Tag: joint tenants
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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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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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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