Written by: Paul Horn, California Licensed Attorney & CPA
Owning your own home or a rental property is very different than owning your wardrobe, a computer or a car. The way you own your home or your rental property is the way you hold title to that property. How you choose to hold title is very important because it has many tax and legal consequences during your life time and when the property is transferred to your heirs when you die. Holding title incorrectly could translate into costing you or your heirs hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary income taxes and legal fees. Did you realize that when you bought your home, you were asked how you wanted to hold title? Did you understand the tax and legal ramifications of all your options before
deciding what kind of title you wanted to hold on your purchase?
These next few pages may not address every imaginable situation, but they will help put
you on the path of thinking about whether your current or future ways of holding title are
the best to maximize tax savings and avoid expensive legal fees.
These are the common ways to hold title in California:
1) sole ownership,
2) joint tenancy,
3) tenancy in common,
4) community property,
5) community property with right of survivorship,
7) partnership, and
1. Sole Ownership
A Single Man/Woman
Example: John Doe, a single man
A Divorced Man/Woman: A man or woman, having been legally divorced
Example: Jane Doe, an unmarried woman
A Married Man/Woman, as His/Her Sole & Separate Property
This method is used when one spouse is using his/her separate inheritance or cash acquired before getting married and is using those funds to purchase the property. When a married man or woman wishes to acquire title in his or her name alone, the title insurance company will require that the other spouse consent, by quitclaim deed or otherwise, to transfer, thereby relinquishing all right, title and
interest in the property.
Example: John Doe, a married man, as his sole and separate property
This is generally the way most single people hold title. If you own an asset in your sole name
then the asset will need to be probated in court after you die. This is because once you die, no
one will have the legal authority – only you had the legal authority. Whoever receives the
property will receive the property with a stepped up basis; meaning if the decedent bought the
property for $100,000 with no major improvement and at the time of death if the value is $1
million then the decedent’s heirs will receive the $1 million stepped up basis. If the heirs sold the
property for $1 million then the taxable proceed is $0 (zero)!
2. Joint Tenancy
Joint and equal interest in property owned by two or more individuals created under a single instrument with right of survivorship
Example: John and Mary Doe, husband and wife, as joint tenants
The main characteristic of holding title as joint tenancy is the right of survivorship. When one
joint tenant dies, his/her interest in the property is equally distributed to the remaining joint
tenants. The property does not become part of the individual’s estate, so it does not have to go
through probate under California law. This means that the transfer of property to the joint tenant
is easier, but it also means that a joint tenant cannot include his/her interest in the property in
his/her will. If unmarried individuals (such as brother or sister, investor, etc) hold title as joint
tenants and one owner dies, the property will automatically transfer to the other surviving joint
In a joint tenancy, the decedent’s half interest in the property receives the tax benefit of a basis
adjustment. Using the example of a property purchased by a married couple for $100,000 which
is now worth $1,000,000, when the first spouse dies, the adjusted basis for the surviving spouse
would be $550,000 ($500,000 for the decedent’s half, plus $50,000 for the surviving spouse’s
half). If the surviving spouse sold the property for $1,000,000 then the taxable proceed would be
$450,000 ($1,000,000 minus cost basis of $550,000 = $450,000).
3. Tenancy in Common
Under tenancy in common, the co-owners own undivided interests, but unlike joint tenancy, there is no right of survivorship; each tenant owns an interest, which on his or her death vests in (goes to) his or her heirs
Example: John Doe, a single man, as to an undivided ¾ interest and Sally, a single woman, as to an undivided ¼ interest, as tenants in common
Tenancy in common is a form of holding title to property owned by two or more individuals for
an undivided fractional interest. Tenancy in common carries no right of survivorship and each
party has a right to encumber, transfer, or sell his or her respective interest. For example if
brother and sister hold title as tenancy in common in a home, then upon the death of the brother,
the brother’s heirs (whoever they are) would get whatever was the brother’s interest in the
property. Further, unlike joint tenancy, the fractional interests held by spouses through tenancy in
common do not have to be equal and each spouse may sell, lease, will, or dispose of his or her
share of the property as he or she wishes. For example, three individuals could hold title as
tenancy in common, with one person having a 50% interest and each of the other two having a
25% interest. Each co-owner can sell, convey, or mortgage his or her interest without the consent
of the co-owners. The new owner simply becomes a tenant-in-common with the other owners.
This method is almost never used by spouses because of the lack of the right of survivorship, no
stepped-up tax advantages, the possibility of holding unequal fractional interests, and potential
devastating tax consequences.
