Tag: joint tenancy
“This is a case about a ‘zombie’ deed.”
So begins the decision in Thompson v. Elliott Estate, 2020 ONSC 1004, a decision of Justice MacLeod-Beliveau.
The case addresses the effect of “zombie” deeds, and whether such a deed can result in the severance of a joint tenancy.
Justice MacLeod explains that a “zombie” is a folklore reference to a person who is reanimated through magic after their death. A “zombie deed” is a transfer of an interest of land that is registered after the death of the grantor as if the grantor was alive.
In the case in question, Husband and Wife owned a home as joint tenants. Wife signed an Acknowledgement and Direction, transferring her interest in the home to herself, for the purposes of severing the joint tenancy. However, through lawyer inadvertence, the transfer was not registered with the Land Registry Office until after Wife’s death.
If the joint tenancy was severed, Wife’s half-interest in the home would pass through her estate to her children from a prior marriage. If the joint tenancy was not severed, it would pass to Husband.
Husband argued that the registration was improper, and therefore did not sever the joint tenancy.
The court agreed that the registration of the transfer after Wife’s death was improper. The lawyer should not have registered it. In many cases, the registration would be rejected by the Land Registry Office. However, the LRO is often not able to determine whether the registration is improper. In the case before the court, the lawyer registering the transfer had falsified many of the “law statements” required when registering the transfer.
Although the transfer was improperly registered, the court found that the joint tenancy was, however, actually severed. A joint tenancy can be severed by a transfer of a joint interest to oneself. Whether a joint tenancy is severed is a question of fact based on the evidence.
Of note is the holding that it is the “delivery” of the transfer and not the actual registration of the transfer that determines whether the joint tenancy is severed. The court held that there was sufficient evidence to establish that Wife clearly intended to sever the joint tenancy by signing the Acknowledgment and Direction and by giving immediate and unconditional instructions to her lawyer to register the transfer.
Zombie deeds are sometimes used to avoid probate taxes and fees. The deceased signs the Acknowledgment and Direction before death, but, on title, remains owner of the property. After death, the deed is registered to transfer title to intended beneficiaries. This practice is improper.
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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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There are three ways in which a joint tenancy may be severed (Hansen Estate v. Hansen):
- Unilaterally acting on one’s own share (e.g. selling or encumbering it).
- A mutual agreement between the co-owners.
- Any course of dealing sufficient to intimate that the interests of all were mutually treated as constituting a tenancy in common.
In Marley v. Salga, the Court addressed the third manner in which to sever joint title – by course of dealing. In this case, there were competing applications brought by Ms. Marley, the deceased’s widow, on the one hand, seeking sole legal and beneficial ownership of the matrimonial home, and by the deceased’s children from a prior marriage, on the other hand, seeking an order that the estate is entitled to a half interest in the property as a tenant-in-common.
The Court declared that the estate was entitled to a half-interest in the property as a tenant in common. The evidence considered to determine the issue included a deathbed conversation between deceased and Ms. Marley, in which Ms. Marley acknowledged the deceased’s wish to divide the property 50:50 between his children and Ms. Marley. The Court seemed to place great weight on this evidence, finding that the deceased and Ms. Marley “were in agreement as to how the property should be handled on his death.” One commentator criticizes the Court for accepting that Ms. Marley was prepared to compromise her property rights “…on the basis of soothing words spoken to her husband on his deathbed without fully understanding her rights, without the benefit of any advice as to the consequences that would result to her and without any compensation or consideration for the loss of those rights.”
Another consideration for the Court was the language of the deceased’s Will, which allows Ms. Marley to occupy the deceased’s half of the property on certain terms, purports to terminate her rights in certain circumstances, and provides for the sale of the property. The Will’s language assisted in swaying the Court, as the Court treated it as a piece of evidence used to discern if there was a common intention, and it inferred that the provision in the Will was known to Ms. Marley. This rationale has been the subject of debate as (i) a testamentary disposition cannot sever a joint tenancy and should not be relied upon as evidence of a mutual intent, and (ii) there does not seem to have been evidence of both spouses taking steps showing a mutual treatment of their co-ownership as a tenancy in common.
If appealed, we may get some helpful clarification on this important issue.
