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How personal property and assets are titled can impact on how that property is distributed after a person’s death and, in some cases, may supersede a will.

Montana State University Extension educators say it is important for people to understand how titling personal property that is owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship could have unintended consequences.

MSU Extension family economics specialist Marsha Goetting and Pondera County Extension agent Wendy Wedum said factors like property title laws and intestacy statutes can impact how property is distributed after a person dies.  

Joint tenancy with right of survivorship, according to Montana law, takes priority over a written will. Property held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship passes to the surviving joint tenant.  

As an example, a man with a child from a prior marriage may want that child to receive a specific mutual fund, and so he indicates that in his will. However, since the mutual fund is owned in joint tenancy with his ex-wife, the joint tenancy takes priority. His wife would receive the mutual fund, not the child.

“This is why it is important for Montanans to know how their real and personal property assets are titled. This includes checking accounts, certificates of deposits, investments and land,” Goetting said.

“Remember, a will only controls the property after the death of the joint tenants,” Wedum added. “For example, if a husband and wife own property in joint tenancy and if the husband writes a will leaving the property to his parents, the will ‘works’ only if his wife is not living. If she is still alive, the property automatically passes to her because of the joint tenancy.”

Goetting said very few Montanans know that, by titling property in joint tenancy with right of survivorship and by not writing a will, their property could pass to unintended heirs. A will could assure that assets do not pass to one set of heirs simply because one person outlived the other by a few hours.

She noted that working with an attorney can provide the appropriate wording to accomplish the will writer’s wishes.

“Make sure the assets you have worked so hard to acquire are distributed according to your wishes instead of Montana law,” Wedum said.

For more information, request the MSU Extension MontGuides “Property Ownership” and “Wills” at www.montana.edu/estateplanning/eppublications.html. For those who do not have computer access, copies are available from county Extension or reservation offices.

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