Keeping the cottage in the family

July 27, 2017

If your family has a cottage you probably have idyllic memories of swimming in the lake, roasting marshmallows around a campfire and picking berries in the woods. But these days with two-parent working families rarely taking more than a week or two of vacation together each year, cottage visits may be limited to the occasional long weekend. And for many people it’s a stretch to cover rent or mortgage payments for their primary home without taking on the expenses and upkeep of a second one.

That’s why when parents bequeath the family cottage to their adult children, it can be a mixed blessing, particularly if one or more of the siblings no longer resides in the same geographic area as the rest of the family. In these circumstances, experts recommend that co-owners negotiate and sign a cottage agreement that contains formal rules and regulations for how everyone uses and pays for the cottage.

Some of the topics covered may include:

  1. Who pays what: Like any other home, typical cottage expenses may include mortgage payments, insurance, heating, hydro, taxes and major repairs. Add this up and decide how to split up the bills. Will the split depend in part on frequency of use or does everyone have to pay their share? What if major repairs are required like a new roof or a new dock?
  2. Occupancy: Address when each family gets to use the cottage alone. If Jane opts for the first two weeks in July, does she get the same two weeks every year? How are long weekends split up? Does an adult parent have to be present if a teenager wants to bring up a bunch of friends?
  3. Management: Who pays the bills and manages the paperwork? In what condition should occupants leave the cottage when they return home? Do bed linens and towels have to be washed and dried? Who will open and close the cottage and take care of routine maintenance like cutting the grass?
  4. Decisions: What if owners disagree? Who will mediate their differences? What happens if one or two siblings want to renovate but others do not want to contribute? Can one owner force a sale if he wants out and the co-owners are not prepared to purchase his share?
  5. Succession: Can a sibling will her share to a spouse (who may later remarry) or only to their offspring or another owner? What happens if one of the owners is divorced?

There may also be tax considerations and probate fees on death, that can place a burden on beneficiaries, particularly if the property has increased in value since it was purchased. Furthermore, if a vacation home is in the U.S., it may be subject to U.S. estate tax.

Therefore whether you are planning to will a property to your children or you are one of a group of siblings negotiating a cottage agreement, it is wise to consult a knowledgeable lawyer before you sign on the dotted line.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.
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