Inheriting the Cottage/Cabin/Chalet –The Great Estate Planning Challenge
By Katy Basi
From my lovely vantage point on the dock at my dad’s cottage, looking around the lake at all of the other family cottages, I’m reminded that every cottage, cabin and chalet has a story. Some have been in the same family for generations, with or without accompanying drama. Too many more were sold to a third party against the expectations of the family, often as a result of poor estate planning.
- Often the legal ownership of a cottage does not reflect the practical reality of the cottage situation (for the remainder of this blog, I will refer to the “cottage” as this is the term commonly used in Ontario, but no disrespect is intended to owners of cabins and chalets - many of the same principles and problems will apply!) Due to the inter-generational history of many cottages, cottage ownership is often just not as simple as ownership of a primary residence. I have seen cottage ownership being shared between siblings, or divided among parents and all of their adult children. Sometimes a child is on title “but everyone understands that the cottage belongs to mom”. A parent may own only a “life interest” in the cottage, with adult children holding the “remainder interest”. Other times, ownership was transferred to a trust in the misty reaches of time. If a trust owns your cottage, you’ll want to read my companion blog next week entitled “Cottage Trusts” to ensure that you are aware of some nasty tax traps with the cottage trust structure.
- If an owner spends any time at a cottage with his/her family, the cottage will qualify as a matrimonial home for family law purposes, and may therefore be shareable upon a later separation or divorce of the owner (unless there is a marriage contract in place which addresses this issue). Let’s say, for example, that in your Will you leave your cottage to your son Adam and your daughter Beth as 50/50 tenants in common (not as joint tenants, as you want Adam’s children to be able to inherit his 50% interest if Adam so chooses). You shuffle off of this mortal coil, so that Adam becomes a co-owner of the cottage. Adam spends a week a year at the cottage with his wife and two children. Adam then separates, and his wife makes a claim for 50% of Adam’s 50% interest in the cottage on the basis that it is a matrimonial home. Will Adam be able to pay 25% of the value of the cottage to his ex as part of the settlement? Will he need to sell his interest in the cottage to Beth to provide the funds for this payment? If Beth cannot afford to buy Adam’s share, this issue may result in the sale of the cottage to a third party. Leaving the cottage to your beneficiaries in a cottage trust created in your Will may be helpful in this respect if marriage contracts are not doable (this planning technique is discussed in more detail in my “Cottage Trusts” blog).
- Cottages are expensive to maintain. Not every beneficiary who wants the cottage can afford the upkeep, and not every beneficiary who can afford the upkeep wants the cottage.
- Family members often have strong emotional attachments to the cottage. Leaving the cottage in your Will to the child with the financial resources to maintain the cottage may be the smart choice from a monetary perspective, but if this decision leads to lifelong conflict between the cottage child and the non-cottage child, it may not be the best plan taking all considerations into account.
- Cottages are not divisible in the same way as financial assets. Cottage owners who intend to leave the cottage to more than one person need to ask themselves what the practical implications are of each beneficiary inheriting only a share of the cottage. For example, co-ownership agreements are strongly recommended whenever more than one person or family shares ownership of a cottage. These agreements can provide for the payment of maintenance expenses and utilities associated with the cottage, allocation of time at the cottage, “shared time” (everyone is welcome!) versus “private time” (my family only please…), policies on having pets/friends over to stay (allergies? replenishment of beverages required?), bringing household items to/taking household items from the cottage, etc.
- If the cottage owner has owned the cottage for a number of years, there is often a large accrued capital gain on the cottage that is triggered upon the owner’s death. If the owner does not have sufficient liquid assets to pay the tax, and the beneficiaries do not have the funds, the cottage must often be sold simply to pay this tax bill. Insurance on the life of the owner is often recommended, where available at an affordable premium, to backfill this monetary gap. Sometimes a beneficiary is given the cottage in the Will upon the condition that the beneficiary pays the related capital gains tax, saving the other beneficiaries of the estate from bearing part of this burden. The calculation of the capital gain is often complex due to shoeboxes of receipts, collected over decades, which may or may not affect the adjusted cost base ("ACB") of the cottage, as well as principal residence issues (sometimes a cottage may be designated as a principal residence for certain years of ownership….and sometimes not!)
Katy Basi is a barrister and solicitor with her own practice, focusing on wills, trusts, estate planning, estate administration and income tax law. Katy practiced income tax law for many years with a large Toronto law firm, and therefore considers the income tax and probate tax implications of her clients' decisions. Please feel free to contact her directly at (905) 237-9299, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. More articles by Katy can be found at her website, http://www.basilaw.com/
Other Cottage Blog Posts by The Blunt Bean Counter
Over the years I have written a couple other blog posts on cottage related topics. They include:
The above blog post is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. Readers are advised to seek specific legal advice regarding any specific legal issues.