This case turned upon the question of whether the notary public had a duty to make further inquiries to determine the residency of the seller and whether that duty was breached. In the decision, Justice Affleck stated “In my view the defendants agreed to make the “reasonable inquiry” ... but failed to do so, and failed to advise the plaintiffs of their potential tax liability.” Ultimately Justice Affleck found the notary public liable to the buyers for the full amount of the capital gains tax triggered by the sale of the property.
The law is clear that buyers are required to be diligent and make reasonable inquiries...
The law is clear that buyers are required to be diligent and make reasonable inquiries to ascertain the tax residency status of sellers.1 If the buyer fails to make reasonable inquiries, the buyer, and his or her agent, can be assessed for the entirety of the capital gains tax.
Conducting fulsome due diligence at the outset of a real estate transaction cannot be disregarded, as the penalties for failing to do so can be significant. It is now possible that a court could find that Notaries public and real estate duties to go beyond general inquiries and determine whether there are any potential liabilities for their clients. This duty puts the onus on both buyers and their agents and representatives to ensure specific inquiries are made that previous to this decision, would have been expected only from a lawyer.
Determining the residency status of the seller should be completed well before the closing date and should go beyond a simple conversation. It would be prudent for buyers and their agents to request that evidence of the seller’s residency status be a condition of the purchase. Alternatively, agents should also consider a clause in their retainer agreement releasing the agent of all liability associated with any unpaid taxes after “reasonable inquiries” have been made. The problem with this is that the purchaser, the party in the transaction who should be held at the lowest possible standard when it comes to assessing risk, would still remain liable to CRA for the unpaid taxes. While buyers are able to withhold a portion of the purchase price in situations where the seller is known to be a non-resident, an avenue to withhold part of the purchase price when the seller’s residency is unknown should be adopted as well.
Whether you are an agent or a buyer, the bottom line in buying real estate in Canada is to take extra precautions when purchasing from a non-resident. Be certain to ascertain the legal residency status of sellers prior to the closing date.
1 Income Tax Act R.S.C., 1985, c.1, s. 116(5)