Selling your home after your spouse dies doesn’t mean you have to change the title. What really matters is if you own it under joint tenancy or tenants in common. Many homeowners whose spouses have died think they need to change title into their own name as sole owner if they are going to sell, but legal experts say that if you were joint tenants with rights of survivorship, title changes will happen as part of the closing on the sale.

Q: I’m a recent widower living in the Chicago area and planning to sell my single family home in the near future. The property is mortgage free and I have a clear title with my name and my deceased wife’s name on all documents.

Please advise what steps are needed to remove my wife’s name on the title documents and any other documents that may be applicable to the sale of the property.

A: We’re sorry for your loss. Here’s some good news: You may not need to do anything before you sell the home.

We’ll assume the two of you owned the home as joint tenants. Now that your wife has died, the paperwork on the home will still show your wife’s name because you were able to automatically inherit her share of the property, you are the owner of the entire home. When the time comes to sell, and you have a buyer for your home, you’ll sign the contract for the sale as the sole owner of the home. As you approach the closing, your real estate attorney will draft documents for you to sign. Those documents will list you as the sole owner of the property (and some documents may indicate that you are now widowed).

Most couples own property in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship. This type of ownership allows the ownership interest in the home to pass from one owner to the other automatically upon death. The other way couples own property is as tenants in common. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)

In areas of the country where a closing attorney or settlement agent takes care of the documents, the person handling those documents will have you sign the transfer paperwork. In addition, the title company, closing attorney or settlement agent will probably want a copy of the death certificate and may also request additional paperwork regarding any debts your wife may have left behind.

For a vast majority of owners like you, the process of selling a home after a spouse, partner or joint owner has died isn’t too complicated as long as you have the death certificate and you owned the property in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship. As you plan for your sale, you can talk to your attorney now to figure out what sort of paperwork is required. If you gather it now, you’ll have less to worry about at the closing.

By the way, we’ve never heard of a joint owner being required to change the paperwork on the title to a home from two individuals to only one prior to a sale, so if someone is telling you that, please get a second opinion.

If, for some reason, you decide not to sell but plan to keep the property for awhile and want to transfer the title to your name, you can work with your attorney to record some documents. (There may be fees associated with the recording.)  

Owners who hold title as tenants in common will have to go through more steps to get the property sold. Tenants in common own a specific percentage of the home, say 50 percent or 25 percent. When one co-owner dies, the other does not get his or her share automatically. The disposition of the asset depends on the will and, if there is no will, then probate court. But in any case, to transfer the deceased’s share of the property, you’ll likely find yourself in probate court, which could be expensive and time-consuming.

Good luck with the sale.