Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wong v. Chong Estate

The law with respect to joint tenancy in British Columbia is nuanced. The basic idea is that if property is held in a joint tenancy between two people, on the death of one, the title passes to the survivor. But if one of the joint tenants gratuitously transferred the property into a joint tenancy or paid the purchase price to buy the property but puts title in a joint tenancy, then there is a presumption that the other joint tenant holds his or her interest in trust for the person who transferred the property or paid for it. This presumption, called a presumption or resulting trust, is a presumption only, which may be rebutted by evidence that the person who paid for the property intended a gift. When the parties are married spouses, there is a different presumption that the person who paid for the property intended a gift. But it really comes down to what the court finds what the intention was of the person who paid for the property at the time her or she purchased it, or in the case of a transfer, the time of the transfer.

But here’s where it gets more nuanced. Supposing one person buys property and puts title into a joint tenancy with another person, intending to retain control of the property during his or her lifetime, but that on death, the survivor will be entitled to the benefit of the property. In such a case, what if the joint tenancy is severed? This can be done in a number of ways, including either of the joint tenants transferring a half interest to himself or herself. In this case, is the person who did not pay for the party able to retain a half interest, and leave it to someone else in his or her will?

Rick Wong and Julia Chong were married on March 23, 2002. She had a daughter from a previous marriage, Janine Yuen, and he had no children.

Mr. Wong arranged to purchase a duplex in 2005. He contributed a little over $11,000 toward the purchase of the duplex, and borrowed a further $550,000. He mortgaged the new property, and Mr. Wong’s mother also assisted by providing security for the loan. When he signed the contract to purchase the duplex, he told 
Ms. Chong that he wanted to buy the property as a source of rental income for their retirement. He had some health problems and neither Mr. Wong nor Ms. Chong had any private pensions.

Mr. Wong and Ms. Chong took title to the duplex as joint tenants.

After they purchased the duplex, Mr. Wong used the rental income for mortgage payments. He also contributed additional funds to pay down the mortgage and pay other expenses for the duplex. He did work repairing the building, and hired contractors for other work. Ms Chong had little involvement. Most of the funds came from rental income, from Mr. Wong’s accounts or from joint accounts held by Mr. Wong and Ms. Chong during times when Mr. Wong was contributing all of the funds to the joint accounts. Some of the funds also came from joint accounts into which both Mr. Wong and Ms. Chong were contributing.
Ms. Wong died of cancer on May 26, 2013.

Shortly before she died, at a time when she knew she was terminally ill, she made her last will, dated March 21, 2013, in which she left her estate to her daughter. On April 5, she severed the joint tenancy on the duplex, without telling her husband.  Because she severed the joint tenancy, the title to the duplex did not pass to Mr. Wong by right of survivorship.

It should be noted that on the death of Ms. Chong, her daughter received other assets outside of the estate with a value of approximately $400,000 including life insurance and an investment account. Mr. Wong, on the other hand received about $32,000 outside of the estate on his wife’s death.
Ms. Chong’s daughter, Ms. Yuen, maintained that she was entitled to the half-interest in the duplex as the beneficiary of her mother’s will, the joint tenancy having been severed, and her mother having title to a half interest as a tenant in common.

Ms. Wong sued. He alleged among other things that there was a contract between his wife and him that the survivor would receive the duplex by right of survivorship. He also claimed that because he paid the purchase price, and as between his wife and him, he contributed most of the funds, that Ms. Chong’s estate held title to the half interest in trust for him.

In her decision in Wong v. Chong Estate, 2016 BCSC 953, Madam Justice Burke found that there was insufficient evidence that Mr. Wong and Ms. Chong had a contractually binding agreement that Ms. Chong could not sever the joint tenancy.  She held that the presumption of resulting trust did apply. She found that when Mr. Wong bought the duplex and put the title into a joint tenancy with his wife, he intended to confer the right of survivorship only. Unless he died first, and until his death, she had no other beneficial interest in the duplex.

Madam Justice Burke wrote:
[85]         Considering all of the details as set out in the agreed statement of facts and the evidence before the Court, I am of the opinion that a resulting trust should be found in this case and that all the beneficial interest in the Ewart Property [the duplex] remains with Mr. Wong.
[86]         Mr. Wong testified that he purchased the property with the intention that it serve as a source of retirement income for both him and Ms. Chong. He said that if he pre-deceased Ms. Chong, she would receive the interest in the property, but not before then. This testimony was corroborated by the plaintiff’s two sisters, who discussed this plan with the plaintiff at the time of purchase, and by the plaintiff’s friend Len Collard. None of the testimony in this regard was challenged on cross-examination.
[87]         Importantly, Mr. Wong’s testimony is also corroborated in several ways:
(a)            Mr. Wong does not receive a pension through his employment; it therefore makes sense that he would make efforts to secure retirement income through other means, such as acquiring the Ewart Property;
(b)            Mr. Wong had serious health concerns and had reason to believe he would predecease Ms. Chong;
(c)            Mr. Wong paid the vast majority of money (and all of the effort) toward the Ewart Property, including several large lump-sum payments, despite the fact that Ms. Chong had an income;
(d)            Ms. Chong severed the joint tenancy secretly and continued to keep that information from Mr. Wong even when questioned about her retirement planning in the later stages of her life; and
(e)            As the defendants stated, Mr. Wong was a real estate agent who would likely have been familiar with the concepts of joint tenancy and beneficial interest.
[88]         All of the above, whether arising at the time of the transfer or years later, indicate or are consistent with the evidence that Mr. Wong had no intention at the time of the transfer of gifting Ms. Chong the beneficial interest in the property.
[89]         Clearly, it was Mr. Wong’s intention that, should he predecease Ms. Chong, she would take the benefit of the property. It is clear from the evidence, though, that Mr. Wong did not intend to make an inter vivos gift of the beneficial interest in the Ewart Property for Ms. Chong to make use of as she pleased. On a balance of probabilities, Mr. Wong has proved that there was no donative intent. Ms. Chong’s deliberate concealment of the severance, as noted, shows she was very much aware of that. She held the beneficial interest for Mr. Wong.
[90]         In my opinion, Mr. Wong has rebutted the presumptions of advancement and indefeasible title. His testimony, consistent with the available evidence, indicates an intention at the time of transfer that Ms. Chong would take a beneficial interest only on the death of Mr. Wong. Ms. Chong, and subsequently Ms. Yuen, held her interest subject to a resulting trust in favour of the plaintiff; the beneficial title to the Ewart Property remains with him.

In the result, Mr. Wong owns the full interest in the duplex. 

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