Skip to content

More families in court fighting over family homes thanks to rising house prices: lawyer

Homeowners who want to sell are not stuck if their co-owners refuse the sale.
A Richmond lawyer wants families who co-own houses to know they are not stuck if not all owners want to sell.

A recent Richmond case of a mom taking her son to court so they can stop living together is not rare, said a Richmond lawyer.

The Richmond News recently reported a Supreme Court judge had sided with a mom who wanted to sell her family home, which was partially owned by her son. The mom, Shish Prasad, had alleged elder abuse from her daughter-in-law, while her grandson denied the claims.

Bernard Lau, a Richmond lawyer who represented Shish in the case, said such ownership disputes are becoming more common in court as the cost of housing continues to rise.

“That simply goes to, in a sense, property values going up over time. Some people may not necessarily be able to buy a house on their own,” he explained.

“And so, they tend to co-invest with family members or live together, and so you have more than one family member as the owner on title.”

Lau also thinks cultural practices are contributing to the increase of such cases in court.

“The norms (in Asian cultures) tend to be that… multiple generations live under one roof,” he said.

Compounded with the practical realities of rising property prices, the increase in people living together also leads to “higher risk of conflict down the road,” Lau suggested.

“Maybe (one of the owners is) in a cash crunch, or they just need to move out and need to sell it. And then they kind of run headfirst into a wall when other owners don’t necessarily feel the same way.”

What are the legal means for resolving family home disputes?

Disputes over a family home are governed by the Partition of Property Act in British Columbia, explained Lau.

The Act enables owners to compel the court to order a sale in certain circumstances.

Most orders, like the one Shish obtained, would be for the sale of the entire house with proceeds distributed proportionately to all the owners.

“The general rule (when going to court is) trying to see if the person who wants to sell the property has at least 50 per cent ownership in the home,” he said.

Those with a majority ownership have the “legal upper hand,” according to Lau, and anyone with less than 50 per cent who is opposing the sale will need to give a “persuasive argument” to show why the court should not order the sale.

For minority owners who are pursuing the sale, judges will use their discretion to determine if they have a good reason as to why the property should be sold.

Common reasons include alleged abuse at home (as Shish had raised in her case) or the need for financial liquidity or other life circumstances.

Lau hopes that anyone in a similar situation to Shish’s, or even if they just want to liquidate their share of the home, can be aware of this law.

“You’re not stuck just because you can’t secure the cooperation of all other homeowners,” he said.

Family members suing each other an emotional affair

However, the emotional toll of going to court against close family members makes such cases more difficult than “run of the mill” contract dispute cases,” said Lau.

“In the vast majority of the cases I’ve dealt with under the Partition of Property Act, we’re dealing with family members suing other family members, or at least going to court against other family members,” he said.

“Those are relationships that are going to be somewhat damaged as a result of getting lawyers involved. It can turn quite nasty.”

There might also be the added complication of living with someone you’re suing.

“You’re all living under the same roof, and you just got back from a court hearing where your lawyer is making allegations and their lawyer’s defending their clients, and both parties are kind of slinging mud at one another,” said Lau.

In some cases, there might be a risk of domestic abuse or violence. In others, it’s the awkwardness of seeing each other at family gatherings.

Considering the legal, financial and emotional implications, parties should ideally try to settle it privately.

Just filing a petition would show the opposing family member you’re serious about pursuing the sale, suggested Lau, which in some cases would be sufficient to facilitate negotiations without going through a court hearing.

In fact, many such cases are settled outside of court.

“Going to court pretty much is always the last resort,” he said.