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Massachusetts Agencies

Personal Property

Joint Tenancy

The terms “joint ownership” or “joint tenancy” when used in connection with personal property can be misleading. In Casner and Leach, Cases and Text on Real Estate Law, Little Brown and Company (Edition, 1969) the authors, in distinguishing real from personal property on this point state this at page 281:

A joint bank account is sometimes referred to as a joint tenancy, and this is also true for a Series E Government Bond that is payable to A or B or the survivor. In the typical joint bank account, however, either one of the joint owners may draw out the entire amount in the account. Either joint owner of the Government Bond can cash it. Whereas, the true joint tenant of real property can only pull out his undivided share.

G.L.c 90D, §15A states that in the case of married persons a joint tenancy is presumed with respect to a “motor vehicle.” That term is defined in §1 of the statute. It would seem, however, that a legislative proclamation as to the presumption of joint tenancy as to a motor vehicle (an item of personal property) would suggest that such a tenancy would not arise as to personal property generally in the absence of such a proclamation. Otherwise, the presumption itself is superfluous.

All of the cases I am aware of having to do with the question of tenancy as to personal property revolve around bank accounts. But in those cases some designation of the manner in which the account was held (e.g., “joint owners”) appeared on the account, or “sufficient evidence” was admitted at trial as to what the intended tenancy was supposed to be. See Barboza v. McLeod, 447 Mass. 468 (2006). Some cases have revolved around an agreement that defines where title goes upon death. See Legro v. Kelley, 311 Mass. 674 (1942).

Newhall (Settlement of Estates, Fifth Edition, §9:7) says “As a general rule, where two more persons own personal property jointly, they hold as joint tenants, and on the death of either the whole passes to the survivor, following the same rule as in the case of joint tenancies of real estate.” The statement cites no authority, but in Graham v. Barnes, 259 Mass. 534 (1927) where securities were placed in a safe deposit box that was in the name of both parties the court held that the contents were held in joint tenancy. However, the court noted that two keys to the box were issued and the receipt stated, “In cases where a safe is held by two or more, right of access or control shall not pass to the legal representatives of a deceased safeholder but shall remain exclusively in the survivor or survivors.”

Newhall acknowledges that “There are not many cases of joint ownership [in personal property] other than of bank deposits,” but I think it’s safe to say that there has to be some evidence that the parties intended to hold the personal property as joint tenants.