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Riddle v. Harmon Case Brief

Summary of Riddle v. Harmon, Court of Appeal of California, First District, 1980

Statement of Case:

An action to sever a joint tenancy involving a decedent’s estate against her widow to terminate her joint tenancy by conveying her interest from herself as joint tenant to herself as tenant in common

Facts:

The couple purchased land, taking title as joint tenants.  A few months before the decedent’s death, decedent retained an attorney to plan her estate.  The attorney advised her that the property was in joint tenancy, and that the decedent’s husband would get the property in whole when she died.  She didn’t like hearing that, so she asked to terminate the joint tenancy so that she could dispose of her interest by will.  The attorney prepared a grant deed in such that the decedent granted to herself an undivided ½ interest in the land, and which severed the joint tenancy. The attorney also prepared a will disposing of decedent’s interest in the property.  The decedent died 20 days after the grant deed and will were executed.

Procedure:

The trial court quieted title to the widow via summary judgment and found that the decedent did not lawfully sever the joint tenancy.  Decedent’s estate appeals.

Issue:

Whether the decedent unilaterally terminated a joint tenancy by conveying her interest from herself as joint tenant to herself as tenant in common?

And Whether a strawman is required to terminate a joint tenancy?

Holding:

YES.  One joint tenant may unilaterally sever the joint tenancy w/out the use of an intermediary device.

(Rules):

  • Four unities are essential to the joint tenancy:  interest, time, title and possession.
    • If one of the unities is destroyed, it becomes a tenancy in common.
  • A joint tenancy can be severed by 1) voluntary conveyance, 2) partition proceedings, 3) involuntary alienation under an execution, or by 4) any other action which operates to sever the joint tenancy
  • Each tenant has the right to convey his or her separate estate by way of gift or otherwise w/out the knowledge or consent of the other joint tenant to terminate the joint tenancy.
  • Ex.:  If a joint tenant conveys to a stranger and that person reconveys to the same tenant, then no revival of the joint tenancy occurs b/c the unities are destroyed. But, if the stranger “strawman” conveys it back to both the previous joint tenants at the same time, it becomes a joint tenancy.
  • At common law, one could not create a joint tenancy in himself and another by a direct conveyance
  • California:  become a pioneer in allowing the creation of a joint tenancy by direct transfer.
    • To avoid the necessity of making a conveyance through a dummy
    • Clark v. Carter
      • Found the strawman to be indispensable
      • The joint tenants were husband and wife and the wife executed 2 documents the day before she died in attempt to sever the joint tenancy.
      • COURT:  a transfer of property presupposes participation by at least 2 parties, namely a grantor and grantee.
      • In every property conveyance there be a grantor, grantee, and a thing granted.
    • At English Common Law, the “two-to transfer” notion was born, and the title of land was passed by a symbolic object (dirt, twig, stone) – LIVERY OF SEISIN
  • TODAY, those who plead reliance do not necessarily practice it.  Perhaps the old rules are outdated?
    • WAYS TO TERMINATE A JOINT TENANCY
    • Burke v. Stevens
      • Wife tried to secretly terminate a joint tenancy.
        • 1) A letter written from Mrs. Burke to her attorney directing him to purpose of terminating the joint tenancy
        • 2) her execution and delivery of a power of attorney
        • 3) her attorney’s execution and delivery of a quitclaim deed conveying her interest in the property to a 3rd party, who was an office associate of the attorney
        • The 3rd party’s execution and delivery of a quitclaim deed reconveying the interest in Mrs. Burke
    • Reiss v. Reiss
      • Mrs. Reiss transferred bare legal title to her son, as trustee of a trust for her use and benefit.
        • The son promised to reconvey the property to his mother or to whomever she selected at any time upon her demand.
        • Accomplished by the transfer of legal title to her son for her expressed purpose of having the control and the right of disposition of her half of the property.

Reasoning:

  • The rule set forth in the time of Henry IV simply persists from blind imitation of the past.
  • The rule favoring a joint tenancy was based on a desire to avoid the splitting of the feudal services due to the lord of the fee.
      • Easier to rely on the loyalty of one man than two.
    • Hendrickson v. Minneapolis Federal
      • No fictional transfer by conveyance and reconveyance through a strawman was required.
  • The decision here does not create new powers for a joint tenant
    • There was already the power in each tenant to sever and destroy the right of survivorship by conveyance to another person.
  • Indestructibility of the Right of Survivorship:  How to;
    • By creating a joint life estate w/ a contingent remainder in fee to the survivor
    • Tenancy in common in fee simple w/ an executory interest in the survivor
    • Fee simple to take effect in possession in the future.

Disposition

REVERSED

ARGUMENTS FOR THE HUSBAND (DEFENDANT)?

  • Each tenant has the power to do as they please w/ the estate and her “secret conveyance” was against his will.
  • There should be a notice requirement

ARGUMENTS FOR THE ESTATE (MRS. RIDDLE)?

  • What she did was completely lawful
  • If they would have intended the tenancy to be secure, they could have done so (tenancy of the entirety)
  • To require a strawman would insert unnecessary “roadblocks” in the way of the tenants’ intention.
  • The new “conveyance” keeps power w/in the husband, just in a different form (tenancy in common)


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