Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Joint Landowner's Survivorship Rights Ended When Other Joint Owner Transferred Ownership

April 19, 2017

In a family dispute over land in Davidson County, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that, where two persons own land as joint tenants with a right of survivorship, if one of them transfers her interest in the land to someone else, that action will terminate both of the joint tenants’ survivorship interests.

In June 2009, 85-year-old Molly Bryant signed a deed conveying her Davidson County land to herself and her son, Darryl Bryant, Sr.  The deed said that it was intended to create a “joint tenancy with right of survivorship” between Ms. Bryant and her son.  A “right of survivorship” means that, when one of the landowners dies, the person who survives owns 100 percent of the land.

In September 2010, Ms. Bryant signed another deed for the same Davidson County land.  This deed transferred Ms. Bryant’s interest in the land to Darryl Bryant Jr., her grandson.  At some point, Ms. Bryant’s grandson began living with Ms. Bryant on the property.  In November 2013, Ms. Bryant died.

Soon after Ms. Bryant’s death, her son Darryl Sr. filed a lawsuit in Davidson County against Darryl Jr., his son and Ms. Bryant’s grandson.  The lawsuit asked the trial court to declare that son Darryl Sr. owned 100 percent of Ms. Bryant’s Davidson County land based on the right of survivorship granted to him in the June 2009 deed, and to give Darryl Sr. possession of the land.  In response to his father’s lawsuit, grandson Darryl Jr. claimed that the September 2010 deed from Ms. Bryant terminated his father’s survivorship interest, leaving Darryl Jr. and his father each owning a one-half interest in Ms. Bryant’s land as tenants in common.

The trial court agreed with Darryl Sr.  Following the law in Michigan, the trial court held that Ms. Bryant’s transfer to her grandson did not terminate her son’s survivorship interest in the land, and that when Ms. Bryant died, her son Darryl Sr. became the sole owner of the land.  Grandson Darryl Jr. appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted grandson Darryl Jr.’s request to appeal.

After reviewing historic property law going back to when Tennessee became a state and researching property laws in other states, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed.  The Court rejected the trial court’s decision to rely on Michigan law because it was inconsistent with prior Tennessee property law cases and with the law in almost all of the other states.   Consistent with the law in the vast majority of states, the Court held that Ms. Bryant’s September 2010 deed of her interest in the land to grandson Darryl Jr. had the effect of terminating the survivorship interests previously held by son Darryl Sr. and Ms. Bryant. Once Ms. Bryant executed the September 2010 deed conveying her interest in the land to grandson Darryl Jr., the Court explained, the ownership of the land converted into a tenancy in common, so that Darryl Sr. and Darryl Jr. each owned a 50 percent interest in the land. 

Applying the prevailing law, the Court reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of son Darryl Sr. and held that the Davidson County land in dispute was owned by Darryl Sr. and Darryl Jr. in equal parts as tenants in common.

Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a dissent in which she disagreed with the majority’s decision to hold that a survivorship interest in property can be terminated by the actions of only one of the joint tenants, without the knowledge or consent of the other joint tenant. The better policy, Justice Lee said, would be to follow the law in jurisdictions such as Michigan or Oregon that do not allow a joint co-tenant to act unilaterally and protect the rights and expectations of joint tenants who are conveyed property with a survivorship interest. 

To read the majority opinion in Darryl Bryant, Sr. v. Darryl Bryant, Jr. opinion, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the dissenting opinion of Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.