Right of Survivorship in Jointly Owned Assets
A Legal Moment

Who Gets What?  The Right of Survivorship Feature for Jointly Owned Assets

   Although a very useful tool generally to avoid probate, a Right of Survivorship Feature in jointly owned assets can have unintended consequences.

   Many people own assets jointly with others, and there are often sound reasons for such joint ownership. But joint ownership arrangements should be entered into carefully to avoid unintended results. Considerations specifically regarding use of the right of survivorship feature for jointly owned assets in North Carolina are the subjects of this month’s Legal Moment.

Determining the Interests of Joint Owners

When there are two joint owners of an asset, each owner is generally presumed to have a 50% interest in the asset unless a different ownership portion is specified in the governing document. If there are more than two joint owners, the presumed portion would adjust correspondingly. Under some circumstances, the presumptive portion attributed to an owner may be overridden by situation-specific facts — an issue that is beyond the scope of this article. Ownership interests of assets may be determined as follows: 

  • Ownership interests in real estate are reflected in identified “Grantees” in deeds, or under “deed substitutes” (for example, a probated Will which specifies to whom the real estate passed). 
  • Ownership interests of jointly held bank accounts and investment accounts are generally reflected on “signature cards” (agreements) signed by the joint owners of the accounts. 
  • Ownership interests in a vehicle are reflected on the Vehicle Title issued by the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. 

Right of Survivorship Feature (“ROS”; “WROS”; “JWROS”; “JTWROS”) 

Jointly owned assets may or may not include a right of survivorship, depending upon the applicable ownership arrangement. If the joint ownership includes a right of survivorship, then the interest of a deceased owner usually passes automatically to the surviving owner(s) and is not subject to the terms of the deceased owner’s Will (or, if there is no Will, to the applicable intestacy statutes.) In contrast, if there is no right of survivorship feature, the deceased owner’s portion passes by the terms of the Will or by intestacy statutes, and is subject to probate requirements. 

The “right of survivorship” feature it typically designated as such or by use of one of these abbreviations: “ROS,” “WROS,” “JWROS,” or “JTWROS.” 

Real Estate 

North Carolina real estate purchased and owned by a married couple is specially classified as “entireties property,” and it passes automatically to the surviving spouse without specifying right of survivorship. Entireties property can exist only between spouses and is recognized in North Carolina only in real property (real estate). In addition to the automatic, implicit right of survivorship feature, each spouse’s interest in entireties property is protected from the creditors of the other spouse. 

For real estate other than entireties property, to establish a right of survivorship, the governing document (the deed, or, if inherited, the Will provisions) must specify a right of survivorship. If there is no right of survivorship, the joint owners are “tenants in common,” and the interest of each owner in the real estate can be transferred by deed, Will, or inheritance without the consent of the other joint owner(s). Such a “tenancy in common” frequently arises when two or more children inherit a piece of property from their deceased parent. 

Personal Property 

Investment accounts generally reflect the right of survivorship (if any) in the name (“title”) of the account, which typically appears on account statements. On the other hand, bank accounts do not generally reflect the right of survivorship in the title of the account. Instead, one must examine the signature cards on the account to determine whether a right of survivorship exists. We recommend that you keep with your important papers copies of the signature cards for all your jointly owned accounts. Court clerks often require signature cards to document joint accounts and the survivorship feature when a joint owner dies. Most importantly, we recommend that you review each of your bank and investment accounts to ensure whether the status with respect to the right of survivorship feature accords with your wishes. Some considerations are highlighted below. 

With regard to a jointly owned vehicle, a right of survivorship feature must be indicated on the North Carolina Vehicle Title (most likely with one of the abbreviations above); otherwise, there is no right of survivorship upon the first owner’s death, and the deceased owner’s portion must be administered in some manner. 

Considerations Regarding the Use of the Right of Survivorship Feature for Jointly Owned Assets 

  • Many married couples own some or all of their assets jointly with right of survivorship — and this can be a sensible choice that allows them access to common funds, and provides a simple method to avoid probate upon the first spouse’s death. However, a right of survivorship feature is not appropriate if the intention is to have the deceased spouse’s portion go to beneficiaries other than the surviving spouse. 
  • There are significant cautions over the use of the right of survivorship feature for joint owners other than married couples. When contemplating a right of survivorship aspect to ownership, we recommend that you carefully think through all the different possible scenarios that could occur. As an example, if you and your parent purchase a house together and add the right of survivorship feature, the two of you may be thinking the house will eventually become yours. However, if your parent survives you, an unintended result may occur if you have a spouse or someone else to whom you wish to give your portion of the house. 
  • One of the most common unintended results of the right of survivorship feature (and of joint accounts generally) occurs in the situation where someone adds a joint owner to an asset for convenience, but does not actually intend for the asset to go entirely to that person. For example, a parent may have multiple children who are intended as equal beneficiaries of the parent’s estate, but for convenience the parent may add one of the children as a joint owner, to assist with management of bank or investment accounts. This can result in inadvertent disinheritance of the other children. Adding the child as an authorized signer on the accounts, or utilizing a Power of Attorney are ways to accomplish the goal of assistance, without risking disinheritance of others. There are a number of other ways inadvertent disinheritance can occur—for instance, conversely, if you are relying on the right of survivorship feature to pass a certain portion of your estate to a particular beneficiary, and if the asset is no longer in existence at your death (or is in existence at a far lower value than you contemplated). 
  • Joint bank and investment accounts often include the right of survivorship feature by default unless you request otherwise. If that is not your intention with respect to the account, you will need to override the default. 
  • A complication can arise for your Executor if a probate procedure is required for your estate, and if there are not enough probate assets (assets without right of survivorship or beneficiary designations) to pay the debts and expenses of the estate administration. It is worthwhile to think about whether the use of a right of survivorship is likely to ease the settling of your estate—or make it more difficult. 

Conclusion: Pay Attention to the Use of the Right of Survivorship Feature for Jointly Owned Assets

This article is not an exhaustive list of ways in which the use of the right of survivorship feature for jointly owned assets can go wrong (and it is not a discussion of benefits and detriments of joint ownership itself); instead, this Legal Moment is intended to highlight the importance of: 

(1) Knowing whether your jointly owned assets have a right of survivorship feature; and 

(2) Determining whether the right of survivorship feature is appropriate to your goals. 

There are certainly constructive uses of the right of survivorship feature, but it should be used thoughtfully and deliberately. You may wish to consult with your estate planning professional about use of the right of survivorship feature with respect to your particular situation and assets.


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Gay Vinson is an attorney at Marshall, Roth & Gregory, PC. Her practice is concentrated in trust and estate planning and administration.
  To receive more information on this topic or to suggest topics for future editions of "A Legal Moment," feel free to contact Gay by email ( or telephone (828.281.2100). 

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You may not rely on this content as legal advice for any specific situation, but should instead contact an attorney for specific advice.
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