This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
| 2 minutes read

SJC Finds Severance of Joint Tenancy and Affirms Judgment of Civil Contempt[1]

Where joint tenants with rights of survivorship reached an agreement requiring one of the joint tenants to remove his personal belongings from the property, and the other to keep the mortgage current and either refinance or list the property for sale, did that agreement sever the joint tenancy and thereby destroy the parties’ rights of survivorship? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently answered that question “yes” in Furnas v. Cirone, No. SJC-13429, 2023 WL 8041884 (Mass. Nov. 21, 2023) (“Furnas”).  The SJC also found the second joint tenant to be in civil contempt for failure to refinance or sell the property.

In Furnas, two joint tenants with rights of survivorship (Cirone and Furnas), in a proceeding to partition the property, settled on an agreement under which Cirone would make monthly payments to Furnas, who would keep the mortgage current and either refinance or list the property for sale. Cirone also agreed to remove his personal belongings from the property.  After a decree was entered by the probate court incorporating their agreement, Cirone died, leaving his daughter to act as the personal representative (PR) of his estate.  Following Cirone’s death, the PR brought an action in the probate court against Furnas for contempt, alleging that the partition decree entered in the petition proceeding was enforceable and that Furnas failed to comply with it by failing either to refinance or list the property for sale. The probate court agreed and found Furnas in civil contempt.  The Appeals Court affirmed. 

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) was asked to determine (i) whether the parties’ joint tenancy was severed by the prior agreement, thereby terminating Furnas’ right of survivorship, and (ii) whether the agreement was enforceable by the probate court. 

As to severance, the SJC reviewed the four “unities” that make up a joint tenancy: unity of interest, title, time, and possession. Focusing on Cirone’s agreement to remove his personal belongings from the property, the SJC found that the decree destroyed unity of possession, thereby severing the joint tenancy and terminating Furnas’ right of survivorship. 

As for the second question, the SJC found that, after Cirone’s death, his ownership interest in the property passed to his estate (not Furnas, since the decree destroyed the unity of possession) and, because the “issue of the agreement's effect on common-law survivorship rights is ‘intimately interwoven with the petition for partition,’ exclusive jurisdiction over the estate’s claim rests with the probate court under G. L. c. 241, § 25.” Consistent with these rulings, the SJC affirmed the judgment of civil contempt against Furnas for failure to comply with the parties’ agreement. 

The takeaway:  Matters involving joint tenancy as they relate to administration of the estate of a decedent who was a joint tenant can be complex, and advice of counsel experienced in such matters should be sought in determining how best to proceed.

[1] CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly transposed the names of the parties. The authors apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.


litigation, blog, private client, probate & fiduciary litigation, probate & fiduciary newsletter, estate planning & administration