Estate Planning Real Estate in Divorce

Tenancy by the Entirety and Creditor Recourse to Marital Real Estate

Last week I focused on first-time home buyers and new opportunities for state tax-exempt estate planning. This week’s post continues on the theme of family. Spouses who own Virginia property together may enjoy special protections against the claims of their individual creditors. This special form of ownership is called “Tenancy by the Entirety.” For this to arise, the husband and wife must own in unity of (a) time, (b) title, (c) interest and (d) possession. These requirements may be inferred if the deed specifically conveys to the husband and wife by tenancy by the entirety or with an intent to create a right of survivorship.

As far as creditors are concerned, the couple jointly owns an undivided 100% interest. This ancient doctrine continues to be applied by Virginia courts in contemporary real estate controversies. This post focuses on ways creditors may succeed in spite of this manner of holding title:

  1. Joint Consent. Neither spouse may sever the tenancy by his sole act. Likewise, one spouse cannot convey the property unilaterally. This becomes significant if one spouse attempts to mortgage the property without the consent of the other. However, the spouses may cause the termination of the tenancy by the entirety ownership or jointly liability for a lien or judgment. For example, when the owners take out a mortgage, if properly perfected, that lien will persevere against acts of divorce and/or bankruptcy unless exceptions apply. Also, if only one spouse files for bankruptcy, the tenancy by the entirety property remains outside of the Bankruptcy Estate.
  2. Divorce. Completion of a divorce transforms a tenancy by the entirety into a tenancy in common, the ordinary form of co-ownership. In equitable distribution, a Judge has considerable latitude in dividing up marital property.
  3. Death. Because of the right of survivorship, no transfer of title occurs to the survivor upon the death of a spouse. Upon death, the interest of the surviving spouse converts from a tenancy by the entirety to a sole ownership interest. At that time, the property then becomes subject to creditor claims.
  4. Fraud. If the husband and wife attempt to work a fraud on a creditor by improper use of a tenancy by the entirety conveyance, it is unlikely that the court would permit the fraud. However, if the couple sells real estate held in a tenancy by the entirety, the proceeds of that sale automatically also enjoy the same status as the real estate, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. A transfer from the husband and wife holding in tenancy by the entirety to the sole name of one of the spouses does not subject those funds to the claims of the other spouse’s creditors.

The gist of tenancy by the entirety flows intuitively from the legal understanding of marriage. It possesses a seemingly “magical” quality when it comes to protecting against many individual creditor claims. However, it can be difficult applying the doctrine to a family’s individual circumstances. If you have questions about Tenancy by the Entirety, whether as a spouse or a creditor, contact a qualified attorney.

Court Opinions:

In Re Eidson, 481 B.R. 380 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2012) (interpreting Va. law).

Alvarez v. HSBC Bank USA, 733 F.3d 136 (4th Cir. 2013) (interpreting Md. law).

U.S. v. Parr, File No. 3:10-cv-061 (W.D. Va. Oct. 6, 2011) (Moon, J.) (interpreting Va. law).

In Re Bradby, 455 B.R. 476 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2011) (interpreting Va. law).

In Re Nagel, 298 B.R. 582 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2003).

John Colby Cowherd
John Colby Cowherd
Attorney protecting the rights of Virginia property owners. Cowherd PLC (703) 884-2894