Joint ownership isn't best for everything

Who should own what? That question is often asked when a married couple is making a major purchase , like a house. On occasions like this, the banker or real estate agent will ask the couple, ''Do you want the house in joint tenancy, or tenancy in common?''

If your first reaction to those terms is ''Huh?'' maybe it's time to find out about some of the joint property terms and decide what, if anything, should be held jointly.

There are three types of joint ownership. The one that is right for you depends on the kind of property involved, what state you live in, and what specific rights of ownership one spouse or the other wishes to keep.

The first and most common is ''joint tenancy,'' sometimes known as ''tenancy by the entirety.'' This is the one that is used most often for home ownership. It means that both husband and wife have a complete and undivided interest in the property and that neither can sell his or her interest in it without the other's consent. Joint tenancy is most often used by a husband and wife, so that when one of them passes on, the property immediately goes to the surviving spouse without having to bother with probate.

Joint tenancy can also be used by people who are not married as a way to ensure easy transfer of property at death. In either case, both names have to appear on the ownership document.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to joint tenancy. On the plus side, it protects a wife who has no funds of her own, because the husband cannot sell the property or borrow against it without her permission. If one spouse cannot pay off some debts, creditors cannot seize jointly held property, though they may file a lien against it. Joint property can be a much more efficient way to transfer property if you owe no estate taxes, a growing possibility with the unlimited transfer of property between husband and wife without any estate-tax liabilities and the enlarged amounts that can be left to other heirs tax free.

It should be pointed out that one partner in a marital dispute could clean out a jointly held bank account. In selling jointly held property, however, the signature of both parties is needed. That may be difficult to obtain if one person is unavailable, incapacitated, or angry. In some states, a joint bank account may be frozen for a time if one spouse dies. (This is also true of safe-deposit boxes in many states. If the bank learns of the death before the surviving spouse gets to the box, it can be ''sealed'' until the estate is settled. So you should be careful not to put any documents, such as life insurance policies, into the box that might be needed after a spouse dies. A fireproof box at home should be used for these things.)

The second form of joint ownership is called ''tenancy in common.'' Here, each person owns half of the property and when one of them passes on, the rest does not automatically pass to the survivor. That half would pass to whomever the deceased person specified in his will; and if there is no will, it will be disposed of according to state laws that apply to someone passing on intestate (without a will.)

This is more commonly used by friends or relatives who want the convenience of some form of joint ownership but want to keep the right to decide on the disposal of his portion of the property.

The third type of joint ownership is community property. If you don't live in one of the eight community-property states - Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Washington - you can't have it, so don't worry about it. If you do live in one of these states, or ever did, you can't avoid it, so you should know how it works.

Basically, any property one spouse acquires while the couple lives in one of these states also belongs to the other. It doesn't matter whose name is on the deed. Exceptions include property acquired before marriage, inheritances, and property acquired in noncommunity-property states. Usually, everything goes to the surviving spouse, but unlike joint ownership, some states may still require the property to go through probate.

If you once lived in one of the eight states but have since moved, you are still subject to community-property laws for items obtained while you lived in that state. Check with a lawyer about the status of this property and any steps you should take.

You should, in fact, check with a lawyer or tax attorney about any changes you might wish to make regarding whose name is on what property. While some experts suggest that houses, bank accounts, and US Savings Bonds be held jointly , they argue that other property, such automobiles, should be held separately. Many couples, for instance, keep the car in the wife's name to protect the rest of the family's property from liability suits.

Although a joint bank account used for ''family'' needs is probably a good idea, a wife should also have a bank account in her own name. This gives her the security of her own source of funds and a financial basis for establishing her own credit record. Many women have found themselves divorced or widowed without the credit history needed to obtain their own charge cards or a personal loan on their own. This is one case, then, where doing everything together is definitely a bad idea.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.m

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