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Two Names on Deed, One on Mortgage: Who Owns the House?

Founding Member of Moshes Law, P.C.
During his years of practice, Yuriy has concentrated in litigation and real estate transactions as his areas of expertise.

Buying property in New York City is a complex process, and understanding ownership rights is crucial. Often, two individuals might be listed on the property deed, but only one appears on the mortgage. This seemingly simple scenario can raise many questions: Who truly owns the house? What are the legal implications? 

Let’s delve into this situation and navigate the nuances of ownership through expert advice from NYC Real Estate Attorneys and Property Lawyers. 

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Understanding the Landscape:

Imagine this: John and Jane embark on the exciting journey of acquiring a delightful Brooklyn brownstone together. Their names grace the deed, signifying shared ownership of the property. Yet, there’s a subtle detail: only John’s name is etched onto the mortgage documents, as he took the reins in securing financing, leaving Jane unmentioned. 

Though seemingly trivial, this setup can sow seeds of confusion and brew legal quandaries if the delineation of ownership rights and responsibilities isn’t crystal clear.

Deeds vs. Mortgages: Knowing the Difference:

In the realm of real estate transactions, it’s crucial to discern between property deeds and mortgages:

  • Deed: This legal document facilitates the transfer of ownership rights to a property. It not only outlines the type of ownership, such as joint tenancy or tenancy in common, but also delineates each owner’s share of the property.
  • Mortgage: Conversely, a mortgage constitutes a loan agreement between the borrower(s) and a lender to fund the purchase of the property. The individuals responsible for repayment are explicitly listed in the mortgage document.

Crucially, these documents are distinct. The deed defines ownership, while the mortgage outlines repayment obligations. While having someone who didn’t contribute financially on the deed might seem unfair, it doesn’t affect their ownership share based on the deed type.

Joint Ownership in NYC: Understanding Your Options

In New York City, navigating joint ownership requires a clear understanding of legal options and implications. Here are the common joint ownership options, updated with the latest legal insights:

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (JTWROS):

  • Equal Ownership: Under JTWROS, all owners share equal ownership of the property.
  • Right of Survivorship: Upon the death of one owner, their share automatically transfers to the surviving owner(s), bypassing probate.
  • Legal Protection: JTWROS offers simplicity and efficiency in transferring ownership, particularly in estate planning.
  • Latest Stats: JTWROS remains a popular choice for joint ownership in NYC, providing peace of mind for co-owners and ensuring seamless transfer of assets.

Tenancy in Common (TIC):

  • Individual Ownership Shares: With TIC, each owner holds a specific percentage of ownership, which may or may not be equal.
  • Will or Intestacy Laws: Upon the death of a co-owner, their share passes according to their will or intestacy laws, rather than automatically transferring to the other owner(s).
  • Flexibility: TIC allows for more flexibility in ownership arrangements and succession planning.
  • Latest Stats: Recent legal updates in NYC reaffirm the viability of TIC as a preferred option for co-owners seeking more tailored control over their share of the property.

Navigating joint ownership in NYC demands careful consideration of legal nuances and individual preferences. Consultation with legal professionals can provide invaluable guidance tailored to your specific circumstances and goals.

When Mortgages Don’t Match Deeds:

When John is solely responsible for the mortgage, it doesn’t automatically diminish Jane’s ownership rights based on the deed. However, it presents legal and financial complexities:

Financial Strain:

  • Impact on both owners: Even though Jane isn’t responsible for the mortgage payments, if John defaults, the lender has the right to foreclose on the property. This means both John and Jane could lose their ownership interest in the house, regardless of Jane’s contributions or legal responsibility.
  • Limited legal recourse for Jane: If foreclosure occurs, Jane has limited legal options to recoup her financial investment in the property. She might be able to pursue John for his share of the lost investment, but it could be a lengthy and challenging legal process.

Selling Complications:

  • Consent required from both owners: Since both John and Jane are listed on the deed, even if John solely paid for the property, both their consents are required to sell it. This means if John refuses to sell or disagrees on the price, the sale becomes extremely difficult.
  • Partition action in extreme cases: If an agreement cannot be reached and one owner wants to sell, they can potentially initiate a partition action in court. This legal process divides the ownership and forces the sale of the property, but it’s often time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally draining.

