What Does Et Al. Mean on Real Estate Property Deeds?

Historically, the legal profession tended to incorporate Latin phrases into its day-to-day jargon. “Sprinkle," “pepper," and even “litter" might all describe the tendency just as well. Over the centuries, and especially in the last one hundred years or so, there has been a gradual shift away from this. But some old-fashioned phrasing still persists.

Et al. is a good example and arguably still quite useful. In real estate law, property deeds can be used to transfer property from the old owner(s) to the new owner(s). Take note of the parenthetical “s" toggling between the plural and singular noun. This article is not a lesson in English grammar, and certainly not in Latin. However, that single “s" encapsulates most of the underlying point, and a slight bit of grammar is necessary for a complete discussion.

What It Means in Latin and English

The Latin phrase et al. is actually an abbreviation. Translated into English, et al. means “and others." It comes from the Latin words et (“and") + alii (“others"). Its function is to spare writers and readers from laboring over long and potentially inconsequential lists. In this way, it is very similar to et cetera, the Latin phrase for “and other things" commonly abbreviated as etc. Just as etc. can be used to shorten a long list of inanimate or abstract things, et al. can do the same for a long list of named people.

It should be noted that Latin is a historically gendered language. By convention, et alii is masculine plural and also serves as the default for a mixed-gender group. By contrast, et aliae is exclusively feminine plural. Et alia is gender-neutral. The abbreviation et al. captures all three meanings.

What It Means in Legal Documents, Generally

Et al. is used in many contexts, both legal and non-legal. It has the same linguistic meaning in all of these contexts: “Person A, Person B, Person C . . . and others." However, it is especially useful in legal documents, which often make reference to many people.

For example, in a case involving ten disputants on each side (more common than you may think), it would be extremely inconvenient—even downright absurd—to write out the full list of names each time it came up. It makes much more sense to list all of the names once toward the beginning of a document and then utilize et al. thereafter. Accordingly, the dispute between “Person A, Person B, and Person C vs. Person X, Person Y, and Person Z" would be shortened to “Person A et al. vs. Person X et al."

What It Means in Deeds (and Wills)

Deeds are used to transfer real estate from the old owner(s) to the new owner(s). (Recall the parenthetical “s" from the introduction of this article.) In this context, the essential meaning of et al. does not change. It still means “and others."

So, if you own property jointly with other people, you may notice your name is listed one time at the top of the property deed and then never again. This does not mean you are left out of the deed. Usually, it means that you are wrapped into the et al. used in the document. In this scenario, et al. refers to everyone who has an ownership interest in the property title. Having an ownership interest is called being "vested" in the title (more legal jargon).

That said, misuse of the et al. in this context can turn a handy abbreviation into a source of considerable conflict. For example, if property is transferred by deed from or to multiple people, it is important to make sure everyone's property rights are recognized and respected. Careless use of et al. can imperceptibly bury the rights of the unlisted holders within the abbreviation. If the mistake is not caught early on, it may rear its head down the road as an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit.

The same problem may occur when writing and interpreting wills. Of course, wills are instructions someone leaves when they die. That person is known as the testator when they make the will and as the decedent once they die. Among other things, a will may instruct how to distribute property when the owner passes away. Often, property is left to multiple people. Once everyone is identified by name once, many estate planning documents go ahead and use et al. However, failure to recognize the rights of everyone included within the abbreviation can lead to conflict in this context too.

More Latin: What Do Et Ux. and Et Vir Mean on a Deed?

Needless to say, legal documents can be quite complex. And even though modern use of Latin comes off as somewhat archaic, et al. actually provides a handy way of shortening long and cumbersome lists. Arguably and by contrast, the use of et ux. and et vir in legal documents is not nearly as useful. That said, you may still run across it in deeds.

Et ux. is abbreviated Latin for et uxor, meaning “and wife." It corresponds to et vir, which is unabbreviated Latin for “and husband." One can only guess that et vir seemed short enough and was therefore left unabbreviated. It is used in deeds when a married couple owns property jointly.

For example, suppose Jane and John Doe own a house together. Their deed might name the couple as “John Doe et ux." Conceivably, though perhaps less plausibly, they might also be listed as “Jane Doe et vir." Again, you may still run across these phrases in legal documents. However, the convention is largely outdated, and most newly formed deeds would list each spouse by name.

Finding Out If You Are Listed on a Property Deed

If you are unsure whether you are listed on a deed, you can investigate with the county recorder's office. These are government offices responsible for maintaining public records of real estate transfers over time. Each time property is transferred, the names of the property owners involved are listed alongside a legal description of the real estate. The party passing the property is known as the grantor; the party receiving the transfer is known as the grantee.

In many counties, especially those with large populations, these property records can be found online. But keep in mind that you must investigate with the recorder's office of the county in which the real estate is located. Further, you may find that the recording paperwork has not yet been completed. This may be because the transfer in question was recent or because, for whatever reason, someone neglected to complete the paperwork.

You can also investigate property records with your county assessor's office. This office is responsible for calculating property values within its jurisdictions in order to send out property tax bills.

Transferring Jointly Held Property Rights at Death

There are three basic forms of joint property ownership, and each can be identified by looking at the property deed. Each form creates distinct rights and obligations in the property owners. Further, and most importantly for this section, each form of ownership produces a different result when an owner dies.

1. Tenancy in Common

If a different form of ownership is not specified in the property deed, this kind of joint ownership is normally the default. In a tenancy in common, two or more individuals may own a single piece of real estate together. Their shares can be divided equally or unequally among the owners. For example, three people might each have rights to a third of their jointly-owned property. Alternatively, the first might own 50%, the second might own 30%, and the third might own 20%.

Regardless of how the property is divided, when any one of the owners dies, their portion remains in their estate. In other words, any one of these people can leave their portion as an inheritance in a will. Similarly, they may also sell their portion during life.

2. Joint Tenancy

A joint tenancy also allows two or more people (known as “joint tenants") to own real property together. However, they must all have equal shares. Two owners would each get 50%, four would each get 25%, and so on. Another all-important difference from a tenancy in common is that when an owner in a joint tenancy dies, their portion is automatically and proportionately folded into shares held by the other owners. This is called the “right of survivorship," since the survivors have a right to take the deceased owner's portion.

3. Tenancy by the Entirety

This form of ownership is very similar to a joint tenancy. The key difference is that it is only available to married couples, typically homeowners. According to the “right of survivorship," each spouse's 50% automatically goes to their surviving spouse upon death.

What Is a Transfer-On-Death Deed?

Most deeds describe property rights that exist currently. And certain property rights could be passed on as an inheritance through a will.

However, more and more states are allowing so-called “transfer-on-death" deeds, also known as beneficiary deeds. This is simply another way of leaving eligible property for someone upon death. Whereas a will needs to be administered, one benefit of a transfer-on-death deed is that they avoid the probate process.

Probate is the process of validating your will to make sure it is authentic. More generally, it sometimes refers to the broader process of carrying out a will's instructions. By skipping probate, the beneficiary (the person receiving the real estate) listed in the transfer-on-death deed can transfer the property to themselves more easily. Prior to death, the owner can void the transfer-on-death deed.

How An Attorney Can Help

Deeds can be quite complex. Especially if there are many owners and a long history of transfers. Often, failure to record deeds with the appropriate office leaves gaps in the deed record. Also, sometimes mistakes just happen. These problems can create massive headaches for current and subsequent owners.

If you have doubts or do not understand your property deed, chances are you should seek professional legal advice. Sooner is normally better than later. An early visit to an attorney may save you time and money.

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