Property Ownership Types

Updated Apr 15, 2024
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Property can be owned outright by a single individual, or it can be owned in other ways, impacting how the asset should be handled upon the death of the owner.

When most people hear the term property, they think of real estate, but when dealing with the legal system, the term property covers everything that can be owned. The term real property is used to identify land or permanent buildings, while personal property covers everything else: bank accounts, businesses, shares of stock, furniture, vehicles, and more.

Common Law Ownership

By default, property is owned by a single person, and automatically becomes part of that person's estate upon his or her death. In such cases, the executor of the estate will have to take possession of the property, and either use it to pay off estate debts, or distribute it to the estate heirs.

Tenancy in Common

If property is held via tenancy in common, each owner owns a specified portion of the property, and that portion becomes part of that owner's estate upon his or her death.

The executor of an estate is responsible for managing the deceased owner's portion of the property, and either selling it or distributing it to the estate heirs.

Joint Tenancy (unavailable in QC)

If property is held owned via joint tenancy, then upon an owner's death, the other owners automatically assume ownership of the decedent's share.

For instance, if a two people owned a house together via joint tenancy, and one died, the other would automatically own the entire house. Of course, paperwork would probably need to filed in the local deeds office to record the change, and none of this would impact any amount still owed on a mortgage. Similarly, if two people owned a bank account together via joint tenancy, the second would automatically assume full ownership of the account upon the first's death (and at some point would probably want to file paperwork at the bank to remove the deceased partner's name from the account).

An executor typically has no legal authority over property owned via joint tenancy, since ownership automatically transfers. That being said, an executor will often help effect the transfer by providing copies of the death certificate and filing any necessary paperwork.

Registered Account

Registered accounts such as RRSPs and TFSAs can have named beneficiaries who automatically receive ownership of account contents upon death of the owner (except in Quebec).

An executor typically has no legal authority over such accounts when they have named beneficiaries, but often chooses to help accomplish the transfer by providing copies of the death certificate and filing any necessary paperwork.

Real Property Holding

In addition to the above ownership types, real property (i.e., land and buildings) ownership typically comes in one of the following forms:

  • Freehold: Freehold means that both the building and the land upon which it sits are included in the property. Most single-family homes are sold as part of a freehold.
  • Leasehold: A leasehold includes a building but not the land it sits upon. Such homes are often built on Native Canadian lands or Crown lands, and the associated leases usually last for 99 years and can be renegotiated. When valuing such an asset, keep in mind that properties on leasehold tend to have a lower value than properties on freehold, particularly towards the end of the lease.
  • Condominium (or Strata in BC): In a condominium (or strata in BC), individuals own their individual units within a larger building or complex. They also share ownership of common areas and amenities with other unit owners.
  • Co-Op : In a co-op, an individual owns a percentage share of the company that owns the property.

Regardless of ownership type or form, a surviving family often enjoys certain rights and protections when it comes to their residence, ranging from eviction protection to life estates (see Family Entitlements).

See also Making Distributions.

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