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Trusts - Resulting Trusts


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. Kerr v. Baranow

In Kerr v. Baranow (SCC, 2011) the Supreme Court of Canada explains how 'common intention' resulting trusts are fundamentally doctrinally unsound and thus obsolete, and thus of no further use in resolving common law spousal property divisions:
[2] In the early cases of the 1970s, the parties and the courts turned to the resulting trust. The underlying legal principle was that contributions to the acquisition of a property, which were not reflected in the legal title, could nonetheless give rise to a property interest. Added to this underlying notion was the idea that a resulting trust could arise based on the “common intention” of the parties that the non-owner partner was intended to have an interest. The resulting trust soon proved to be an unsatisfactory legal solution for many domestic property disputes, but claims continue to be advanced and decided on that basis.

[3] As the doctrinal problems and practical limitations of the resulting trust became clearer, parties and courts turned increasingly to the emerging law of unjust enrichment. As the law developed, unjust enrichment carried with it the possibility of a remedial constructive trust. In order to successfully prove a claim for unjust enrichment, the claimant must show that the defendant has been enriched, the claimant suffered a corresponding detriment, and there is no “juristic reason” for the enrichment. This claim has become the pre-eminent vehicle for addressing the financial consequences of the breakdown of domestic relationships. However, various issues continue to create controversy, and these two appeals, argued consecutively, provide the Court with the opportunity to address them.


[6] These appeals require us to resolve five main issues. The first concerns the role of the “common intention” resulting trust in claims by domestic partners. In my view, it is time to recognize that the “common intention” approach to resulting trust has no further role to play in the resolution of property claims by domestic partners on the breakdown of their relationship.


II. Resulting Trusts

[12] The resulting trust played an important role in the early years of the Court’s jurisprudence relating to property rights following the breakdown of intimate personal relationships. This is not surprising; it had been settled law since at least 1788 in England (and likely long before) that the trust of a legal estate, whether in the names of the purchaser or others, “results” to the person who advances the purchase money: Dyer v. Dyer (1788), 2 Cox Eq. Cas. 92, 30 E.R. 42, at p. 43. The resulting trust, therefore, seemed a promising vehicle to address claims that one party’s contribution to the acquisition of property was not reflected in the legal title.

[13] The resulting trust jurisprudence in domestic property cases developed into what has been called “a purely Canadian invention”, the “common intention” resulting trust: A. H. Oosterhoff, et al., Oosterhoff on Trusts: Text, Commentary and Materials (7th ed. 2009), at p. 642. While this vehicle has largely been eclipsed by the law of unjust enrichment since the decision of the Court in Pettkus v. Becker, 1980 CanLII 22 (SCC), [1980] 2 S.C.R. 834, claims based on the “common intention” resulting trust continue to be advanced. In the Kerr appeal, for example, the trial judge justified the imposition of a resulting trust, in part, on the basis that the parties had a common intention that Mr. Baranow would hold title to the property by way of a resulting trust for Ms. Kerr. The Court of Appeal, while reversing the trial judge’s finding of fact on this point, implicitly accepted the ongoing vitality of the common intention resulting trust.

[14] However promising this common intention resulting trust approach looked at the beginning, doctrinal and practical problems soon became apparent and have been the subject of comment by the Court and scholars: see, e.g., Pettkus, at pp. 842-43; Oosterhoff, at pp. 641-47; D. W. M. Waters, M. R. Gillen and L. D. Smith, eds., Waters’ Law of Trusts in Canada (3rd ed. 2005) (“Waters’”), at pp. 430-35; J. Mee, The Property Rights of Cohabitees: An Analysis of Equity’s Response in Five Common Law Jurisdictions (1999), at pp. 39-43; T. G. Youdan, “Resulting and Constructive Trusts”, in Special Lectures of the Law Society of Upper Canada 1993 — Family Law: Roles, Fairness and Equality (1994), 169, at pp. 172-74.

[15] In this Court, since Pettkus, the common intention resulting trust remains intact but unused. While traditional resulting trust principles may well have a role to play in the resolution of property disputes between unmarried domestic partners, the time has come to acknowledge that there is no continuing role for the common intention resulting trust. To explain why, I must first put the question in the context of some basic principles about resulting trusts.

