Common law is not married

Period. End of story. In Ontario, common law spouses may be able to sue an estate for support, but they have no automatic right whatsoever to inherit if there is no will. It is harsh, but it is the law. If you are not legally married and most assets are not in your name, your partner needs a will or you will be left out in the cold.

Do you need a survey?

The answer is, sometimes.

If you can get a survey, they’re very useful. They can tell you all sorts of things – the legal limits of your property, whether there are any hydro or sewer lines, if there are any easements, even the proper location of a fence or your house. Often, however, a new survey isn’t available when you buy a house, if a survey is available at all.

If you are buying in an urban centre, the likelihood is that you don’t need a survey. It’s nice to have, to see where your lot lines are, but any encroachments from neighbours or easements that were never registered would usually be fully covered by your title insurance, so it’s not critical to have a survey up front.

Where it becomes more complicated is if you’re buying in a more rural area, and particularly if there are any questions about access to your property. Having a right-of-way to use someone else’s property to access your own can be a difficult matter to deal with; if it turns out that the travelled road is not where the legal description says it should be, the other owner doesn’t have to let you continue to use the travelled road. And then you could get stuck with no access to your property.

If you’re buying a subdivision house in town and there’s no survey, talk to your lawyer but you probably don’t need to worry. If you’re buying anything out of the ordinary, you may want to think twice before agreeing to not have a survey.

Plan for conflict, and hope it doesn’t happen

A recent TD Wealth survey found that 44% of planning professionals believe that family conflict is the biggest threat to estate planning today. And I think that’s absolutely correct.

In my personal experience, the estates that have the most difficulty are the ones where the parties don’t get along. Even if everything is being managed perfectly and properly, personal conflict will lead one party to hire their own lawyer, and sometimes even to start a lawsuit against the estate. Sometimes this even happens between executors who can’t get along. It wastes a huge amount of time and money that should be going through the estate to the beneficiaries.

The best advice that I can give if you must choose more than executor one is to choose executors who will get along, and to tell your beneficiaries ahead of time what your plans are. Processing it all now means fewer problems down the road.

Don’t Forget Your Furry Family Members

Many of us consider our pets to be members of our family. Some have taken this idea even further, actually left their entire fortune to their pets on their death. An example of this is Karlotta Leibenstein. Ms. Leibenstein was a German countess and multi-millionaire who left $80 million to her dog, Gunther III. This fortune was inherited by Gunther III’s son, Gunther IV, who is now worth over $400 million. You can read more about Gunther IV and his luxurious lifestyle here (he owns a property in Miami that once belonged to Madonna). While you might not be able to leave your pet millions of dollars, you can set up a pet trust for them in your will.

Under Ontario law, pets are considered as property. As such, your executor will have the right to decide what happens to your pets. Your executor would have the power to choose where your pets go and can even decide to take them to a shelter or put them to sleep.

If you do not have a will, you will not be able to decide who will care for your pets after your death. The courts will appoint an executor for you. This person will be chosen from the members of your family who step forward to act as executor. The person that the court chooses might not be the person you would have chosen to act as your executor.

One way to protect your pets is to put a pet trust into your will. A pet trust will arrange for any pets to be cared for after their owner’s death. By planning ahead, you can ensure that your furry family members are cared for after your death.

Signing paper in a digital world

You’ve completed your offer and any signbacks over email, by signing it electronically. Then you get to the lawyer’s office and see a stack of paper. What’s up with that?

In Ontario, lawyers must have original documents signed on paper.  While it might be nice to sign everything electronically, we can’t do that unless the laws are changed.

Yes, we use a lot of paper. Unfortunately, we have to.

Do you know how to pass on your digital assets?

Many of us don’t see a whole lot of (if any) monetary value in our digital assets – there’s not much to gain in a Facebook or email account. However, there is always a possibility that there could be significant value to a digital asset, and either you don’t know, or your executor doesn’t know.

Do you have a gaming account? What about money stored in an eBay or PayPal account? A blog that creates defined value for your business? An e-commerce site? Music or video files purchased through an online store such as iTunes? Most difficult of all, digital currency, such as Bitcoin?

