“Jointly or the Survivor of Them” – What Does That Mean?
In a recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision, the Court considered certain extrinsic circumstances surrounding the making of the Will, as well as the reading of the Will as a whole, in reaching a decision regarding its interpretation.
In Love v Wheeler 2019 ONSC 4427, a spouse of a deceased beneficiary sought a declaration that a beneficiary’s estate was entitled under a testator’s Will to an undivided half-interest in property and that the other beneficiary wrongfully appropriated it.
Frances Irene Wheeler died in 2012. She bequeathed a parcel of land to her two sons, Harold William Wheeler and Martin Douglas Wheeler. Her Will stated that this property was to go to Harold and Martin “jointly or the survivor of them”.
The Court grappled with the question of whether Frances meant to leave the property to Harold and Martin as joint tenants or as tenants in common. Certainly, in a joint tenancy, there would be a significant benefit to the survivor of the two brothers, as the other half interest would pass on a right of survivorship, rather than form a part of the deceased brother’s estate.
This is exactly what happened in this case. Martin died in 2015 and in April, 2017, Harold had the title to the property transferred into his own name, on the argument that it was owned by him and Martin, as joint tenants.
Deborah Love, Martin’s common-law spouse of 16 years, commenced an application before the Court, as against Harold. One of the grounds for Deborah’s position was that the extrinsic evidence surrounding the making of the Will, including a prior Will of February, 2009, supports a finding that Frances intended her sons to inherit the property as tenants in common.
The Court’s Decision
In reaching its decision, the Court emphasized its role in giving effect to the testamentary intention of the testator, as expressed in a Will. Justice Chozik gave consideration to the “armchair” rule, which requires a judge to place him or herself in the position of the testator at the time when the last Will was made, and to consider and weigh the circumstances which then existed and which might reasonably be expected to influence the testator in the disposition of her property.
Justice Chozik found that Frances intended to leave the property in question to her sons, as tenants in common. This intention was held to be clear from the Will when it is read as a whole, taking into account some of the extrinsic circumstances surrounding the making of the Will.
This decision certainly emphasizes how important it is that the Will clearly stipulates the terms of each bequest, particularly when it comes to large assets, such as real property.
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