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It is often said that an Attorney for Property can do anything on behalf of the grantor’s behalf except make a will. This is on account of section 7(2) of the Substitute Decisions Act (the “SDA“), which provides:
“The continuing power of attorney may authorize the person named as attorney to do on the grantor’s behalf anything in respect of property that the grantor could do if capable, except make a will.” [emphasis added]
Although at first glance it would appear that the potential tasks that an Attorney for Property could complete on behalf of a grantor are almost absolute, with the Attorney for Property being able to do anything on behalf of the grantor except sign a new will, in reality the tasks that an Attorney for Property may complete relative to the grantor’s estate planning is more restrictive than this would suggest at first glance. This is because the definition of “will” in the SDA is defined as being the same as that contained in the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“), with the SLRA in turn defining “will” as including not only typical testamentary documents such as a Last Will and Testament or Codicil, but also “any other testamentary disposition“. As a result, the stipulation that an Attorney for Property can do anything on behalf of the grantor “except make a will” would include not only a restriction on the Attorney for Property’s ability to sign a new Last Will and Testament or Codicil on behalf of the grantor, but also a restriction on the Attorney for Property’s ability to make “any other testamentary disposition” on behalf of the grantor.
It is fairly common for individuals such as spouses to own real property as joint-tenants with the right of survivorship. When one joint-owner dies ownership of the property automatically passes to the surviving joint-owner by right of survivorship, with no portion of the property forming part of the deceased joint-owner’s estate. Although such an ownership structure may make sense when the property is originally purchased, it is not uncommon for circumstances to arise after the property was registered (i.e. a divorce or separation) which may make one of the joint-owners no longer want the property to carry the right of survivorship. Should such circumstances arise, one of the joint-owners will often “sever” title to the property so that the property is now held as tenants-in-common without the right of survivorship, making efforts to attempt to ensure that at least 50% of the property would form part of their estate should they predecease the other joint-owner.
Although severing title to a property is fairly straight forward while the owner is still capable, circumstances could become more complicated should the owner become incapable as questions may emerge regarding whether their Attorney for Property has the authority to sever title to the property on behalf of the grantor, or whether such an action is a “testamentary disposition” and therefor barred by section 7(2) of the SDA.
The issue of whether an Attorney for Property severing title to a property is a “testamentary disposition” was in part dealt with by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Champion v. Guibord, 2007 ONCA 161, where the court states:
“The appellants argue that the severing of the joint tenancies here constituted a change in testamentary designation or disposition and is therefore prohibited by s. 31(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act because it is the making of a will.
While we are inclined to the view that the severance of a joint tenancy is not a testamentary disposition, we need not decide that question in this case. Even if it were, we see no error in the disposition made by the application judge, because of s. 35.1(3)(a) of the Substitute Decisions Act.” [emphasis added]
Although the Court of Appeal does not conclusively settle the issue in Champion v. Guibord, the court appears to strongly suggest that they are of the position that an Attorney for Property severing a joint-tenancy is not a “testamentary disposition” within the confines of the SDA.
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Many of our readers will be aware that on an application for dependant’s support under Part V of Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act, certain property that may not be considered an asset of the deceased’s estate can be “clawed back” into the estate for the purposes of considering and funding an award of dependant’s support. Subsection 72(1)(d) provides that “a disposition of property made by a deceased whereby property is held at the date of his or her death by the deceased and another as joint tenants” shall be deemed to be part of the estate.
Whether jointly-held property is caught by s.72(1)(d) depends on whether there was a “disposition” into that joint tenancy. When a property is initially purchased by a deceased person and another in joint tenancy and remains as such at the time of death, it can not be said that there was a disposition into joint tenancy: s. 72(1)(d) would not appear to apply.
However, when the ownership arrangement of a property is more intricate, whether or not jointly-held property will be deemed to be an asset of the estate within the context of a dependant’s support application becomes less clear.
Consider the following scenario:
- At first instance, title to a property is taken as follows:
- 50% held solely by A; and
- 50% held jointly by A and B, who are common law spouses.
- Years later, A conveys the 50% held by her alone to herself and her common law spouse jointly.
- Therefore, immediately preceding A’s death, 100% of the property is held in joint tenancy by A and B.
