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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Many people are aware of the presumption which was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in Pecore v. Pecore that assets which are held jointly between the deceased and certain individuals (including their adult children) are presumed to be held by the surviving joint owner on a resulting trust for the deceased owner’s estate unless they can rebut the presumption and show evidence that the deceased intended them to receive the property by right of survivorship. While the application of such a presumption is clear when the property is owned jointly between a parent and an adult child, what about when the property is owned jointly between two married spouses? Does a similar presumption to that in Pecore apply, such that the surviving spouse is forced to show that the deceased spouse intended them to receive the asset upon their death, failing which it is presumed to form part of the deceased spouse’s estate?
The common law presumption that joint assets are held on a resulting trust for the benefit of the deceased owner’s estate has been altered in Ontario as it relates to married spouses by the Family Law Act. Section 14 of the Family Law Act provides:
“The rule of law applying a presumption of a resulting trust shall be applied in questions of the ownership of property between spouses, as if they were not marries, except that,
(a) the fact that property is held in the name of spouses as joint tenants is proof, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the spouses are intended to own the property as joint tenants; and
(b) money on deposit in the name of both spouses shall be deemed to be in the name of the spouses as joint tenants for the purposes of clause (a).”
As a result of section 14 of the Family Law Act, property which is held jointly between two married spouses is presumed to pass to the surviving spouse by right of survivorship. That being said, it is a rebuttable presumption, such that if there is evidence that the deceased spouse did not intend the property to pass to the surviving spouse upon death, the deceased spouse’s estate could seek a declaration that the asset in question is held on a resulting trust for the benefit of the deceased spouse’s estate. Section 14 of the Family Law Act effectively reverses the presumption as described in Pecore in the case of married spouses, whereby property held jointly between two married spouses is presumed to pass to the surviving spouse by right of survivorship unless there is evidence to the contrary such that the presumption can be rebutted.
Notably, section 14 of the Family Law Act only reverses the presumption as it relates to married spouses. As a result, an argument could be raised that in circumstances where common law spouses own property jointly, that the standard presumption as confirmed by Pecore would apply, such that the surviving common law spouse is presumed to hold the asset on a resulting trust for the benefit of the deceased spouse’s estate unless they can show evidence to rebut the presumption.
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A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Post Estate (Trustee of) v Hamilton, 2015 ONSC 5252 (available on Westlaw) considered a rather unusual set of facts with respect to joint tenancy and an interesting application of the equitable remedy of adverse possession.
Edward and Heather had been common law spouses several decades ago. They purchased a home together (the “home”) in 1980, as joint tenants. Three years later, Edward and Heather ended their relationship, and Heather moved out of the home they had bought together. Edward lived in the home ever since, until his death in December 2014. Heather has not been heard from since 1983.
When Edward died last year, his Estate ran into a roadblock with the home. Edward’s family had understood that the home was in Edward’s name alone, but were surprised to find that Heather and Edward still owned the home together as joint tenants. Under the law of joint tenancy, when one of the joint owners dies, the asset passes to the surviving joint tenant, by right of survivorship. Theoretically, therefore, the home should have become Heather’s property.
The wrinkle in this case was that, despite “strenuous efforts”, Heather could not be found. Edward’s Estate Trustee then brought an Application for an Order vesting title in the home in the Estate. The issue considered by the Honourable Justice MacDougall was thus, whether one joint tenant can acquire full title to property by way of adverse possession. In order to establish title by possession, Justice MacDougall stated that a party must show three things:
- i. Actual possession for the statutory period by him/herself and those through whom s/he claims;
- ii. That such possession was with the intention of excluding from possession the owner or person entitled to possession; and
- iii. Discontinuance of possession for the statutory period by the owners and all others, if any, entitled to possession.
With respect to the first and third requirements, Edward had actual possession of the home by himself for 32 years, which is well beyond the 10 year statutory period required. With respect to the second requirement, the court found that, although Edward did not have a “clear and direct intention” to exclude Heather, the court can still infer a presumed intention to exclude and consequently find in favour of adverse possession. In this case, Justice MacDougall was able to infer such presumed intention due to the facts that Edward believed he had full ownership of the house, he paid all the expenses for the house for 32 years, and made mortgage payments and renewed the mortgage without Heather’s signature or agreement.
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Partition and sale can become an issue in an estates context when the family cottage or other real property is gifted to the testator’s children as joint tenants or tenants in common and some of the siblings wish to be bought out of their interest.
Pursuant to the Partition Act, an application may be made to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by anyone who has an interest in land. Where the land is held by joint tenancy or tenancy in common by reason of a devise or an intestacy, an application cannot be made until one year after the death of the testator or person dying intestate who owned the land. (See Partition Act, s. 3(2)).
Joint owners have a prima facie right to partition and sale but the Court has jurisdiction to refuse such an order. In particular, the Court has discretion to refuse partition and sale where there has been malicious, vexatious or oppressive conduct by the party seeking an order to partition. The Court does not have jurisdiction to order one joint owner to sell to another i.e. force a right of first refusal. (See Osborne v. Myette, 2004 CanLII 7051 (ON S.C.))
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