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Riddle v. Harmon

From lawbrain.com

Riddle v. Harmon, 162 Cal. Rptr. 530 (1980), is a property law case in which a joint tenant’s ability to unilaterally sever the joint tenancy is examined.

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Summary of Case Facts

A parcel of land was owned by a married couple, the Riddles. Mrs. Riddle, nearing the end of her life, consulted with an attorney to prepare her estate. Upon learning that the land she owned with her husband was a joint tenancy, and that after her death he would retain ownership in the whole of the property, she sought to sever the joint tenancy. Mrs. Riddle granted to herself in a deed ½ interest in the property thereby attempting to convert the ownership with her husband into a tenancy in common. Shortly after her grant and the preparation of her will Mrs. Riddle passed away. Her widowed husband, Mr. Riddle, filed suit to quiet title to the property in his name. The lower court agreed, and Mrs. Riddle’s executrix (Harmon) appealed.


May a joint tenant unilaterally sever a joint tenancy?

Holding and Law

Yes. A joint tenant may sever a joint tenancy by conveying her interest to herself without the aid of a straw man in the middle of the transaction. A joint tenancy exists as a result of four unities of ownership – interest, time, title, and possession. If one of the unities is destroyed then the joint tenancy is severed.

In the past, common law required the aid of a straw man to sever a joint tenancy through conveyance. The California court opined there was no longer a need for such an arcane ritual, and that one, such as Mrs. Riddle, could convey her interest to herself to sever the joint tenancy.

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