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Riddle v. Harmon

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Brief Fact Summary. Joint tenant conveyed property to herself as tenant in common without telling joint tenant.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. A joint tenant can unilaterally sever the joint tenancy and create a tenancy in common by conveying the property to herself as a tenant in common.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

The right of survivorship has been described as a mere expectancy that arises only upon success in the ultimate gamble--survival--and then only if the unity of the estate has not theretofore been destroyed by any action which operates to sever the joint tenancy.

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Facts. Mr. and Mrs. Riddle purchased property taking the title as joint tenants. Several months before Mrs. Riddle’s death, she went to her attorney to prepare a grant deed in which Mrs. Riddle conveyed the property to herself as a tenant in common. Next, she disposed of her 1/2 undivided interest in the property through her will. Her husband initiated suit to quiet title to the property. The trial court refused to sanction her plan and ruled that the property remained in joint tenancy, thus vesting sole ownership with her husband. The executrix of Mrs. Riddle’s will appealed.

Issue.Can a joint tenant unilaterally sever the joint tenancy with a conveyance of the property to herself as a tenant in common?

Held.Yes, reversed.

  • An indisputable right of each joint tenant is the power to convey his or her separate estate by way of gift or otherwise without the knowledge or consent of the other and thereby terminate the joint tenancy.
  • The rule that an intermediary be used is archaic. We find that one joint tenant may unilaterally sever the joint tenancy without use of an intermediary device.

Discussion. The court discussed the old rule of requiring an intermediary “straw man” to sever a joint tenancy as archaic and cumbersome. The court ruled that a universal right of each joint tenant is the power to destroy the right of survivorship by conveyance of his or her joint tenancy interest to another person. If that other person is the joint tenant himself, so be it.

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