Now, after A’s death, A’s minor children assert a dependant’s support claim. Does section 72(1)(d) apply, such that the property can be made available to fund a payment of dependant’s support?
The decision in Modopoulos v Breen Estate,  O.J. No. 2738 interpreted section 72(1)(d) of the Succession Law Reform Act to mean that, only if the property was owned solely by the deceased and later transferred into joint tenancy prior to death, would there be a “disposition” into joint tenancy.
In the unique set of circumstances described above, it could be argued that A never solely owned the property and, therefore, the later disposition is not captured by section 72(1)(d). However, another perspective is that the 50% interest held initially by A as a tenant in common (with A and B jointly as to the other 50%) would have formed part of her estate if the subsequent disposition to B as a joint tenant did not take place. This interpretation strongly supports that section 72(1)(d) of the Succession Law Reform Act would in fact apply to make the 50% interest in the property available in satisfaction of a dependant’s support claim. Certainly such an argument is consistent with the remedial intent of the legislation.
To our knowledge, there has yet to be a decision in Ontario that addresses whether section 72 would apply to a disposition out of a tenancy in common and into a joint tenancy, such as that featured in our hypothetical example. It will be interesting to see how a court would interpret similar transactions if encountered in the future.
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Other blog entries that you may enjoy reading:
- SLRA Dependant Awarded Entirety of Estate
- Priority of Claims for Dependant’s Support Over Other Claims Against an Estate
- The Risks of Joint Tenancy
- Joint Accounts Between Spouses
Although there are certainly some benefits that may result from making ownership of a property or other asset joint with another individual (e.g. avoiding payment of estate administration tax in relation to that property upon the death of one of the joint owners), there can also be risks associated with jointly-held property.
In the recent British Columbia Supreme Court decision in Gully v Gully, 2018 BCSC 1590, a mother added her son as a joint tenant on real property that she owned (the “House”). Her decision to do so was based on estate planning advice that she had received. The mother did not tell her son that she had added him as a joint tenant, and the son did not contribute to the House in any way, either before or after it was transferred into joint tenancy. Contemporaneously with the registration of title to the House in joint tenancy, the mother also executed a last will and testament specifically setting out that in naming her son as a joint owner, she intended that the asset would belong to him upon her death.
A couple of years after the mother had added the son as a joint tenant on her House, the son and his software company consented to judgment in favour of a creditor in the amount of $800,000.00. At the time he consented to judgment, the son was still not aware that he was a joint owner of his mother’s House. The creditor subsequently registered a certificate of judgment on the son’s undivided half interest in the House.
The mother brought an application seeking a declaration that the son held his interest in the House on a resulting trust in her favour. The court stated that the proper evidence of a transferor’s intention is at the time of the transfer, because a transferor can change his or her mind subsequent to the transfer, but may not retract a gift once it has been made. In this case the court concluded that the mother did intend to gift an interest in the House to her son at the time the joint tenancy was registered on title, and that the son did not hold his interest on a resulting trust in favour of the mother.
Further, the court stated that even if it had found that the mother had not intended to gift the House to the son, the fact that the joint tenancy was registered on title to the House meant that the creditor could rely on title to enforce its judgment against the son’s interest in the House. Although the issue of whether or not a resulting trust arises in the circumstances may be relevant as between family members or beneficiaries of an estate, it is not applicable in the case of a third party creditor claiming against a registered interest in land. As a side note, the creditor in this case did advise the court that it did not intend to execute the judgment against the House while the mother was still living there.
Before making any changes to ownership of an asset, it is crucial to obtain comprehensive advice as to all of the possible consequences of doing so—both positive and negative. Communication regarding joint tenancy is also important. This will help ensure that all parties are aware of the assets in which they may have an interest and the nature of any such interest, so they are in a position to manage their affairs accordingly.
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Joint tenancy is a great way for parties to hold property when there is a common desire to pass the property by right of survivorship to the surviving joint owner. However, when the relationship between the parties fails, proactive steps must be taken to sever the joint tenancy to ensure that the title-holding reflects the new reality of the dissolved relationship. Case law is littered with examples of spouses who did not take such steps.
