My spouse died and his/her name is still on the deed to our home. Do I have to change the deed?

No. Depending upon how the property was owned, a number of procedures will take care of the ownership of your home. The different procedures depend on whether the property is either jointly owned or completely owned in the name of your spouse, and whether or not there is a will. 

If the property is jointly owned, meaning you and your spouse are joint tenants, it will be owned either with or without right of survivorship. If it is owned with survivorship, the entire property automatically transfers to you as the surviving spouse when your spouse dies. Anyone who looks at the deed will know that if either you or your spouse has died, then the other spouse will possess the property in full ownership. 

If the property is jointly owned but without survivorship, the deceased spouse’s portion will pass through the probate process. In the probate process, the court must decide whether the will is valid. This procedure is often called proving the will. You will then acquire the property after the probate process. As a result, a person looking just at the deed cannot know that you now have complete ownership. Only the will or probate records will reflect the change in ownership.  

If there is a will, the will records the transfer of the property. If there is no will, the probate records themselves will reflect that you now have complete ownership because the property passed through intestate succession. Dying intestate is dying without a will. 

At no time are you required to go and change the deed. The probate records, the will, or the deed itself will reflect your complete ownership. However, if you transfer the property, your new deed should state how you acquired the property in order to maintain clarity in the chain of title. Drafting a deed may seem like something you can do yourself without hiring an attorney, but paying a few hundred dollars for an attorney to handle the matter may turn out to be a great investment if he or she identifies a defect in your title. 

For more information, contact your local clerk of the county commission, or see: W. Va. Code § 41-5-17 (2015); Cary v. Riss, 189 W. Va. 608, 433 S.E.2d 546 (1993); see generally, W. Va. Code §§ 40-1-8 to -9 (2015).