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Court reverses joint tenancy interest ruling

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a finding that a mother and her daughter and son-in-law each held a one-half joint tenancy in a property, finding the parties actually held one-third undivided interest as joint tenants.

In Janice and Burdette Ramer v. Betty Smith, No. 57A04-0804-CV-202, Betty and Richard Smith executed a warranty deed conveying a tract of land to Betty's daughter, Janice, and her husband, Burdette Ramer, who had begun constructing a home on the land with the help of Richard. After some problems with the conveyance, the parties executed a second warranty deed, with the Smiths conveying a 16.99 acre tract of the property and the Ramers conveying the original 6.60 tract of land conveyed in the first deed to all four individuals, creating a 23.59 acre tract. The granting clause of the second deed read: "RICHARD W. SMITH and BETTY J. SMITH, husband and wife, and BURDETTE RAMER and JANICE RAMER, husband and wife ... Conveys and warrants to: RICHARD W. SMITH, BETTY J. SMITH, BURDETTE RAMER, and JANICE RAMER, as Joint Tenants With right [sic] of Survivorship ...."

Richard died four years later, and Betty filed a petition for partition of the 23 acre tract. The trial court concluded the second deed conveyed a one-half joint tenancy interest to the Ramers, which they held as tenants by the entireties, and Betty was entitled to one-half. The trial court valued the land at nearly $310,000, with the Ramers' house valued at $185,400. The trial court appointed a commissioner to sell the property at public sale because the property can't be divided into equal shares of value without physically dividing the residence.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, finding instead the parties had one-third undivided interest as joint tenants.

"In addition, the phrase 'with right of survivorship,' the placement of the names in a list implying equal treatment, and the omission of the phrase 'husband and wife' from the grantee clause after having been used in the grantor clause all indicate intent to create a joint tenancy," wrote Judge Margret Robb.

The appellate court also affirmed the Ramers weren't entitled to contribution for value added to the property. The Smiths had contributed to the value of the property by giving the Ramers a 6-acre tract of land, and Richard had helped excavate the land for construction of their home, wrote the judge. In addition, when joint tenancy is created, each tenant acquires an equal right to share in the use and enjoyment of the land during their lives and are entitled to an equal share upon partition, wrote Judge Robb.

Finally, the appellate court remanded to the trial court to determine the proper method of partitioning the property because now it is at least mathematically possible to divide the property while leaving the residence intact, she wrote.

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