ARTICLE
28 February 2024

Mass. Appeals Court Upholds Joint Tenancy Reformation Based On Parties' Intent

RD
Riker Danzig LLP

Contributor

Riker Danzig LLP has served the business community for 140 years, with offices in Morristown and Trenton, New Jersey and in Midtown Manhattan. Riker Danzig is regional counsel, national defense counsel, and deal counsel to clients ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to middle-market businesses.
The Appeals Court of Massachusetts recently affirmed a summary judgment decision in favor of a property owner regarding the validity of a joint tenancy created between a married couple and a mother...
United States Real Estate and Construction
To print this article, all you need is to be registered or login on Mondaq.com.

Introduction

The Appeals Court of Massachusetts recently affirmed a summary judgment decision in favor of a property owner regarding the validity of a joint tenancy created between a married couple and a mother, that later may have been inadvertently terminated as part of divorce proceedings. See Pillai v. Scalia, 103 Mass. App. Ct. 1122 (2024).

Background

Gregory Bohenko ("Gregory"), Christine Bohenko ("Christine"), and Christine's mother Priscilla Scalia ("Priscilla") acquired title to property located in Westford, MA (the "Property") in 1993, taking title "as joint tenants," as was handwritten in the margin of the deed (the "1993 Deed"). Christine and Gregory later divorced, and as part of their divorce settlement, Gregory deeded "all [his] right, title and interest in and to the Property" to Christine in 2002 (the "2002 Deed"). Priscilla died in 2012, leaving a will that left her interest in the Property to her two sons (who were the defendants of this action), "but only if [she] ha[d] an interest in that property at the time of [her] passing." In 2018, Christine sold the Property to Plaintiff and swore in an affidavit that she believed that she was the sole owner of the Property upon her mother's death by operation of the joint tenancy. When Plaintiff attempted to refinance her mortgage, an attorney for the lender notified her of a possible title defect stemming from the 2002 deed from Gregory to Christine. As such, Plaintiff brought a quiet title action.

The Trial Court

Plaintiff brought a motion for summary judgment. In granting the motion, the trial court judge determined that the plain language of the 1993 Deed created a joint tenancy among Christine, Gregory, and Priscilla. He determined further that, while the 2002 Deed terminated the joint tenancy, there was no genuine dispute that Christine and Gregory intended for the joint tenancy between Christine and Priscilla to remain intact, and as such, ordered that the 2002 Deed be reformed to identify the grantees as Christine and Priscilla "as joint tenants." Finally, the judge concluded that the plaintiff was a bona fide purchaser. Defendants appealed.

The Appeal

The Appellate Court upheld the trial court on all counts. With regard to the 1993 deed, the Court agreed that the conveyance to "'PRISCILLA SCALIA, CHRISTINE BOHENKO AND GREGORY BOHENKO, as joint tenants' – 'clearly express [ed] an intent to create a joint tenancy'" as to all three of them. The Court rejected Defendant's assertion that the location of the phrase "as joint tenants" in the right margin of the deed changed the plain import of those words.

Regarding the 2002 Deed, the Court questioned whether the trial court was correct in determining that the conveyance from Gregory to Christine terminated the joint tenancy, citing case law that suggests that where there are more than two joint tenants, a conveyance by one tenant does not affect the joint tenancy among the remaining tenants. Citing, e.g., Foster v. Smith, 211 Mass. 497, 503 (1912) ("a conveyance by one of three joint tenants of his interest does not affect the joint tenancy of the other two"). However, the Court determined that it need not determine whether the trial court was correct on this issue because even assuming that the 2002 Deed severed the joint tenancy between Christine and Priscilla, the defendants had not shown that the judge erred in reforming the deed, a remedy which the Court stated is "available to correct language in an instrument that does 'not reflect [the parties'] true intent" where the party requesting it can "prove a mutual mistake or a mistake by one party known to the other." The Court found this was the case, as the record contained no evidence that Gregory or Christine intended to sever the joint tenancy between Christine and Priscilla. In fact, the only evidence was an affidavit from Christine stating that the 2002 Deed was not intended to change Christine and Priscilla's joint tenancy. The Court also determined that Defendants had offered no proof as to its contentions that Plaintiff was required to prove that Priscilla intended to maintain the joint tenancy in the 2002 deed (since she was not a party to it) and that deeds may only be reformed to fix technical mistakes.

Finally, the Court held that Plaintiff was a bona fide purchaser for value. The Court rejected Defendants' argument that Plaintiff was on constructive notice of a title issue stemming from the 2002 Deed since the title searches she obtained as part of her purchase and subsequent refinancing of the Property uncovered no defects. As such, the Court upheld summary judgment on all counts.

Takeaways

Despite the seeming agreement of the parties, the appellate court gave a clear signal that, in its view, the termination of a joint tenancy between two tenants where there are three or more total tenants does not necessarily extinguish the joint tenancy among all joint tenants. Moreover, the Court made clear that even if such an act did extinguish the joint tenancy, it would look to the surrounding circumstances to re-establish the joint tenancy where the parties' intent dictated.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

ARTICLE
28 February 2024

Mass. Appeals Court Upholds Joint Tenancy Reformation Based On Parties' Intent

United States Real Estate and Construction

Contributor

Riker Danzig LLP has served the business community for 140 years, with offices in Morristown and Trenton, New Jersey and in Midtown Manhattan. Riker Danzig is regional counsel, national defense counsel, and deal counsel to clients ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to middle-market businesses.
See More Popular Content From

Mondaq uses cookies on this website. By using our website you agree to our use of cookies as set out in our Privacy Policy.

Learn More