What Are Joint Tenants With Right of Survivorship (JTWROS)?
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Couples and business partners who want to share ownership of an asset might designate the account or title as joint tenants with right of survivorship, or JTWROS. This can be an attractive option because it allows assets to pass directly to the surviving owner(s) if one owner dies. However, there are a few drawbacks to JTWROS that can become problematic, and there are other ways to own assets jointly if the objective is to avoid probate, which can be a time-consuming, court-supervised process if one of the owners dies.
What does joint tenants with right of survivorship mean?
Joint tenants with right of survivorship is a legal term for a way to own assets jointly, where two or more parties have equal rights and ownership of an account or real estate. If one owner dies, the surviving owners automatically get full ownership of the asset.
What types of accounts can be JTWROS?
Real estate. Houses, land and other real estate properties can have a JTWROS designation. However, it’s important to be aware that any mortgages or loans against the property become the responsibility of the surviving owner(s) when one of the owners dies.
Bank accounts. Checking and savings accounts can be JTWROS accounts. If one of the joint owners dies, the surviving owner(s) take over the account and the deceased person is removed from the account.
Brokerage accounts. One note here is that, similar to a mortgage or loan against a real estate property, if there is a margin loan on the account, the surviving owner(s) are responsible for paying the loan.
Personal property. Personal property is an asset that can be moved; it is not fixed in one location, such as a house, for example. Personal property owned as JTWROS is usually a vehicle, but it could also be artwork, collectibles or other assets that have monetary value.
Can my retirement account be JTWROS?
Generally, no. Individual retirement accounts — such as IRAs or Roth IRAs — and 401(k)s cannot be jointly owned. Instead, adding beneficiaries to your retirement assets may allow these accounts to stay out of probate in the event of your death.
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Advantages of joint tenants with right of survivorship
Avoiding probate. If an owner dies, assets transfer to beneficiaries without having to go through the time-consuming probate process, which can take months to complete.
Continuity. After someone dies, the probate court may freeze the person’s assets until it determines who the new owner will be. However, assets owned as JTWROS may transfer immediately. This prevents the surviving owner(s) from having to wait until the estate is closed before moving into a house, for example, or accessing an account to pay expenses.
Shared ownership and responsibility. All owners on a JTWROS account share the asset, but they also share any liabilities (mortgages, loans, etc.) associated with the account. This shared responsibility can ensure all owners act in the best interest of a common goal, as they would be on the hook for the liabilities as well.
Disadvantages of joint tenants with right of survivorship
Relationship with joint owner(s). Entering into a JTWROS account with someone is a big step, so be sure you're dealing with someone you trust who has similar financial goals. Each owner has full ownership rights, which means unrestricted access to those assets. JTWROS accounts involving real estate may require all owners to consent to selling the property.
Frozen bank accounts. In some cases, the probate court can freeze bank accounts until the estate is settled. Typically this only happens if the deceased person was heavily in debt, as the court may need to make sure creditors are paid before settling the estate.
Control of assets after death. After a joint owner dies, the remaining owners can make changes, including who inherits the assets after the remaining joint owners die. Having a JTWROS account thus means you might forfeit control of what happens to assets if you are the first to pass away.
What are the tax implications of JTWROS?
Although JTWROS accounts can help avoid probate, they still might be subject to federal gift tax rules or estate taxes. Tax laws surrounding JTWROS accounts are different depending on whether the joint account owners are married.
For spouses: Assets in JTWROS accounts may get a step-up on cost basis when either spouse passes away. This can help reduce capital gains taxes when selling a property, but you can only step-up half of the full value of the asset. This 50% step-up represents the portion owned by the joint owner who died. Because it isn’t a full step-up, this can result in additional taxes when the property is sold.
For nonspouses: The death of one of the owners can trigger an asset transfer that the IRS considers a gift. Smaller accounts might be covered by the annual gift tax exclusion ($17,000 for 2023), but amounts over $17,000 may trigger the need to file a gift tax return. For real estate owned by nonspouses as JTWROS, the entire property is usually included in the estate of the first person to die, which could unfavorably affect estate taxes (if the estate is large enough to be subject to estate taxes).
» MORE: Learn how the gift tax works
Other options for joint ownership
Tenants in common is similar to JTWROS in that it can be used for financial accounts and real estate. However, if one of the joint owners dies, the deceased owner's share of the assets passes to their beneficiaries instead of to the surviving owner(s). Because of this, accounts owned as tenants in common typically do not avoid probate, as the deceased's shares are still part of the estate.
Transfer on death, or TOD, accounts are different from JTWROS or tenants in common accounts because the beneficiary has no ownership rights until the original owner dies. TOD accounts do avoid probate, though, as the assets are transferred immediately.