Q&A: Inheritance of a Joint Co-op

Q My parents were the owners of a cooperative apartment. My mother and father were both listed on the membership certificate. However, my parents divorced in 1993 but the membership certificate remained in both names. My mother died earlier this year. Does my father automatically receive 100% co-op shares as the surviving co-owner?

—Questioner of Inheritance

A “The answer to this question likely lies in the language of the divorce decree and/or judgment.,” says attorney David J. Byrne of the Lawrenceville-based law firm of Stark & Stark.

“But for the divorce, the issue would be whether the husband and wife owned the co-op apartment as tenants-in-common or as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Unless the shares were specifically owned with rights of survivorship, they are presumed to be owned as tenants-in-common.

“However, if they were divorced in 1993, the membership certificate may not matter. Since the divorce, in New Jersey, could not have been finalized without some equitable distribution of the co-op apartment shares, there must be something in the divorce decree and/or judgment about that. If not, then the answer may be complex and require in depth review and analysis of various documents, etc., except one can assume that the wife would have been entitled to some portion of the shares via equitable distribution.

“So, it is likely that the wife owned a portion of the co-op apartment shares at her death—either by equitable distribution or as a tenant-in-common. Her interest would not pass to the ex-husband unless she left it to him in a will that she signed “after” the divorce was finalized. Otherwise, the shares are likely part of her probate estate and pass under the will, or by intestacy.”

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