Was Parents’ Money a Gift or Loan? The Perils of Poor Documentation
Picture this not-uncommon scenario: The parents provide their newly-married adult daughter or son with a significant amount of money to put towards the down-payment of a first home.
All goes well until a few years later when that son or daughter, ensconced in the home purchased partly with the parents’ money, decides to divorce. How does that money get treated in that divorce settlement? Was it a gift to the couple, or a loan that was expected to be repaid?
The question is a very important one because under Ontario family law, the characterization of the parents’ money in the hands of the adult son or daughter becomes a prime consideration in the valuating separation-date assets. Under the Family Law Act, funds that are gifts to the couple during marriage get put into the “pot” for equalization of Net Family Property as usual; funds that are considered loans must naturally be repaid to the original lender.
So the intent behind the advance of funds is key.
In a recent 130-paragraph judgment in a case called Chao v. Chao, the courts scrutinized the evidence to determine what the parents’ intentions had been a full 37 years earlier, when they advanced over $450,000 to their newly-married son, as well as half the cost of the couple’s new $260,000 home.
The then-newlyweds used invested those funds wisely: For the last 25 years of their marriage, neither husband nor wife worked at anything other than small jobs here and there, and essentially lived off the income generated from investments purchased with the money from the husband’s parents. By the time of the trial, their investments and various account balances had grown so that the couple’s assets were nearing the $2 million mark, although neither party provided reliable figures.
Indeed, the court commented specifically on the unsatisfactory state of the financial and other evidence that had been given, some of which was purported to come from the husband’s mother, who was now 89 years old. (The husband’s father had already passed away). As for murky evidence of the intent behind the initial advance of funds, the court wrote:
It is noteworthy that neither the [wife], the [husband], nor the [husband’s] mother … gave evidence of any verbal agreements, representations, expressions of intent or discussions between either of the [husband’s] parents and one or more of the parties surrounding or touching upon the [financial] advances. The evidence of each of the affiants regarding the intentions of the [husband’s] parents in making the advances consist of assumptions, understandings or conclusions of what was intended by the parents, rather than indications of what one or more of the parties may have said at the time.
By way of illustration, the husband said that in 1975 when the parents advanced half the costs of their first home, there was “an understanding” between him, them and the wife that whenever the house was sold, half the proceeds would be returned to the parents. However, the court noted that he “never asserted that anyone ever expressed this understanding verbally or in writing.”
The court also dismissed some other late-breaking evidence put forth by the husband:
I would strike out exhibit D to the [husband’s] affidavit as it is stated by the respondent to be undated handwritten lists made by him which he “discovered” when he “found” a file and “discovered” that it contained “some evidence to support my case that while I was unemployed, my mother provided investments in our names for our living expenses.”
The handwritten list is self-serving, has marginal probative value and in any event should have been disclosed earlier by the [husband] The probative value of handwritten list is marginal because there is no suggestion by either party that the investment accounts owned by them or with their children originated from their own earnings or resources. It is common ground that the investments were derived from advances made by the [husband’s] parents. The issue is how to properly characterize those advances, whether as gifts, loans or as subject to a resulting trust.
Ultimately the court considered what little evidence had been provided, in the context of deciding a motion for summary judgment which (if granted) would obviate the need for a trial on this issue. It found as follows:
Based upon all of the evidence before me I find that the presumption of resulting trust in favor of [the husband’s mother] has been rebutted. I also find that the various advances made by the [husband’s] parents cannot be characterized as loans from them to the [husband]. Based upon the evidence the reality of the situation is that there never was any expectation, prior to the parties’ separation, on the part of [the husband’s mother] that the [husband] and the [wife] would be required to repay any portion of the funds advanced by her and her husband. … [I]t would be unfair to permit the [husband] to receive a credit for a debt to his mother, with the financial benefits that would flow to him from that credit on the equalization calculation.
The lesson to be learned from Chao v. Chao is a simple one. Parents: Put it in writing.
Anytime parents advance funds to adult children with the expectation of being paid back, they must make sure there is ample evidence in the form of clear documentation that a loan was intended.
For the full text of the decision, see:
At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders. For more information, visit us at RussellAlexander.com