4. Community Property
Property acquired by a married couple or domestic partners, or either spouse during marriage, other than by gift, bequest (inheritance), or as the separate property of either, is presumed community property
Example: John and Mary Doe, husband and wife, as community property
Example: Sally and Mary, registered domestic partners as community property
When the title to property is held by a married couple or domestic partners, as community
property, each spouse or partner has equal rights of management and control of the property and
the right to include his/her half of the community property in his or her will. If the first spouse or
domestic partner dies without a will or leaves the property to the surviving spouse or domestic
partner, the property will go to the surviving spouse or domestic partner and no probate is
With community property, on the death of one of the spouses, both spouses’ half interests in the
property will get a stepped-up in income tax basis adjustment to fair market value. For example,
if the property was purchased for $100,000 and is worth $1,000,000 at the time of the first
spouse’s death, the surviving spouse will get a stepped-up basis to $1,000,000 for tax purposes.
If the surviving spouse sold the property for $1,000,000 then the taxable proceed would be
ZERO ($1,000,000 minus cost basis of $1,000,000 = $0 (zero) gain! Further, because of the
unlimited marital deduction, no estate taxes would be levied against the property upon the death
of the first spouse creating an additional tax advantage.
Each owner has the right to dispose of his/her one half of the community property, by will.
5. Community Property with Right of Survivorship
Community property acquired by a married couple or registered domestic partners when
expressly declared in the transfer document to be “community property with right of
survivorship,” shall pass to the surviving spouse or partner without having to first pass
through the administration of the estate.
Interest must have been created on or after July 1, 2001
John and Mary Doe, husband and wife, as community property with right of survivorship
Under California law, spouses or registered domestic partners can enjoy the benefits of
community property, while simultaneously receiving the benefit of joint tenancy: the automatic
right of survivorship by holding title as community property with right of survivorship. Because
the property is still under the guise of community property, the surviving spouse is able to obtain
the full step-up in basis for income tax purpose. This will likely result in a tremendous tax
savings for the surviving spouse if the property has appreciated. The tax analysis here is the same
as in community property that was discussed above. To reiterate the example above: if husband
and wife bought the property for $100,000, and upon the death of the first spouse, the fair market
value of the property is $1,000,000, the surviving spouse cost basis is $1,000,000 resulting in $0
(ZERO) taxable income if the property was sold for $1,000,000. The end result is that the
surviving spouse 1) receives the entire property without any burdensome delays, 2) avoids
probate and unnecessary legal expenses, but 3) still obtains a significant tax savings.
Absent any of the limitations of special circumstances, most couples would benefit most from
community property with right of survivorship.
6. Corporation & LLC
A Corporation: A corporation is a legal entity; created under state law, consisting of one or more shareholders but regarded under law as having an existence and personality separate from such shareholder(s).
For many reasons, few investors hold investment real estate in C corporations. A corporation protects the shareholders from personal liability, however the double taxation of dividends and the inability to have “paper losses” from depreciation flow through to owners make a C corporation inappropriate for real estate investments.
Limited Liability Companies (LLC): This form of ownership is a legal entity and is similar to both the corporation and the partnership. The operating agreement will determine how the LLC functions and is taxed. Like the corporation its existence is separate from its owners.
The California LLC is probably the least understood entity, but it’s the best entity to hold ownership to real estate investment property (rental property) because of the asset protection it provides and the beneficial tax treatment it offers over the corporation. This is especially applicable to individuals who own investment properties in addition to their primary home.
A partnership is an association of two or more persons who can carry on business for profit as co-owners, as governed by the Uniform Partnership Act. A partnership may hold title to real property in the name of the partnership. Partnership is included here for the sake of completeness but not it is relevant to the vast majority of homeowners holding title to a home.
Title to real property in California may be held by a trustee in trust; the trustee of the trust holds title pursuant to the terms of the trust for the benefit of the trustor/beneficiary
Example: John buyer trustee of the John’s Family Trust
Community property with right of survivorship is an inexpensive and convenient way to avoid probate and to significantly reduce tax liability for spouses. However, community property with right of survivorship, though not entirely devoid of disadvantages, seems to be a far superior choice to joint tenancy. In certain cases holding title in a living trust may offer additional benefits to couples. The primary advantage of a living trust is that assets transferred to the trust are not part of the settlor’s probate estate and are not subject to probate proceedings in California. Avoiding probate will save significant costs and attorney fees. In our example, a $1 million house will cost at least $23,000 in statutory attorney fees in probate. Furthermore, probate proceedings are public records with no privacy and can be lengthy, resulting in delays for a minimum of twelve to eighteen months before the assets are distributed to the heirs. These are some of the reasons why a trust has become the primary transfer device used by professional estate planners in California.
The best manner of holding title to a property is one of the most frequently overlooked items
when purchasing a home. The wrong choice in holding title to property will lead to increased tax liability and legal fees. Individual and couples should consider many factors when deciding how to hold title. It is always best to consult an experienced attorney, accountant or estate planner when purchasing a home or any other real property to ensure the best possible tax and legal outcomes down the road.