McKendry v McKendry 2017 BCCA 48 sets out a good analysis of what a joint tenancy is and the right of survivorship associated with it.
The real property in question was the mother of four children’s home in Vancouver. In 2008, she transferred legal title to the property into joint tenancy with one son John, although it is clear that he was to hold the property in trust.
In 2010, the mother decided to remove the trust conditions so that John would receive the property absolutely on her death. She informed her lawyer in writing accordingly.
The central issue on appeal was whether the trial judge erred in finding that the mother was required to execute a written Deed of Gift under seal for the son John to take beneficial ownership when she died.
The Court of Appeal held that a Deed of Gift was not necessary for the son to take the beneficial interest when the mother died and allowed the appeal.
The appeal court held that the son John held the property in trust for the other siblings.
Joint Tenancy and the Right of Survivorship
27 Joint tenancy is a form of concurrent property ownership. When the “four unities” of title, interest, time and possession are present, co-owners hold an equal interest in property as a unified whole: Zeligs v. Janes, 2016 BCCA 280at para. 38. However, parties may hold legal title to property as joint tenants while beneficial ownership is held differently. For example, a mother and son may own real property as joint tenants in law while the mother alone owns the beneficial interest. In such circumstances, as Rothstein J. noted in Pecore v. Pecore, 2007 SCC 17at para. 4:
. . . The beneficial owner of property has been described as “the real owner of property even though it is in someone else’s name“: [citation omitted] . . .
28 The principal characteristic of joint tenancy is the right of survivorship. When a joint tenant dies, his or her interest in property is extinguished. If there is more than one surviving joint tenant, they continue to hold the property as joint tenants. The last surviving joint tenant takes full ownership of the property.
29 So long as the requirements of a binding gift are met, the owner of property may, during his or her lifetime, make an immediate gift of a joint tenancy, including the right of survivorship. This is so regardless of whether the donee of the gift is to hold it for the benefit of the donor while he or she is alive. When gifted inter vivos, the right of survivorship is a form of expectancy regarding the future. It is a right to what is left of the jointly-held interest, if anything, when the donor dies: Simcoff v. Simcoff, 2009 MBCA 80at para. 64; Bergen v. Bergen, 2013 BCCA 492at para. 37; Pecore at paras. 45-53.
30 A donor may gift the right of survivorship, but continue to deal freely with property throughout his or her lifetime. In Simcoff, Steel J.A. explained why:
64 Simply, and conceptually, the fact that a “complete gift” may have been given and that this gift included a right of survivorship does not, prima facie, prevent a donor from dealing with the retained joint interest while alive. The right of survivorship is only to what is left. Accordingly, if one joint owner drains a bank account (in the case of personal property) or severs a joint tenancy (in the case of real property), there is nothing in the right of survivorship itself that somehow prevents this. In commenting on the issue of survivorship in Pecore, Rothstein J. wrote (at para. 50):
Some judges have found that a gift of survivorship cannot be a complete and perfect inter vivos gift because of the ability of the transferor to drain a joint account prior to his or her death: see e.g. Hodgins J.A.’s dissent in Re Reid [(1921), 64 D.L.R. 598 (Ont. C.A.)]. Like the Ontario Court of Appeal in Re Reid, at p. 608, and Edwards v. Bradley, [ O.R. 225] at p. 234, I would reject this view. The nature of a joint account is that the balance will fluctuate over time. The gift in these circumstances is the transferee’s survivorship interest in the account balance – whatever it may be – at the time of the transferor’s death, not to any particular amount.