Jason Bryk 

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Contingent Interests in Land

August 2015


People enter into all sorts of agreements and arrangements pertaining to the use, disposition and security pledging of interests in real estate.  Some of such contracts or arrangements immediately create interests in the subject realty, such as, an unconditional contract for the sale and purchase of realty, a mortgage charging realty to secure payment of a debt, a leasing of realty and a grant of usage in the nature of an easement.  Other contracts and arrangements create legally enforceable rights and obligations between parties pertaining to realty, but do not (and will not likely ever) create realty interests, such as, a permission to enter (and perhaps to some degree use) realty, typically, for a limited period of time, that is, a permit to allow the recipient to do what would otherwise be an unlawful trespass.  The essential difference between the first and second types of contracts or arrangements is that in the case of the first type, an interest is created in the subject realty, and because it is an "interest", it will "follow" successive ownerships of the realty (in other words, it will bind the successors and assigns of the party whose realty is originally affected by the interest).  In the case of the second type of contract or arrangement, the party granted the rights in relation to the subject realty is not able to enforce those rights against a successor in title to the realty owner who first granted the rights.  The rights are purely personal between the original parties.


The holder of an interest in land is entitled to give notice of its interest and in particular, give notice to persons subsequently acquiring interests in the realty of the holder's interest, by filing a caveat against the current owner's title.  In the case of a right in land in the nature of a "mere" permit, because it is not a land interest, the holder is not entitled to register a caveat.  Even if such a holder was able to register a caveat, a subsequent owner would not, in most cases, be bound to recognize the permit holder's rights.


For the purpose of this review, we need to take note of what amounts to a third type of contract or arrangement pertaining to realty which initially results in the creation of rights enforceable between the parties to the contract or arrangement only, with there being no interest in the subject realty being immediately created, but with the contract or arrangement providing for the arising or possibly arising in the future of an interest in the subject realty, depending on whether or not a condition or contingency is fulfilled.  Hereinafter, I will refer to these as "contingent land interests".


An understanding of the difference between a contract or arrangement which immediately creates a land interest, and a contract or arrangement which provides for a contingent land interest can be gleaned from the examination of the elements of an unconditional option to purchase realty, and the elements of what is commonly called a "first right of refusal".  In the case of an unconditional option to purchase, "A", being the owner of a real estate interest, enters into a contract with "B" pursuant to which "B" is given a clear and unequivocal right to choose (within a specified period) to purchase the realty from "A" on clearly specified terms as to payment.  "B" is free to exercise its option to purchase by simply fulfilling its obligations to do so as specified in the contract, typically, to give proper notice of exercise of the option and to pay the purchase and sale price on the specified closing date.  An unconditional option to purchase creates an immediate interest in land which in this example, "B" can immediately caveat by registering notice of the option against "A"'s title.  In the case of a first right of refusal, "A", being the owner of the subject realty, enters into a contract with "B", whereby "A" promises "B" that if and when "A" receives an offer to purchase the subject realty, which "A" is otherwise prepared to accept, "A" will not so accept without first going to "B" and giving "B" a limited period of time within which "B" can choose to either "match" the third party offer which "A" has received (in which case there would arise a binding agreement of sale and purchase between "A" and "B", and, the original third party offer would be at an end), or, "B" can simply "walk away" from the deal and let "A" and its third party offeror conclude their sale and purchase transaction.  No interest in land is created upon the entering into of the first right of refusal contract between "A" and "B", although clearly, if "B" "matches" the third party offer received by "A", then an interest in land would arise in favour of "B" by virtue of the contract of sale and purchase between "A" and "B".  For the purposes of this review, it is important to note that the essential difference between an unconditional option to purchase and a first right of refusal is the fact that in the case of the unconditional option to purchase, immediately upon the entering into of the option contract, "B" has it solely within its power and discretion whether or not to exercise the option and acquire ownership of the subject land.  In other words, "B" has, from the outset, what amounts to "control" over whether or not "B" acquires "A" realty interest.  In the case of the first right of refusal, "B" has no immediate right whatsoever to acquire "A"'s realty interest unless and until a third party presents "A" with a viable (from "A"'s perspective) offer to purchase.  In other words, "B" has no "control" over the situation as there may never be any viable third party offer submitted to "A".


