Webster v. Webster Estate – Limitation Periods and Equalization Payments: When is it too Late?
Limitation provisions generally aim to strike the appropriate balance between an aggrieved party’s right to seek redress and a potential defendant’s right not to remain under the cloud of litigation indefinitely or to answer for a wrong where it has become difficult, if not impossible, to marshal the evidence.
The case of Webster v. Webster Estate , a recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, attracted notoriety in the media, as the Webster family is well known in Montreal and the world of philanthropy. The case is interesting to read given the amount of money at stake and the family dynamics. The case also deals with limitation periods in the estate context. Today, I will discuss the facts. Tomorrow, I will discuss the law and the court’s decision.
By way of background, Mr. & Mrs Webster were married for 29 years. It was a second marriage for both parties. Mrs. Webster was a devoted wife. Mr. & Mrs. Webster gave generously to their community. They lived happily ever after until Mr. Webster’s death on October 11, 2003. Mr. Webster was 87 years old when he died. Mrs. Webster was then 81 years old.
Mr. Webster’s estate was valued at around $24 million. Mrs. Webster was provided for under the terms of the Will, but the bulk of the Estate was left to the Eric T. Webster Foundation. Unfortunately, since the death of her husband, Mrs. Webster developed Alzheimer’s disease, which had progressed to the point where she was unable to testify as a witness in the proceeding.
The Will appointed four Estate Trustees of the Estate including Mrs. Webster and her son by her first marriage, who was also Mrs. Webster’s legal representative and the step-son of Mr. Webster.
In Ontario, when a spouse dies with a Will, the surviving spouse may elect to take the benefits bestowed under the Will, or seek the equalization of net family property from the estate as calculated under the provisions of the Family Law Act.
An application for an equalization payment must be brought within six months of the first spouse’s death, otherwise the surviving spouse is deemed to have chosen to take under the Will.
Mrs. Webster did not file an election within the prescribed six months. This meant that she could no longer elect to equalize their net family property. However, Mrs. Webster and her son both alleged that they were unaware of any right to elect to receive an equalization payment under the Family Law Act in the six months following Mr. Webster’s death. Mrs. Webster therefore sought an order extending the time within which she could file an election to make an equalization claim from the Estate of her deceased husband.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Webster, and her son who ultimately spearheaded the proceeding, they did not receive a sympathetic hearing from the court. Tomorrow I will consider the law and the court’s decision. Stay tuned.
Have a great day.
Justin de Vries