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Tenhet v. Boswell

    Brief Fact Summary. One party to a joint tenancy leased the property to third party without the other’s knowledge or consent.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A joint tenancy will not be severed by a lease to a third party, and sole ownership of the property will vest in the co-tenant upon the death of the other tenant unencumbered by the lease.

    Facts. Hazel Tenhet (Plaintiff) and Raymond Johnson owned land as joint tenants. Johnson leased the property to Boswell (Defendant) without Plaintiff’s knowledge or consent. Johnson died three months after the execution of the lease. Plaintiff sought her right of survivorship, demanded Defendant vacate the property, and brought an action to have the lease declared invalid.

    Issue. Can a lease made to a third party sever a joint tenancy?

    Held. No.
    Four unities are needed to create an estate in joint tenancy: unity of interest, unity of time, unity of title, and unity of possession. If one of these unities is destroyed, the joint tenancy turns into a tenancy in common and the right of survivorship is terminated.
    One of the tenants may destroy the joint tenancy by conveying his interest to a third person.
    A lease does not necessarily create either a temporary or permanent severance of a joint tenancy. In California, a joint tenancy must be expressly declared in order to be created. Thus, in order to sever it, it must be clearly and unambiguously established that either joint tenant wanted to terminate the estate.
    To terminate the joint tenancy, Plaintiff and Johnson could have converted it to a tenancy in common by written mutual agreement or jointly conveyed the property to a third person and divided the proceeds. One of them could have conveyed his or her entire interest, which would have clearly indicated an intent to terminate.
    Because there are alternative and unambiguous means of altering the nature of the estate, the lease here did not sever the joint tenancy. Thus, sole ownership of the property vests in Plaintiff because of her right of survivorship.
    In a joint tenancy, the interest of the deceased joint tenant ends at his death, so the lease of the joint tenancy property ends when the lessor dies. During a joint tenant’s life, he may grant rights in the property without severing the tenancy, but when he dies, his interest dies with him, so any encumbrances he placed on the property becomes unenforceable against the surviving joint tenant. Otherwise, the benefits of the right of survivorship would be nullified. For these reasons, the lease in this case in no longer valid.

    Discussion. A lease conveys only a partial interest in property, so it does not destroy the unity of interest that is needed to create a joint tenancy. When the joint tenant who leased the property dies, his ability to convey an interest dies with him, so even if time remains on the lease, it will be deemed invalid.


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