A first right of refusal is a type of contingent land interest.  No land interest is thereby immediately created, and it is possible that no land interest will ever be created.  A land interest will only arise if the specified contingency occurs.

With the foregoing in mind, it is interesting to analyze a number of frequently utilized forms of real estate disposition contracts which may, at first glance, appear to create immediate interests in land, but which in fact, only provide for contingent land interests.  For example, consider the following:

  1. "A" enters into a contract with "B", whereby "A" undertakes to sell and convey ownership of specified realty to "B", with the transaction to close in, say, eight months.  The eight month delay is specified because the transaction cannot be completed unless subdivision approval is given to permit "A" to convey the agreed upon parcel to "B", and indeed, the contract (and the parties' obligations to complete) are specified as being conditional upon subdivision approval being issued within the eight month delay period. This is a sale which cannot occur until a contingency (subdivision approval being issued) is fulfilled, and as such, no immediate interest in the land is created in favour of the purchaser "B".  Accordingly, "B" is not legally entitled to register a caveat against "A"'s title giving notice of "B"'s rights.
  2. "A" enters into a sale agreement with "B" for the sale of "A"'s realty to "B", but the parties' rights and obligations to complete are conditional upon "B" obtaining specified financing to enable it to finance its acquisition.  As in the case of the prior example, a substantial delay period is chosen, say, four months, to enable "B" to get its desired financing.  Whether or not a lender provides the desired financing to "B" is not - at least not entirely - within "B"'s control, so once again, "B" has what amounts to a contingent land interest, at least until it gets its financing.  Would it make any difference if the contract allowed "B" to waive its financing condition? Arguably, the answer would be "yes", and if, at any time within the four month delay period before closing, "B" had unfettered discretion to waive its financing condition, then a strong argument could be made that "B"'s financing condition is not a true contingency (in the context discussed), so that "B" would have an immediately arising interest in the land consequent upon entering into the sale and purchase contract with "A".  Note that in this case, as opposed to the example given in paragraph #1 above, the financing condition is at least potentially "waiveable", whereas in the prior example, neither "A" nor "B" are legally capable of waiving the need for subdivision approval.
  3. "A" enters into an option agreement with "B", whereby "A" agrees that "B" is entitled (at "B"'s choice) to purchase "A"'s realty (on specified terms) if "A" fails to fulfill some specified obligation undertaken by "A" to "B".  Whether or not "A" fulfills its obligation is clearly not within "B"'s control, so no immediate land interest is created.  An example of this sort of an arrangement would be where "B" is a land developer and sells and conveys a subdivision lot to "A", but with "A" undertaking to "B" that "A" will build a building on the lot within a specified time period to certain specifications.  If "A" fails to so build within the specified time limit, "B" has an immediately enforceable option to buy back the land from "A".
  4. "A" grants an option to purchase "A"'s realty to "B" within a specified two year period, but with that two year period not commencing for, say, one year after the option agreement is entered into. "B" does not have control over whether or not it can acquire "A"'s realty until the initial one year period has passed by.  In substance, this is not really a contingent land interest (there is in fact no contingency, as the one year period will inevitably pass by), but it is a like a contingent land interest in that "B" does not have an unequivocal right to acquire the land until after the initial one year period has expired.

In all of the above-described examples, with no immediate interests in land being created, "B" has no legal right to register a caveat against "A" title.  This may come as somewhat of a shock to counsel who have successfully registered caveats against titles where a delayed or contingent land interest only has been created.  In a recent discussion the writer had with a senior Manitoba Land Titles official, he was advised that this no doubt happens because counsel will typically file a caveat which simply describes an "option to purchase" or a "sale and purchase of realty transaction", without referring to the contingency or any delay period which must expire before the grantee (or purchaser) has an unequivocal right (ie, "control") to acquire ownership of the realty interest involved.  It is important to remember that just because the Land Titles Office permits a caveat to be registered, does not, of itself, mean that the caveator has in fact a viable land interest.  Whether or not the caveator has a land interest depends on the application of law, in particular, the common law land principles worked out by the Courts over many years.  A caveat is not an interest or right and does not create interest or right, but merely gives notice of what the caveator alleges is an immediately created land interest.


