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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In the spirit of the holidays, today I thought I would write about a recent decision related to gifting. In Grosseth Estate v Grosseth, 2017 BCSC 2055, the British Columbia Supreme Court considered whether the presumptions of resulting trust and undue influence were applicable to various inter vivos gifts made by a deceased uncle to one of his nephews. Ultimately, the court concluded that both presumptions were rebutted, and the gifts were valid.
In Grosseth Estate, the deceased, Mort, left a Will providing that the residue of his estate was to be distributed equally amongst his 11 nieces and nephews. However, most of his estate had been gifted to one particular nephew, Brian, and his wife, Helen, prior to Mort’s death. This left only about $60,000.00 to be distributed in accordance with Mort’s Will. One of Mort’s other nephews, Myles, who was the executor of Mort’s estate, brought a claim against Brian and Helen following Mort’s death, seeking to have the money that had been gifted to them by Mort, returned to the estate.
About 10 years prior to Mort’s death, he moved from Alberta, where he had lived most of his life, to British Columbia, where he moved into Brian and Helen’s basement suite. Mort became a full participant in the family; he was included on family outings, attended family dinners every night, and became like a grandfather to Brian and Helen’s children.
For the first couple of years after Mort moved in, he gave Brian and Helen money each month, on an informal basis, as contribution to household costs. Around 2 years after Mort had been living with them, Brian and Helen had decided to purchase a commercial property for Helen’s chiropractic practice. Mort insisted on gifting $100,000.00 towards the purchase price, making it clear that he did not want anything in return. Following this payment, Mort did not make further contributions to the monthly household expenses. The court concluded that there was a tacit agreement amongst Mort, Brian, and Helen that Mort’s generous gift had cancelled any notion that further payments would be required. Several years later, Mort also gifted $57,000.00 to Brian and Helen to pay off the balance of their mortgage.
The court found that the nature of the relationship between Mort, Brian, and Helen gave rise to the presumption of resulting trust as well as the presumption of undue influence. However, both of these presumptions are rebuttable.
The court acknowledged that, with respect to undue influence, Mort did depend on Brian and Helen, but based on the evidence of a number of individuals, concluded that he remained independent and capable throughout. Accordingly, the presumption of undue influence was rebutted.
The presumption of resulting trust was also rebutted as the court was satisfied that Mort intended the transfers to be gifts motivated by “a natural and understandable gratitude to Brian and Helen for the happiness and comfort of his final years.”
It is not uncommon for this type of situation to come up. Where a deceased lived with one niece or nephew (or sibling), or where the niece/nephew/sibling is the primary caregiver prior to the deceased’s death, any gifting that was done in the context of this relationship may be vulnerable to challenge on the basis of resulting trust or undue influence. Unfortunately, in some instances, the relationship dynamics involved in these kinds of arrangements can result in suspect gifts or transfers. Transfers made without clear evidence of an intention to gift can also raise questions. In this case, the court did not find that there was any improper behaviour on the part of the giftees, did find evidence of an intention to gift, and the transfers were ultimately upheld.
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Subsection 14(a) of the Family Law Act provides that property held by spouses in joint accounts shall be intended, in the absence of proof to the contrary, to be owned jointly. The presumption may be rebutted by the spouse who seeks to have such monies excluded from net family property (Belgiorgio v. Belgiorgio, 2000 CanLII 22733 (ON SC)).
In LeCouteur v. LeCouteur, 2005 CanLII 8726 (ON SC), the court held that the husband failed to rebut the presumption of resulting trust in respect of funds in a joint account that had “traditionally been used to carry out family decisions for funding special projects”, such as renovations.
In Belgiorgio, the court held that a joint bank account in which the husband deposited his inheritance was used for household expenses and purchases, and was commingled with household income. The court found that the inheritance lost its excluded character when it was placed in a joint bank account; it was his intention at the time he deposited the funds that was relevant.
In the recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice case of McLean v. Dahl, a husband sought a declaration that he was the sole owner of proceeds in a joint bank account in the amount of $94,565 at the date of separation.