[16] That task is not as easy as it should be; there is not much one can say about resulting trusts without a well-grounded fear of contradiction. There is debate about how they should be classified and how they arise, let alone about many of the finer points: see, e.g., Rathwell v. Rathwell, 1978 CanLII 3 (SCC), [1978] 2 S.C.R. 436, at pp. 449-50; Waters’, at pp. 19-22; P. H. Pettit, Equity and the Law of Trusts (11th ed. 2009), at p. 67. However, it is widely accepted that the underlying notion of the resulting trust is that it is imposed “to return property to the person who gave it and is entitled to it beneficially, from someone else who has title to it. Thus, the beneficial interest ‘results’ (jumps back) to the true owner”: Oosterhoff, at p. 25. There is also widespread agreement that, traditionally, resulting trusts arose where there had been a gratuitous transfer or where the purposes set out by an express or implied trust failed to exhaust the trust property: Waters’, at p. 21.

[17] Resulting trusts arising from gratuitous transfers are the ones relevant to domestic situations. The traditional view was they arose in two types of situations: the gratuitous transfer of property from one partner to the other, and the joint contribution by two partners to the acquisition of property, title to which is in the name of only one of them. In either case, the transfer is gratuitous, in the first case because there was no consideration for the transfer of the property, and in the second case because there was no consideration for the contribution to the acquisition of the property.

[18] The Court’s most recent decision in relation to resulting trusts is consistent with the view that, in these gratuitous transfer situations, the actual intention of the grantor is the governing consideration: Pecore v. Pecore, 2007 SCC 17, [2007] 1 S.C.R. 795, at paras. 43-44. As Rothstein J. noted at para. 44 of Pecore, where a gratuitous transfer is being challenged, “[t]he trial judge will commence his or her inquiry with the applicable presumption and will weigh all of the evidence in an attempt to ascertain, on a balance of probabilities, the transferor’s actual intention” (emphasis added).

[19] As noted by Rothstein J. in this passage, presumptions may come into play when dealing with gratuitous transfers. The law generally presumes that the grantor intended to create a trust, rather than to make a gift, and so the presumption of resulting trust will often operate. As Rothstein J. explained, a presumption of a resulting trust is the general rule that applies to gratuitous transfers. When such a transfer is made, the onus will be on the person receiving the transfer to demonstrate that a gift was intended. Otherwise, the transferee holds that property in trust for the transferor. This presumption rests on the principle that equity presumes bargains and not gifts (Pecore, at para. 24).

[20] The presumption of resulting trust, however, is neither universal nor irrebuttable. So, for example, in the case of transfers between persons in certain relationships (such as from a parent to a minor child), a presumption of advancement — that is, a presumption that the grantor intended to make a gift — rather than a presumption of resulting trust applies: see Pecore, at paras. 27-41. The presumption of advancement traditionally applied to grants from husband to wife, but the presumption of resulting trust traditionally applied to grants from wife to husband. Whether the application of the presumption of advancement applies to unmarried couples may be more controversial: Oosterhoff, at pp. 681-82. Although the trial judge in Kerr touched on this issue, neither party relies on the presumption of advancement and I need say nothing further about it.

[21] That brings me to the “common intention” resulting trust. It figured prominently in the majority judgment in Murdoch v. Murdoch, 1973 CanLII 193 (SCC), [1975] 1 S.C.R. 423. Quoting from Lord Diplock’s speech in Gissing v. Gissing, [1970] 2 All E.R. 780 (H.L.), at pp. 789 and 793, Martland J. held for the majority that, absent a financial contribution to the acquisition of the contested property, a resulting trust could only arise “where the court is satisfied by the words or conduct of the parties that it was their common intention that the beneficial interest was not to belong solely to the spouse in whom the legal estate was vested but was to be shared between them in some proportion or other”: Murdoch, at p. 438.

[22] This approach was repeated and followed by a majority of the Court three years later in Rathwell, at pp. 451-53, although the Court also unanimously found there had been a direct financial contribution by the claimant. In Rathwell, there is, as well, some blurring of the notions of contribution and common intention; there are references to the fact that a presumption of resulting trust is sometimes explained by saying that the fact of contribution evidences the common intention to share ownership: see p. 452, per Dickson J. (as he then was); p. 474, per Ritchie J. This blurring is also evident in the reasons of the Court of Appeal in Kerr, where the court said, at para. 42, that “[a] resulting trust is an equitable doctrine that, by operation of law, imposes a trust on a party who holds legal title to property that was gratuitously transferred to that party by another and where there is evidence of a common intention that the property was to be shared by both parties” (emphasis added).

[23] The Court’s development of the common intention resulting trust ended with Pettkus, in which Dickson J. (as he then was) noted the “many difficulties, chronicled in the cases and in the legal literature” as well as the “artificiality of the common intention approach” to resulting trusts: at pp. 842-43. He also clearly rejected the notion that the requisite common intention could be attributed to the parties where such an intention was negated by the evidence: p. 847. The import of Pettkus was that the law of unjust enrichment, coupled with the remedial constructive trust, became the more flexible and appropriate lens through which to view property and financial disputes in domestic situations. As Ms. Kerr stated in her factum, the “approach enunciated in Pettkus v. Becker has become the dominant legal paradigm for the resolution of property disputes between common law spouses” (para. 100).

