The case law of this jurisdiction dictate that, when construing language in a deed, there must be a sufficiently clear expression of an intent to create a right of survivorship, because the law does not favor joint tenancies.

    Facts. By deed in 1947, Joyce King conveyed property known as King Farm to Harry Michael and Bertha Michael, husband and wife, and Ford Michael (son of Harry and Bertha) and Helen Michael, husband and wife. After the grant to each respective couple the deed stated the couple’s interest was as tenants by the entirety. Then, after the second couple was mentioned, these words appeared: “with right of survivorship.” Harry Michael died prior to 1962 leaving to survive him his wife Bertha Michael and two sons, Ford Michael (one of the grantees) and Robert Michael, the Appellant. Bertha Michael died testate in 1963 and under her will Robert Michael was to take her interest in King Farm and Ford Michael, Appellee, was to receive $1,000 to balance the gift. The two sons Appellant Robert Michael and Appellee Ford Michael were appointed as executors of Bertha’s will. A dispute arose over what interest, if any, Bertha owned in King Farm which would pass to Robert Michael. Robert Michael argued t
    hat the deed created a tenancy in common as between the two couples (which would create undivided interests in the land as to each couple owning one-half and the land could pass under Bertha’s will, creating a one-half interest in Robert Michael and a one-half interest in Ford Michael and wife). The argument of Ford Michael is that as between the two couples the land was owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship (which would operate to allow Ford Michael and wife, as survivors of both Harry Michael and Bertha Michael, to own the entire property alone). The lower court took the argument of Ford Michael to be correct and found that the 1947 deed conveyed the land to the two couples to hold as joint tenants with right of survivorship. Robert Michael appealed.

    Issue. What is the proper characterization of the relationship created by the 1947 deed between the two couples?

    Held. The land was held as tenants in common as between the two couples. Decree reversed.
    Under the Act of 1812, Pennsylvania law presumes that, in the absence of language clearly expressing an intent to create a joint tenancy, the conveyance or devise to two or more persons is a creation of ownership as tenants in common. To resolve the question of whether or not survivorship was to be included (joint tenancy), the Court will look to the four corners of the deed.
    The Court found that in this case the words “with right of survivorship” could be subject to at least three interpretations. 1. An explanation of the interest created as one of the incidents of the estate, tenants by the entirety. 2. Explanation of the tenancy by the entirety which the words directly follow. 3. Indicative of the creation of a right of survivorship as between the two couples (which is what the Appellee Ford Michael urges). This is indicative of a lack of clarity sufficient to overcome the Act of 1812’s presumption against creation of a joint tenancy.
    The Court notes that the words “joint tenants” never appear in this deed. The normal way to create a joint tenancy is to state “joint tenants, with right of survivorship, and not as tenants in common.” The lack of this language to clearly indicate intent to create a joint tenancy means that the deed cannot be read to have created a joint tenancy.
    The term “their heirs and assigns forever” [emphasis added], shows an intent to create a tenancy in common, or an undivided one-half interest in each couple. The one-half interest of Bertha, who survived her husband Harry, was conveyed to Robert Michael.

    Discussion. In order to understand these cases, it is absolutely necessary to have a working knowledge of the terms “tenants in common,” “joint tenancy,” and “tenants by the entirety.” The definitions of the these terms and the incidents to each type of ownership are found beginning on page 311.


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