When real property is owned by joint tenants and one of the joint tenants dies, the property passes automatically to the survivors.
For instance, a mother may title her home in a joint tenancy with her children. When the mother dies, by law the property goes to the children.
Joint tenancy may result in unintended consequences. The children, in the previous example, continue to own the home as joint tenants after their mother's death. When one of the children dies, the property will be owned by the surviving siblings. The spouse and children of the deceased child will have no ownership.
A joint tenancy can be broken easily by changing the title of the property. One joint tenant can record a deed conveying his or her interest. This unilateral conveyance destroys a joint tenancy for all owners.
In the example, if one child conveyed her interest in the home to herself and her spouse, the joint tenancy would be dissolved. The child and her spouse would then own one equal share of the property, and each of the other surviving children would own one equal share. There would no longer be a right of survivorship among the children. The property would be owned as tenants in common. Upon the death of one tenant in common, his or her interest passes according to their will, or to the heirs if there is no will.
The only way to tell if real property is owned by joint tenants or by tenants in common is to review the recorded property deeds. If you have any questions about whether your property is correctly titled, see your lawyer.