Back to the Learning Center

By: Scott Grossman on December 26th, 2023

What is the difference between common ownership and equitable ownership of trust property? (legal vs. equitable title)

Common Ownership Definition

What is the difference between common ownership and equitable ownership of trust property (legal vs. equitable title)? Joint ownership is when multiple individuals or entities hold a shared interest in a particular property. In this arrangement, each owner has rights and responsibilities relating to the property typically defined by law. Common ownership can exist in various forms, such as joint tenancy, tenancy in common, or community property. The specific nature of a common ownership arrangement depends on the legal system and the applicable laws in a particular jurisdiction.

When discussing common ownership, it’s essential to understand the concept of trust property ownership and the difference between legal and equitable title.

Trust Property Ownership

Trust property ownership involves the legal relationships established when assets are held in a trust. A trust is a legal arrangement where one party, known as the trustee, has title to assets for the benefit of another party, known as the beneficiary. The trustee manages the trust property by the terms outlined in the trust agreement.

In the context of trust property ownership, two types of ownership are commonly distinguished: legal and equitable title.

Legal vs. Equitable Title

Legal title refers to the ownership rights recognized and protected by law. It grants the trustee the legal authority to manage and control the trust property. The legal title holder can make decisions regarding the property, such as selling, leasing, or transferring it. In legal terms, the trustee is the legal owner of the trust property.

On the other hand, equitable title refers to the beneficial interest that the beneficiaries hold in the trust property. While the beneficiaries do not have legal ownership or control over the property, they have a right to enjoy its benefits and income. These benefits could include receiving rental income, dividends, or other proceeds from the trust property. The equitable title holder is entitled to the economic value and enjoyment of the property.

In summary, the key difference between legal and equitable titles lies in the rights and responsibilities associated with each. The legal title holder has the authority to manage, control, and make decisions regarding the trust property. In contrast, the equitable title holder has a beneficial interest and enjoys the economic benefits generated by the property.

What are the main differences? 

The difference between legal and equitable title lies in the rights and benefits associated with property ownership. Legal title refers to the ownership that comes with the right to control the property in compliance with the law. On the other hand, equitable title gives a person the right to enjoy the benefits of the property despite not being the legal titleholder. Equitable title establishes a person’s financial interest in the property and the right to acquire legal title, but it does not allow the titleholder to sell or transfer ownership. It is important to note that legal and equitable titles are not mutually exclusive; both are legally binding and enforceable in a court of law. 

In the context of trust property, joint ownership refers to the legal title which allows the trustee to control the property. In contrast, equitable ownership refers to the beneficial interest in the property held by the trust’s beneficiaries. The trustee has the legal title, and the beneficiaries hold the equitable title, which gives them the right to enjoy the benefits of the trust property. 

Next Steps for Legal vs. Equitable Title

It’s worth noting that these distinctions are primarily relevant in trust law, where the separation between legal and equitable title occurs. In other forms of shared ownership, such as joint tenancy in common, the concept of equitable title may not apply similarly.

It’s essential to recognize that these concepts are complex, and their interpretation can vary depending on the jurisdiction. So, consult with legal professionals or experts to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the specific laws and regulations applicable in your jurisdiction. 

What Can Go Wrong?

These are the potential issues and risks to consider when transferring trust property. 

  • Incorrect Transfer: Ensuring property transfer to the trust is executed correctly is essential. It fails to follow the proper legal procedures for transferring property into a trust. That includes not filing the required Preliminary Change of Ownership Report simultaneously with the deed at the county recorder’s office. That can lead to complications and potential legal issues. 
  • Insurance Coverage: Transferring real estate, bank accounts, investments, and other assets to a trust may require notifying the insurance company. That is to update the ownership details. Please correct the insurance policy to avoid coverage issues. Or a lapse in coverage, potentially exposing the property to risks. 
  • Mortgage and Indebtedness: When transferring property with an existing mortgage. It is crucial to address this with the financial institution holding the mortgage or deed of trust before placing the property in the name of the trust. Failure to handle existing debts properly can lead to complications and potential legal consequences. 
  • Probate Complications: Failure to properly transfer real property into a trust can result in the estate going through probate. That can lead to increased time and expenses in settling the estate. 

To mitigate these risks, seeking guidance from legal and financial professionals experienced in trust and estate planning is advisable to ensure a smooth and legally sound transfer of trust property in California.

More on your Trustee breaching their fiduciary duties.

Need more information on Trust Litigation? Or, to ensure they are following their trustee’s duties or even removing a trustee, check out our complete overview of California Trust Litigation, available on our website. If you have more questions about your rights as a Beneficiary and what you should know moving forward,

It’s best to reach out as soon as possible. The longer you take, the more damage your trust could take. Please call us at (888) 443-6590, and we would be more than happy to see if we can assist you.

If you are still having some trouble, have any more questions, or want to talk to someone about your case, please give us a call or fill out our Get Help Now form below.