I am often asked by clients (whether they are the executor of an estate or a beneficiary) whether a person occupying real property which was owned by the deceased and has become an estate asset must pay rent for staying in that property.
Where an estate holds real property, there will usually be a period of time before the executor or administrator is ready or able to deal with the property, whether they intend to transfer the property to the beneficiary(ies) or sell the property and distribute the sales proceeds.
This issue is straightforward where, for example, one spouse dies, and the surviving spouse is the sole beneficiary of the estate and sole occupier of the property. The surviving spouse would not pay rent to occupy the property, because any rent would ultimately go back to that spouse as the beneficiary of the estate.
However, matters are usually not that straightforward. For example, a common scenario is the death of a parent, and one of their children resides in their property (or seeks to move into the property after the parent’s death). The property will eventually be sold so that the proceeds can be distributed between the deceased’s children, but in the meantime one of the children gets the additional benefit of getting to live in the property.
Another example is where the deceased was the sole occupier of the property, and rather than leave the property vacant someone moves in. This may be one of the beneficiaries, or even the executor.
The issue may be further complicated if the person occupying the property is paying expenses relating to the property (which would otherwise be payable by the estate), or if they allege that they are occupying the property for the benefit of the estate (so that it doesn’t remain vacant).
Where someone occupies and has the benefit of property belonging to the estate, they may be required to pay occupational rent to the estate. This may take the form of a debt payable to the estate, or a set-off from their share of the estate. The concept of occupation rent is tied to unjust enrichment, as well as trespass. To permit someone to use estate assets results in an enrichment, to the detriment of the estate. Occupational rent will be considered where there is a claim of unjust enrichment and it is just and equitable to impose the remedy.
The issue of occupational rent was recently considered by the B.C. Supreme Court in In the Matter of the Estate of Euphemia Reagh, Deceased, 2021 BCSC 1807. In Reagh, the deceased made a will dividing her estate equally amongst her four children. One of the children (“Randy”) was named as executor.
Randy and his family lived in the basement suite of the Deceased’s residence in Burnaby for 12 years prior to the Deceased’s death. The year before her death, the Deceased moved into a care facility, but returned to the Burnaby property after a short period of time. Upon her return, Randy and his family were now occupying the main floor. Randy claimed he paid his mother $1,000 per month in rent while she was alive, and he paid this amount for the first 12 months after her death.
After her death, there was a dispute concerning the appropriate rent to be paid. For a period of time (until the property was sold), Randy increased the amount paid for rent to $2,150 per month. Randy maintained the property, and claimed it as his principal residence, saving the estate $50,000 in taxes after its sale.
The Court agreed that $1,000/month in rent was too little. While there was an email discussing rent of $3,000, there was no confirmation that this was agreed to, and so no agreement was established. While the evidence of market rent before the court was “less than perfect”, the court was satisfied that $2,000/month in rent was more appropriate. Although the court was flexible in this case, a party who is making a claim for occupational rent should bring evidence as to the appropriate amount of occupational rent (i.e. market value).
It was just and equitable in this case that the executor pay occupational rent at market value. The executor was ordered to pay $12,000 (the difference between the $1,000 paid and the $2,000 rent which was appropriate, for 12 months).
This case serves as a reminder that executors (or others) cannot expect to occupy estate property rent-free, or for below market rent. If they try to do so, then the remedy of occupational rent may be available.