Property held in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety, or community property with right of survivorship automatically passes to the survivor when one of the original owners dies. Real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, and investments can all pass this way. No probate is necessary to transfer ownership of the property. But, even though the survivor automatically owns the property, the world has no way of knowing that until the survivor "clears title" to the property. Generally, all the surviving owner needs to do to clear title is fill out some simple documents and submit them to the proper office or agency.
If you're an executor appointed in a will, then technically joint tenancy property does not come under your authority. The property is not governed by the will, and it's not part of the deceased person's probate estate. But, as a practical matter, you might be an executor and a surviving joint tenant. So you may need to clear title to joint tenancy property yourself -- or help a relative do it.
Laws affecting real estate are always set by the state in which the real estate is located. To transfer jointly owned real estate to the surviving co-owner, you'll have to find out the exact procedure for your locality. The general idea is the same everywhere, however. You need to put a document on file in the local public land records, showing that one joint owner has died and that the surviving co-owner is now the sole owner of the property. (To learn more about how joint ownership of real estate works, see Nolo's article Joint Property and Concurrent Ownership).
Documents you'll need. In some states, the surviving joint owner can simply file a certified copy of the deceased co-owner's death certificate. In other states, the surviving co-owner must also sign and file a statement setting out the facts and explaining that he or she is now the sole owner. The statement may need to be notarized (in which case it's called an affidavit) or merely signed "under penalty of perjury" without a notary (in which case it's usually called a declaration). It never hurts to file such a statement, even if it's not the custom in your state.
Where to file your documents. Whatever documents (probably a death certificate and affidavit of survivorship) you need, file them at the county land records office where the property is located. This place goes by different names in different states; it's commonly called the County Recorder or the Registrar of Deeds. Most counties charge about $10 to $15 to record the first page of a document, and a smaller amount for each additional page.
If the deceased person owned an account in joint tenancy (or in tenancy by the entirety or as survivorship community property) with someone, the surviving co-owner can still use the money in the account after the death. The surviving co-owner, typically a spouse or child, automatically owns all the money in the account, without any probate proceedings. Getting the bank account shifted into the name of the survivor is usually simple. The surviving joint tenant should take a certified copy of the death certificate to the bank, along with the checkbook or savings account passbook. The bank will change the ownership records. (For specific information on "payable-on-death" bank accounts, see Nolo's article How Beneficiaries Can Claim Payable-on-Death Assets.)
The process for changing the name of the record owner of securities (stocks and bonds) depends on how the securities were owned. Did the owners have stock certificates or, as is much more common, were the stocks held in a brokerage account?
Brokerage accounts, mutual funds, or money market funds. If the deceased person owned a brokerage account or mutual fund account in joint tenancy, your best bet is to contact the brokerage company. The surviving joint tenant will need to fill out a form and send it to the company, along with a certified copy of the death certificate. The company will reregister the account in the name of the surviving owner. The surviving joint tenant's signature on the forms may have to be "guaranteed" so that the company knows it is genuine. Generally, banks or brokers have the power to guarantee a signature.
Changing certificates. If the deceased person possessed actual stock or bond certificates, you'll need to have them reissued in the surviving co-owner's name. You'll need to contact the corporation's transfer agent (listed on the back of the stock certificate) for instructions on what forms and documents are necessary. Or, if the stock isn't publicly traded, there won't be a transfer agent, so you'll have to deal directly with the company.
If a car or other vehicle (motorcycle, RV, or small boat) was owned in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety, or as survivorship community property, it should be easy to get title transferred into the name of the surviving co-owner. You can find a lot of state-specific information, and often forms as well, by going to the website of your state's motor vehicles agency.
If two people are co-owners of a U.S. savings bond, when one owner dies the survivor automatically becomes the sole owner. The survivor can redeem the bond, have it reissued in his or her name, or just leave it. The advantage of getting the bond reissued in the survivor's name is that the survivor can then name a beneficiary for the bond. That way, at the survivor's death, the bond will automatically pass to the person he or she named as beneficiary, without probate.
To get new bonds issued in the survivor's name, use a Treasury Department form, Request to Reissue United States Savings Bonds. It is available at banks or online at www.treasurydirect.gov.
The surviving owner must sign the form in front of someone at a bank who is an authorized "certifying officer."
If Title Wasn't Cleared When the First Joint Tenant Died
If you're dealing with the estate of a second joint tenant who has died, it's not uncommon to discover that title to property was never officially cleared when the first joint tenant died. In other words, official records may show that the property is owned by two people -- both of whom are now deceased. In that case you've got a little more work to do. Before you can transfer the property to the person who inherits it now, you must go back and clear ownership records of the name of the first joint tenant to die. You'll need to follow the instructions for whatever type of property you're dealing with. Then you can go ahead with the transfer to the new owner.
For more tips on making sure survivorship property is transferred properly -- and everything else you need to know to serve as an executor -- get The Executor's Guide: Settling A Loved One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph, J.D. (Nolo).