A question which sometimes arises, is whether or not a person searching an owner's title who sees that the title is subject to a caveat claiming an interest in land, when in fact there is no interest in land, is nevertheless bound (when he, she or it acquires their own interest in the land) to acquire subject to the caveator's rights?  If the person making such search and acquiring an interest from the owner is bound, when in fact no interest in land has been created, then the general rule noted above - that a successor in title to real estate will not be bound by a right which is not a land interest - appears to be subverted.  In other words, can the caveator, by registering (and getting the Land Titles Office to accept for registration) a caveat, thereby bind successors in title in the same manner as would have been the case if the caveated right was in fact an interest in land?  Common sense, and perhaps fairness, would suggest that if the acquiring person knows about the right, he, she or it should be bound by it, and be forced - as a matter of policy - to acquire subject to the caveator's rights.

The Manitoba Court of Appeal decision (Willman and Ducks Unlimited (Canada), October 8, 2004 with judgment having been delivered by Justice Martin Freedman) may provide guidance on this matter.  Mr. Willman owned a parcel of land in southwest Manitoba, and prior to his acquisition of title, Mr. Willman's predecessor owner entered into an arrangement with Ducks Unlimited permitting Ducks Unlimited to enter upon the property and conduct certain measures (including installation of certain facilities) to maintain and enhance the wetlands in and about the property.  Ducks Unlimited had registered notice of its rights under this arrangement against the predecessor's title, and Mr. Willman acquired his title subject to such notice (ie, a caveat).  Mr. Willman took the position that he was not bound by any obligations owed to Ducks Unlimited under the arrangement, and Ducks Unlimited argued that its rights constituted a land interest which was the proper subject matter of a caveat and thus bound Mr. Willman as successor-in-title to the party who had originally contracted with Ducks Unlimited.  Ducks Unlimited attempted to categorize its rights, variously, an easement, a lease and ultimately, a licence which, because it had been granted for value and pursuant to a contract, bound successors-in-title.  The Court held that the arrangement was not an easement, not a lease and it was in fact merely a licence (or a permit) which could not, in law, be magically transformed into a land interest by agreement between the parties and bind successors-in-title.  Mr. Willman was not bound and for our purposes, it is significant to note that he was not bound even though he had ample notice of the arrangement and its terms.  Not only was Ducks Unlimited's caveat on title when Mr. Willman acquired ownership, but also Mr. Willman had been provided with copies of the documentation comprising the Ducks Unlimited arrangement at the time he acquired ownership.  In fact, the Land Titles Office was in error when it accepted Ducks Unlimited's caveat and registered it.  In other words, if your arrangement is not an interest in land, but you somehow are able to get the Land Titles Office to register notice of your right, the fact that the notice has been registered does not, of itself, convert a non-land interest into a land interest.


Alert counsel may attempt to circumvent the somewhat restrictive rules on what does - and does not - bind title successors, by requiring a land owner granting a licence or permit to undertake to the grantee that the grantor will cause its successor-in-title to undertake to be bound in writing to the grantee (and its successors and assigns), with the proviso that the new owner, and indeed, each successive owner, is obligated to get the next succeeding owner to so bind itself to the grantee.  As long as the successive owners comply with this undertaking, the grantee will essentially have the same ability to enforce its rights against successive owners as if he had a land interest, and without filing any notice or caveat against the title.  Of course the problem with this solution is that if any one of the successive land owners (for that matter, including the very first one) fails to fulfill its undertaking, the next succeeding owner will not (at least not likely) be bound under the licence or permit.

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