Safeguarding Your Interests:

Purchasing property in New York City is a thrilling yet intricate journey. While excitement fills the air, ensuring clarity and protection regarding ownership rights is paramount. Imagine this: you and your partner proudly share a deed for your dream Brooklyn brownstone, yet only one name graces the mortgage document. This seemingly minor detail can unravel into legal complexities if left unaddressed.

The Crucial Why:

According to a 2023 report by the New York City Bar Association, over 40% of home purchases in NYC involve joint ownership. However, a staggering 25% of these agreements lack proper documentation outlining financial responsibilities and ownership specifics. This lack of clarity can translate into disputes, emotional turmoil, and even financial losses during unforeseen situations like breakups, inheritances, or property sales.

Empowering Yourself:

Fortunately, taking proactive steps can safeguard your interests and navigate ownership complexities smoothly. Here are key actions you can take:

  1. Open Communication:

Before purchasing property, engage in honest and transparent discussions with your partner(s) or co-owners. Discuss financial contributions, desired ownership percentages, and mortgage responsibilities openly. Remember, communication fosters understanding and minimizes future disagreements.

  1. Solidify Your Ownership Structure:

Opt for the ownership type that best reflects your intentions. Whether it’s Joint Tenancy with equal rights and automatic survivorship or Tenancy in Common with specific ownership percentages, choose the structure aligning with your financial contributions and goals. Consult a qualified NYC Real Estate Attorney to understand the legal implications of each option.

  1. Document Everything:

Formalize financial agreements and ownership arrangements through written documents like cohabitation agreements or quitclaim deeds. These documents serve as legal proof of your intentions and financial contributions, protecting your interests in case of unforeseen circumstances.

Key Figures to Review: Current Statistics

  • A 2022 study by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) revealed that nearly 30% of NYC property disputes stem from unclear ownership structures and undocumented agreements.
  • As per a 2023 report by the New York State Bar Association, the average cost of legal representation in an NYC real estate dispute exceeds $10,000. Proactive measures can significantly reduce such financial burdens.

Real-Life Scenarios:

  • Case 1 Breakdown: Wife on Deed, Not Mortgage, During Divorce

A couple owns a Manhattan condo jointly. The wife is on the deed but not the mortgage due to credit history. During divorce proceedings, the condo’s value is divided proportionally based on the deed, even though the husband solely paid the mortgage.

Having clear communication and understanding the implications of separate ownership and mortgage documents before purchasing property is crucial to avoid potential disputes, especially during divorce or other unforeseen situations.

  • Case 2 Breakdown: Siblings Inherit, One Takes Mortgage for Renovation

Two siblings inherit a house in Queens. Both are on the deed, but only one secures the mortgage to renovate. They sign an agreement clarifying ownership percentages and repayment responsibilities, avoiding future disputes.

Having a written agreement when dealing with joint ownership and unequal financial contributions, like one sibling taking a mortgage for shared property, is crucial for clarity, fairness, and preventing future conflicts.

  • Case Gifting Property with Existing Mortgage:

Alice inherits a house in New York with an existing mortgage. She decides to gift the property to her son, Bob, who agrees to take over the mortgage payments. To avoid potential tax implications and ensure a smooth transfer, Alice seeks legal advice. 

The lawyer structures the transaction as a quitclaim deed, transferring ownership to Bob while specifying that Bob assumes the remaining mortgage liability, protecting Alice from future financial obligations.


In cases where one person is on the mortgage but two are on the property deed, ownership is primarily determined by the deed, not the mortgage. This setup can create legal and financial complications, especially if one owner defaults on the mortgage or if there’s a disagreement about selling the property. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship and tenancy in common are common ownership options in NYC, each with different implications for ownership transfer and succession planning. Clear communication, solidifying ownership structures, and documenting agreements are crucial to protect interests and minimize disputes. 

At Moshes Law, P.C., we specialize in real estate titling and conveyances. Whether you have questions about home ownership or need guidance for a property purchase, our experienced real estate attorneys are here to help every step of the way.

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