The Court considered the following facts in arriving at a determination that the presumption of joint ownership was not rebutted:
- Both parties used the account as they saw fit; however, it was their practice to consult one another if major purchases were to be made;
- When the parties decided to grant a sizeable loan to friends, the funds came from the joint account. When the funds were repaid to the wife alone, she returned them to the joint bank account;
- When the parties decided to work on their marriage, they agreed to put these funds into a joint account on the condition that both their signatures were required to make a withdrawal;
- Mr. McLean intentionally transferred solely-held funds to the parties’ joint names;
- the spouses discussed major transactions using these funds;
- the parties shared the tax liability for income on these funds.
In summary, the Court observed that “…when the parties agreed to work on their marriage, after Mr. McLean closed the first joint account, they opened a second joint account into which each deposited monies in his or her control. This was the second time that Mr. McLean intentionally placed funds in Ms. Dahl’s control. It is obvious from his pattern of conduct that he intended her to have access to funds in joint accounts.”
Accordingly, the Court found that, “from the time that Mr. McLean added Ms. Dahl’s name to the account, she became a half-owner, and the parties were entitled to one-half the funds in the parties’ joint account in the amount of $47,282 each.”
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David Morgan Smith
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In a judgment released this week, Taylor-Reid v. Taylor 2016 ONSC 4751, the Ontario Superior Court has once again demonstrated just how difficult it is to set aside a Will on the basis that it was procured by undue influence.
The Deceased died September 22, 2011. He was survived by his second wife, Shirley and his two children, Andrea and Kenneth.
The Deceased left a Will that named Shirley as the sole beneficiary of his Estate. Prior to the Deceased’s death, he transferred various assets held solely in his name or jointly with Andrea to Shirley. He also changed his several beneficiary designations from Andrea to Shirley.
Almost two years after the death of the Deceased, Andrea commenced an action against Shirley on the grounds that the Deceased’s Will (and various beneficiary designations in favour of Shirley) were invalid as a result of Shirley’s undue influence. The basis of Andrea’s claim was solely on allegations that Shirley “verbally or implicitly” threatened to leave the Deceased or divorce him immediately if he did not comply with her demands to make the Will, change the beneficiary designations, transfer the assets to her solely, and completely exclude Andrea from his Estate.
To support her claim, Andrea argued that there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the making of the Will and the beneficiary designations benefitting Shirley thereby giving rise to a presumption of undue influence.
The Court held that the principle of suspicious circumstances only becomes relevant when a Will is being challenged on the basis of knowledge and approval or lack of testamentary capacity. Accordingly, no presumption of undue influence arises where a party seeks to set aside a Will solely on the ground of undue influence.
Shirley brought a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 20 of the Rules of Civil Procedure claiming that Andrea’s claim disclosed no genuine issue to be tried. In granting the motion for summary judgment, the Court concluded that Andrea’s claim of undue influence must be unsuccessful because Andrea failed to put forward any corroborating evidence (required by section 13 of the Evidence Act, R.S.O. 1990, c.E.23).
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The onus of proving undue influence is on the challenger. By its nature, undue influence is often very hard to prove. However, the court may resort to a presumption of undue influence in certain circumstances.
In a thought-provoking article in the December 2011 issue of The Lawyers Weekly, Adam Parachin, an associate professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Western Ontario, discusses the high onus to be met in undue influence cases, the application of a presumption of undue influence in certain cases, and the perils of strengthening the presumption of undue influence.
Specifically, Parachin states that the court’s increasing willingness to accept circumstantial evidence of undue influence possibly means that the need for a presumption is less obvious. Further, identifying “triggers” to the imposition of a presumption leads to a circular argument: “instances best meeting this requirement [to trigger the presumption] are those where the need for the presumption is the least apparent.”
Further, the application of the presumption may detract from the testamentary freedom of the testator. As noted by Parachin, the application of the presumption could disproportionately jeopardize wills that depart from the usual pattern of estate distribution, or wills that are not prepared in accordance with the usual protocols. In addition, testamentary freedom should extend not only to how one’s estate is to be distributed, but to who is to be included in the will making process.
Finally, Parachin states that a strong presumption might facilitate questionable claims. The costs of defending these claims, and of rebutting the presumption, would bolster these questionable claims, and lead to compromises that might, in many cases, be contrary to the testator’s intention.
Let the debate begin.
Paul E. Trudelle – Click here for more information on Paul Trudelle.