British Columbia

Family refused access to suite after Vancouver tenant's sudden death

George Shaw had lived in his West End apartment little more than a month when he died suddenly on Jan. 1. He had no will and had not named an executor.

George Shaw's estate was thrown into limbo when he died suddenly in January with no will or executor

George Shaw had no will or executor when he passed away suddenly in January. His estate, which is valued somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000, represents a grey area, with family members advised not to administer it due to its low value, despite wanting to retrieve some of his personal effects. (Patricia Langedock)

Like so many Vancouverites, George Shaw was a renter.

Originally from Ottawa, the 42-year-old relocated to the Lower Mainland to work as a grip on film and television productions, occasionally crossing paths with the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Nicolas Cage and Russell Brand.

In November, he signed the lease to an apartment at 1160 Haro St. in the city's West End. He had lived there little more than a month when he died suddenly on Jan. 1.

Shaw's elder sister Patricia Langedock found out about his death the next day from his wife, from whom he had recently separated. 

But Langedock, 43, says she was caught off guard more than three weeks later when Hollyburn Properties Ltd., which manages the building where Shaw lived, called her in Ontario to ask why his suite had not yet been cleared out. 

Hollyburn Properties disputes this version of events, saying a property manager called Langedock to "inform her of the process of becoming an administrator of the estate, which is required in order for Hollyburn to legally allow access to Mr. Shaw's apartment."

"I had no idea what [Hollyburn] was talking about," said Langedock, who was listed as Shaw's emergency contact.

She says she arrived in Vancouver and only then learned that she could not access Shaw's suite because she had not applied to administer his estate.

Hollyburn Properties again disputes this timeline, saying Langedock was told on Jan. 27 she could not legally access Shaw's suite unless she applied to serve as the administrator of his estate.

In an email, the company provided a link to a B.C. government web page about wills and estates, and told the family it would "pack George's personal items and store them on site."

The obstacles Shaw's family faced accessing his belongings highlight a little-known grey area in B.C. law when dealing with the estate of tenants who have passed away.

Langedock, who says her brother struggled with addiction issues and had separated from his wife while he was in rehab, says he had no will or executor when he passed, and that his estate is valued somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000.

She says the family was advised against applying to become its administrator for fear it would be too cumbersome and costly. 

In her response to Hollyburn's Jan. 27 email, Langedock told the company she would "not be seeking administrator status," and that she believed Shaw's belongings "[carried] no sentimental value."

Several weeks after the fact, however, she says she misspoke.

The family now says access to Shaw's suite would help them achieve closure. They are asking Hollyburn to grant them permission to retrieve some of his old possessions.

"We were going to donate all of his furniture to his rehab centre and maybe take, like, a couple of shirts and shoes and hats in memory of him," said Langedock, noting that her brother was an avid streetwear collector.

"To them, it's nothing — to us, it's just a little something to remember him."

CBC submitted repeated requests to interview Hollyburn Properties about Shaw's rental.

In a statement, the company expressed its "heartfelt condolences" to the family, writing it is "doing [its] best to help them navigate the situation."

"Hollyburn has not been provided the legal documentation required to allow access to the unit which would name the administrator of the estate or executor of the will. As soon as the documentation is received, Hollyburn will allow the granted administrator access to the suite."

George Shaw's sister Patricia, right, says she was 'caught off guard' when Hollyburn Properties called to ask why she hadn't cleared out her dead brother's suite. Several weeks later, she says, the company is refusing to let her into the apartment because she had not applied to be the administrator of Shaw's estate. (CBC/Hugo Belanger)

'The greyest of all zones'

One residential tenancy advocate independent from the family's case tells CBC it's "probably the greyest of all zones."

"A tenant's family and next of kin has a reasonable expectation to want some of their belongings," said Robert Patterson, lawyer and legal advocate with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre. "At the same time, a landlord might have significant concerns about giving property that belongs to an estate to somebody who isn't a representative."

B.C.'s Wills, Estates and Succession Act establishes that spouses, kids and family members may step forward to administer an estate when someone passes away without a will.

In the instance where nobody comes forward, the court can appoint a public guardian and trustee, pending application. Smaller estates, such as Shaw's, however, may often be left to stagnate due to a lack of monetary incentive.

"With a small estate, being an executor may seem like a high-risk, low-reward prospect," explained Patterson. Executors are often saddled with obligations, for instance, and may be held liable if done incorrectly. This can include paying for the deceased's debts, including taxes owed.

Shaw's family members, meanwhile, acknowledge that the rules are important but hope they can retrieve some of his belongings without administering his estate.

"It's a big pile of garbage," said Keith Langedock, 42, referring to the family's inability to access his brother-in-law's belongings.

"Some rules are meant to be bent."

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated from its original version to include additional comments from Hollyburn Properties.
    Feb 17, 2021 6:15 PM PT

With files from Belle Puri

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