There is currently no law in Canada that allows your executor to access any of your digital assets. If you have anything at all that you would want your executor or beneficiaries to have access to, you must have a will.

Review Before You Sign

Most purchasers and sellers send their agreements to their real estate lawyer after the agreement has already been signed. At this point, it is typically too late to amend or get out of the deal. This is why it is important to have your lawyer review the agreement prior to signing.

If your purchase or sale agreement is conditional on lawyer’s review, then your lawyer can go through the entire agreement. Through this review, a lawyer can determine whether any changes should be made. Without a review clause in the agreement, the purchaser and seller are bound by the terms in the agreement. A review of the agreement can address issues at the outset of the real estate transaction, saving you time and money.

This is particularly true with the purchase of a property which has not been built or with the purchase of a condominium. These types of purchase transactions tend have lengthy agreements. Having a lawyer review these documents means that all the details are examined thoroughly.

The purchasing or selling of a house is one of the largest transactions that you will make in your life. Why not have a lawyer with expertise in this area review your agreement?

No Laughing Matter

In August 2003, Canadian high school student Mike Rowe registered the domain name MikeRoweSoft.com. He thought that since his name was Mike Rowe it would be funny to add the word ‘soft’ to the end of it. It was not so funny when Microsoft brought trademark proceedings against him.

Last week I wrote about the additional name protection that a business has upon incorporation. Incorporated businesses can take this name protection one step further by trademarking their name. Trademarking a name allows you the right to initiate trademark proceedings against another person or business to prevent others from using the same business name as yours. This applies not only to business names, but also domain names.

Microsoft initiated trademark proceedings against Mike Rowe, claiming that the domain name infringed on their trademarked name. This was because the name MikeRoweSoft was phonetically similar to Microsoft. Microsoft demanded that Mike Rowe give up the domain name and offered to pay his out-of-pocket expenses, being the $10 he spent to register the domain name. Rowe countered with an offer of $10,000. Eventually both parties reached an out of court settlement. Under this settlement, Mike Rowe stopped using the domain name MikeRoweSoft.com. In exchange, Microsoft provided access to several of their paid courses and websites and sent Mike Rowe an Xbox.

While it might seem harsh that Microsoft went after a high school student, they had to protect their trademarked name. Trademark does provide a business with extra name protection, but only if it is exercised. Microsoft did so in this case to protect its name and reputation.

Severing ties

I had a potential client call me this week about a property he owns with his wife, from whom he had recently separated. They are working through their separation agreement, but in the meantime, he felt uncomfortable leaving their house in joint names, as he wanted his share of it to go to their children if something happened to him, rather than going to his wife.

It’s not commonly known, but it is possible to sever a joint tenancy with no notice to the other owner. You sign a deed from yourself to yourself, and now you are tenants in common; if you die, your share now goes through your estate, rather than to the other owner.

 

It’s usually best to let your co-owners know what’s going on. But if you need to sever ties quickly, you can get it done on your own.

Without proper advice, mistakes are all too easy to make

I see it all the time – people look on Google, find something that seems to make sense, and follow it through without getting advice from a professional. And then, when the action they took turns out to not have the same result in the place where they live as it did in the place where the blogger or journalist lived, they end up paying way more than they would have to just leave things be. Here are some common ones:

  1. Not naming a backup beneficiary for life insurance or registered investments. It’s great if you’ve named your spouse, but what if you die at the same time? Naming an alternate (or contingent) beneficiary means that this money will pass outside of your estate, and not be taxed.
  2. Gifting property (including adding a child to your deed). Always, always, always get advice from a lawyer and accountant before doing this. There are more dangerous than can be stated in a blog post.
  3. Designating registered investments through your will. This can be set up properly, but there is a specific way to do it – if you’re not using a lawyer, you can run into a lot danger, and end up with taxes owing on them because they accidentally pass through your estate.
  4. Putting severe restrictions on inheritances in a will. More often than not, they’ll be found to be invalid.
  5. Leaving assets to minor or disabled beneficiaries without setting up trusts. They could squander the money, or they could lose valuable benefits. It’s always best to have a professional do your will; it’s vital if your beneficiaries need any assistance at all.

This is a complicated area of law. Be careful.