The Supreme Court of Canada rendered it judgment in Cowper-Smith v. Morgan, 2017 SCC 61, this last Thursday, December 14, 2017. The main legal issue is whether a person who relies on a promise that he will receive property to his detriment may become entitled to the property even if the person who made the promise did not own the property at the time she made the promise. Let me explain.
Elizabeth Flora Cowper-Smith died in 2010. She had three children: Gloria Morgan, Max Cowper-Smith and Nathan Cowper-Smith. In her will, she named her daughter as her executor and she provided that after payment of debts, her estate would be divided equally among her three children. She had investments and her family home in Victoria, British Columbia.
In 2005, Max Cowper-Smith visited Victoria from England, where he had been living and working as a lawyer. Gloria told Max that their mother could no longer care for herself in her own home. Gloria and Max agreed that he would leave England and move in with their mother, and care for her and the family home, after Gloria agreed that he would be able to live in the home permanently, and that he would be able to acquire Gloria’s one-third interest after their mother’s death. On the basis of his sister’s promises, Max moved back to Victoria, and cared for his mother.
After her mother’s death, Gloria said she was going to put the house on the market.
Nathan and Max sued their sister.
As an aside, there is more to this story. Elizabeth Cowper-Smith had transferred title to her house and investments into joint tenancy with Gloria, and they signed a trust declaration pursuant to which Gloria held her interest in the title to the house and investments for her mother during her mother’s lifetime, but would receive these assets on her mother’s death. The Supreme Court of British Columbia trial judge set aside the transfers into joint tenancies and the trust declaration on the basis that Gloria had exercised undue influence over her mother and that Gloria had not rebutted the presumption that the gratuitous transfer is not a gift, but is held on a resulting trust for her mother and her mother’s estate. The Court of Appeal upheld this aspect of the trial judge’s decision, and it was not part of the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On finding that the family home was part of Elizabeth’s estate, the trial judge, Madam Justice Brown considered Max’s claim to the right to purchase Gloria’s interest in the home from Gloria on the basis of what is known as proprietary estoppel. In her reasons reported at 2015 BCSC 1170, she summarized the law as follows:
 The claim for proprietary estoppel begins with an assurance or representation in relation to an interest in land. The assurance can be made through words or conduct and does not have to be as precise as it would need to be in order to give rise to a binding contract. The claimant’s belief in the assurance must be reasonable. A finding of reliance does not necessarily lead to a finding of detriment and the court must be satisfied that there has been detriment because this is what gives rise to an unfairness. Reliance is a change in a person’s conduct as a result of the assurance. Detriment does not flow automatically from reliance and detriment must be assessed on a holistic basis, looking at the overall benefits gained and losses suffered by the claimant. Once inequity has been established, the court must determine the extent of the inequity and the relief needed to satisfy it.
Madam Justice Brown found that Max had established the necessary evidence to support his claim. She wrote at paragraph 118 and 119,
 I am satisfied that Max acted to his detriment in moving from England to Victoria, giving up employment income, the long-term lease of a cottage, his contacts with his children, and his social life to look after his aged dementing mother. He did so relying on Gloria’s agreement to his conditions for the move. In doing so, he acted reasonably. His discussions with Gloria were not done in a moment, they covered several months.  The relief that Max seeks is the right to purchase Gloria’s one-third interest in the house. I consider the relief sought by Max to be the minimum required to satisfy the equity. In a sense it will cost Gloria nothing. That Gloria now would rather not sell to Max for personal reasons has no bearing on the equity, or the reasonableness, of the relief sought.
Gloria appealed. In the British Columbia Court of Appeal, reported at 2016 BCCA 200, the majority held that because Gloria did not own an interest in the family home when she made the promises to Max, and it was uncertain whether she would receive an interest in the family home, Max could not rely on Gloria’s promises to assert a claim based on proprietary estoppel. Mr. Justice Willcock for the majority (Madam Justice D. Smith dissented on this issue) wrote at paragraphs 106 though 108, Even assuming there to be some basis for the view that proprietary estoppel might arise as a result of an assurance given by one about to be the owner of property, I would not expand that class of persons so far as to include a potential beneficiary who gives an assurance to another, years before the death of a testator, with respect to what she will do with an inheritance that she merely anticipates receiving, if the person receiving the assurance acts as requested in the meantime. Not only is there uncertainty, in such a case, with respect to the promisor’s ability to deliver a proprietary interest to the promisee at the time the assurance is given, the uncertainty is not resolved when the promisee acts in reliance upon the promise.
 Leaving aside, for the moment, the question whether Gloria was in a position to exert undue influence upon her mother, there was uncertainty with respect to the property interest Max was being promised. First, there was uncertainty whether Gloria would inherit anything from her mother. She might have predeceased her mother. Her mother might have changed her will and left Gloria more or less than a one‑third interest in the property. Her mother might have sold the house and moved into accommodation more suited to her declining health. Simply by liquidating her property Elizabeth Cowper-Smith would have precluded Max from asserting a right to buy anything from Gloria. Certainly it is not suggested that Elizabeth was in any way restricted in her dealings with the property simply because her daughter made assurances to Max about what she would do on Elizabeth’s death.  Without exerting undue influence upon her mother, Gloria was not in a position to determine what property interest Max would receive in exchange for his move to Victoria. The fulfilment of Gloria’s promise was entirely conditional on her mother’s actions, which were outside her control.