[24] This, in my view, is as it should be, and the time has come to say that the common intention resulting trust has no further role to play in the resolution of domestic cases. I say this for four reasons.

[25] First, as the abundant scholarly criticism demonstrates, the common intention resulting trust is doctrinally unsound. It is inconsistent with the underlying principles of resulting trust law. Where the issue of intention is relevant to the finding of resulting trust, it is the intention of the grantor or contributor alone that counts. As Professor Waters puts it, “In imposing a resulting trust upon the recipient, Equity is never concerned with [common] intention” (Waters’, at p. 431). The underlying principles of resulting trust law also make it hard to accommodate situations in which the contribution made by the claimant was not in the form of property or closely linked to its acquisition. The point of the resulting trust is that the claimant is asking for his or her own property back, or for the recognition of his or her proportionate interest in the asset which the other has acquired with that property. This thinking extends artificially to claims that are based on contributions that are not clearly associated with the acquisition of an interest in property; in such cases there is not, in any meaningful sense, a “resulting” back of the transferred property: Waters’, at p. 432. It follows that a resulting trust based solely on intention without a transfer of property is, as Oosterhoff puts it, a doctrinal impossibility: “. . . a resulting trust can arise only when one person has transferred assets to, or purchased assets for, another person and did not intend to make a gift of the property”: p. 642. The final doctrinal problem is that the relevant time for ascertaining intention is the time of acquisition of the property. As a result, it is hard to see how a resulting trust can arise from contributions made over time to the improvement of an existing asset, or contributions in kind over time for its maintenance. As Oosterhoff succinctly puts it at p. 652, a resulting trust is inappropriate in these circumstances because its imposition, in effect, forces one party to give up beneficial ownership which he or she enjoyed before the improvement or maintenance occurred.

[26] There are problems beyond these doctrinal issues. A second difficulty with the common intention resulting trust is that the notion of common intention may be highly artificial, particularly in domestic cases. The search for common intention may easily become “a mere vehicle or formula” for giving a share of an asset, divorced from any realistic assessment of the actual intention of the parties. Dickson J. in Pettkus noted the artificiality and undue malleability of the common intention approach: at pp. 843-44.

[27] Third, the “common intention” resulting trust in Canada evolved from a misreading of some imprecise language in early authorities from the House of Lords. While much has been written on this topic, it is sufficient for my purposes to note, as did Dickson J. in Pettkus, at p. 842, that the principles upon which the common intention resulting trust jurisprudence developed are found in the House of Lords decisions in Pettitt v. Pettitt, [1970] A.C. 777, and Gissing. However, no clear majority opinion emerged in those cases and four of the five Law Lords in Gissing spoke of “resulting, implied or constructive trusts” without distinction. The passages that have been most influential in Canada on this point, those authored by Lord Diplock, in fact relate to constructive rather than resulting trusts: see, e.g., Waters’, at pp. 430-35; Oosterhoff, at pp. 642-43. I find persuasive Professor Waters’ comments, specifically approved by Dickson J. in Pettkus, that where the search for common intention becomes simply a vehicle for reaching what the court perceives to be a just result, “[i]t is in fact a constructive trust approach masquerading as a resulting trust approach”: D. Waters, Comment (1975), 53 Can. Bar Rev. 366, at p. 368.

[28] Finally, as the development of the law since Pettkus has shown, the principles of unjust enrichment, coupled with the possible remedy of a constructive trust, provide a much less artificial, more comprehensive and more principled basis to address the wide variety of circumstances that lead to claims arising out of domestic partnerships. There is no need for any artificial inquiry into common intent. Claims for compensation as well as for property interests may be addressed. Contributions of all kinds and made at all times may be justly considered. The equities of the particular case are considered transparently and according to principle, rather than masquerading behind often artificial attempts to find common intent to support what the court thinks for unstated reasons is a just result.

[29] I would hold that the resulting trust arising solely from the common intention of the parties, as described by the Court in Murdoch and Rathwell, no longer has a useful role to play in resolving property and financial disputes in domestic cases. I emphasize that I am speaking here only of the common intention resulting trust. I am not addressing other aspects of the law relating to resulting trusts, nor am I suggesting that a resulting trust that would otherwise validly arise is defeated by the existence in fact of common intention.


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Last modified: 28-02-24
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