Q: My friend and I own a home together as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. If he should die before me, I realize the home becomes mine. But what happens to the interior furnishings? Do his three children have a right to come and remove their father’s half of the furniture?

A: The furniture is not part of the house. It is considered to be the home’s “contents” or “personal property” (as opposed to real property, which is the property). His children would be entitled to remove their father’s furniture and any other belongings stored in the house if he left it to them in his will.

Personal property gets distributed to heirs in the manner provided by state law or as designated by a will. If your friend has a will, he can designate what items of personal property will be yours and what items of personal property will go to his children. If there is no will, state law may provide that all of his personal property goes to his kids in which case you would be out of luck.

While not legally binding, your friend can also write a letter to his children asking them to respect his wishes and allow you to keep certain items. In the case of sentimental items, that same letter may ask you to return certain items when you move from the home, when you no longer need them or upon your death.

If you’d want to keep the furniture, you and your friend could write out an agreement that allows you to either keep the furniture outright or buy his share in the furnishings from his children. If you and your friend don’t have a written agreement when he dies, you can ask your friend’s children to allow you to make them an offer to keep certain pieces. But if anything seems valuable or memorable to them, be prepared for them to turn you down.

There are quite a number of ways to handle your situation, but only a properly drafted will can achieve your friend’s and your wishes.

Follow-up: I heard back from the writer who said that she was going to have her friend write and execute a will that would give her the first right of refusal over the furniture.

March 13, 2009