Max appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice McLachlin held that Max was entitled to require Gloria to sell him her interest in their mother’s home based on the principles of proprietary estoppel. She rejected the majority’s reasoning in the Court of Appeal. Although Max could not have enforced the promise if Gloria had not acquired an interest in the property, it can be enforced if she later does receive an interest in the home. After summarizing the majority decision in the Court of Appeal, the Chief Justice wrote at paragraphs 35 and 36:
 I cannot agree. With respect, the conclusion reached by the Court of Appeal majority conflates proprietary estoppel with the equity to which it gives effect. That Gloria did not own an interest in her mother’s property at the time of Max’s reliance is not dispositive in itself: see MacDougall, at p. 456; see also Thorner, at para. 61, per Lord Walker; Re Basham (deceased),  1 All E.R. 405 (Ch.), at p. 415. An equity arises when the claimant reasonably relies to his detriment on the expectation that he will enjoy a right or benefit over property, whether or not the party responsible for that expectation owns an interest in the property at the time of the claimant’s reliance. Proprietary estoppel may not protect that equity immediately. It may not protect the equity until considerable time has passed. If the party responsible for the expectation never acquires a sufficient interest in the property, proprietary estoppel may not arise at all; where there is proprietary estoppel, there must be an equity, but not vice versa. When the party responsible for the expectation has or acquires a sufficient interest in the property, however, proprietary estoppel attaches to that interest and protects the equity: see MacDougall, at p. 458; Wilken and Ghaly, at pp. 265-66; see also Watson v. Goldsbrough,  1 E.G.L.R. 265 (C.A.), at p. 267. Ownership at the time the representation or assurance was relied on is not a requirement of a proprietary estoppel claim.  An equity arose in Max’s favour when he reasonably relied to his detriment on the expectation that he would be able to acquire Gloria’s one-third interest in their mother’s house. That equity could not have been protected by proprietary estoppel at the time it arose, because Gloria did not then own an interest in the property. But that does not mean that proprietary estoppel cannot attach to Gloria’s share of the house once she receives it. I conclude that it can.
There were a couple of other important issues remaining. First, Elizabeth Cowper-Smith did not give her children the family home in the will. Rather she gave her children a one-third interest in the residue of the estate. Gloria would only acquire an interest in the home if she distributed the home itself to the three beneficiaries, rather than selling it and distributing the proceeds. As an executor she had discretion to sell the house.
In this case, the Chief Justice held that Gloria had a conflict of interest as executor, on the one hand, and as a beneficiary. The court could order her to distribute the home in order to allow Max to be able to purchase Gloria’s interest in the home, and the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada did just that.
Secondly, the question arose as to when Gloria’s interest would be valued. Elizabeth Cowper-Smith had died in 2010 and this decision came out seven years later. The value of the home has likely increased significantly, given the changes in the Victoria real estate market. Chief Justice McLachlin held that the appropriate time for determining the purchase price was the time Max may have reasonably have expected to have purchased Gloria’s interest. The majority used an appraisal as of February 2, 2011.
The Chief Justice wrote at paragraphs 52 through 54,
 Neither Max nor Gloria could reasonably have expected to wait the better part of a decade to exchange Max’s cash for Gloria’s interest in the property. It is safe to assume that, had Gloria not sought to escape her promise, Max’s equity would have been satisfied and Gloria’s share of the house sold to him not long after February 2, 2011, which is when, in the course of administering their mother’s estate, the property was in fact appraised for $670,000.00. Rather than sell her interest in the house to Max at that point — that is, roughly when both she and he originally contemplated she would — Gloria took the position that she was under no obligation to do so at all. This litigation was the result. In the years since, Max has had the benefit of the money he would have had to pay Gloria in 2011 for her share of the house, Elizabeth’s estate has incurred expenses associated with the upkeep of the property, and the property, the parties agree, has increased in value.  February 2, 2011 is a reasonable approximation of when Max expected to be able to purchase Gloria’s one-third interest in the property. That expectation reflects the defined right that Gloria promised Max in exchange for his returning to Victoria to care for their mother. In these circumstances, the claimant’s expectation must be the court’s guide in exercising its remedial discretion. This is because, as Walker L.J. put it in Jennings, at para. 45:
. . . the consensual element of what has happened suggests that the claimant and the benefactor probably regarded the expected benefit and the accepted detriment as being (in a general, imprecise way) equivalent, or at any rate not obviously disproportionate.
The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada also recognized that because of the delay Max has had the benefit of the use of the funds he would have used to purchase Gloria’s interest in 2011, and that estate assets were used to maintain the property. According, Max is required to pay Gloria interest on the purchase price at post-judgement interest rates from February 2, 2011, and also to account to the estate for any expenses paid out of estate funds to maintain the property since February 2, 2011.
This decision was released the day before Chief Justice McLachlin’s retirement on December 15, 2017. She was the longest serving Chief Justice of Canada. Here is a biography from the Canadian Encyclopedia.