MacNeil Estate v. Bower, a recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, is a good example of how litigation can ensue when arrangements don’t fully keep pace with the reality of a failed relationship. In this case, Robert and Mark began a conjugal relationship began in 1995 and the relationship progressed such that Robert designated Mark as beneficiary of his RRSP and group life insurance in 2007. In 2008, Robert and Mark purchased a property as joint tenants, notwithstanding that Robert contributed the entire down payment approximating about 20% of the value of the property. In 2010, the relationship between the two ended and Robert entered into a new relationship. Thereafter, Robert became seriously ill and began to arrange his affairs such that he changed his beneficiary designations and sought legal advice to draft an agreement changing title to the townhouse to tenancy in common.
Litigation ensued because the Agreement was not finalized and executed before Robert died. Mark claimed right of survivorship as title was still held in joint tenancy. Robert’s Estate Trustee argued that the joint tenancy had in fact been severed regardless of the incomplete status of the Agreement.
Severing joint tenancy requires one of: (i) a unilateral act affecting title, (ii) a mutual agreement between the co-owners to sever the joint tenancy, or (iii) any course of dealing sufficient to clearly demonstrate or intimate that all owners’ interests were mutually treated as constituting a tenancy in common. In MacNeil, the Court found that both the second and third types of severance were realized.
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In the recent decision of McKendry v McKendry, the British Columbia Court of Appeal considered the elements of a valid inter vivos transfer of property, particularly the timing of intention to make a gift. The central issue in the case was whether a written deed of gift under seal was necessary to complete a gift where legal title had previously been transferred into joint ownership.
Mary, a widow, had several adult children. In 2006, Mary’s son, John, moved into her house. He lived with her until her death in 2012. In 2008, Mary transferred legal title to the house to joint tenancy with John. At the time of the 2008 transfer, Mary did not intend to make a gift of the beneficial interest in the house to John; rather, she intended for John to hold the beneficial interest of the house in trust for her estate to be allocated among him and his siblings according to her will.
In 2010, Mary changed her mind in respect to the disposition of the house. Instead of a trust, she decided to leave the property to John outright as surviving joint tenant. She told her lawyer she understood the house would be John’s absolutely on her death and that he was not obligated to share it with his siblings. About a month later, Mary met with her lawyer to sign a new will. It included a provision stating:
I […] confirm that I wish to cancel any trust agreements or other documents imposing an obligation on my son to share the property I own at [the house] with my other children. I want my home to be my son’s property on my death absolutely – no strings attached. I have made this decision after much consideration and I fully understand that this gives my son the majority of my assets. My house constitutes the majority of my assets.
After Mary’s death, three of her daughters commenced two actions against John: one seeking a declaration that he held the house in trust for the estate and the other seeking a variation of Mary’s will.
The Trial Judge found that Mary did not intend to make a gift of the beneficial interest in the house to John when she transferred legal title to him in 2008. The Judge further found that Mary’s intention changed in 2010, when she decided to make a gift of the house to John. She held the transfer, made in 2008 “is not sufficient to perfect a gift of the survivorship interest in [the house] to John, because (as I have found) Mary did not intend at that time to make such a gift to John.” Further, when Mary did form the intention to make a gift of the house to John, Mary made no further steps to perfect the gift. In the absence of a written deed of gift under seal, the Judge held there was no legally binding gift.
The Court of Appeal overturned the trial decision. The Court reviewed the requirements for a valid inter vivos gift: “the donor must have intended to make a gift and must have delivered the subject matter to the donee. The intention of the donor at the time of the transfer is the governing consideration. In addition, the donor must have done everything necessary, according to the nature of the property, to transfer it to the donee and render the settlement legally binding on him or her.”
The court held that in 2008, Mary transferred only legal title to John (as joint tenant) and retained the entire beneficial interest for herself and her estate. In 2010, however, Mary renounced her beneficial interest in the right of survivorship in John’s favour. “In doing so, she clearly intended to make an immediate inter vivos gift of that incident of the joint tenancy to John.” Because she had already transferred legal title to John, she did everything necessary in 2010 to perfect the gift of the beneficial interest, bearing in mind the nature of the interest. The legal title would not have been affected by a deed of gift under seal, given her clear written intention. Mary’s intention was recorded in writing and no other act of delivery was required.
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