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Rhode Island Supreme Court Reverses Termination of Joint Tenancy After Plaintiff’s Death

Common law doctrines that apply to property ownership often create strict rules for how the ownership is determined after the death of a co-tenant. One such doctrine is the right of survivorship, which automatically transfers the interest of a deceased joint tenant to the other joint tenants, instead of to the deceased’s own heirs through a will or the intestate process. A recent decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court demonstrates that the right of survivorship, as well as other common law doctrines applicable to property ownership, may be abrogated by legislative action in some circumstances. It also illustrates how these issues can come into existence.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is the estate of a woman who held property with the defendants as joint tenants. Prior to the woman’s death, she initiated an action to sever the joint tenancy, which, if completed, would have reverted the parties’ interests on the property to tenants in common, allowing the woman’s heirs to assume ownership of her share of the property upon her death.

While the plaintiff’s partition action was pending, she passed away, and the defendants attempted to dismiss her action, arguing that her interest in the property automatically transferred to them upon her death as a result of the parties sharing ownership of the property as joint tenants. The Superior Court granted the defendant’s motion without hearing from the plaintiff’s estate, and the plaintiff’s heirs lost their interest in the property.

The plaintiff’s heirs appealed the Superior Court judgment to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that under Rhode Island state law, a partition action to divide a joint tenancy into tenancies in common shall not be extinguished by the death of a party. As a result of that law, the plaintiffs argued that the partition case should not have been dismissed, and that the plaintiff’s estate should be substituted as a party in the partition action and the dismissal should be set aside.

The high court agreed with the estate that state law clearly and unambiguously demands that a partition action is not abated when a party to the action dies. As a result of this ruling, the ownership of the property will be determined by the partition action, which will most likely allow the heirs to take possession of the deceased plaintiff’s portion of the property as tenants in common.

Finding a Qualified Real Estate Attorney for Your Claim

If you are facing a dispute over a real estate partition, or other Rhode Island real estate issue, obtaining the services of a skilled real estate attorney can help you have confidence that your issue is resolved in your favor. The qualified real estate lawyers at Bilodeau Capalbo can advise and represent you throughout whatever property law issues you are dealing with. Our experienced team of attorneys has the tools, dedication and skills necessary for you to be confident in our handling of your case. Contact our offices today at 401-300-4055 to schedule a no-obligation consultation and discuss your case.

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