How Generous may an Attorney for Property Be?
Section 31 of the Substitute Decisions Act (“SDA”) states that an attorney for property “has power to do on the incapable person’s behalf anything in respect of property that the person could do if capable, except make a will.” An attorney for property also has the power to make gifts and loans to the grantor’s family and friends, as well as charitable gifts (SDA s37(3)).
There are strict limits, however, to how generous an attorney may be. The SDA includes guiding principles with respect to making gifts: the attorney cannot deplete the grantor’s property to the extent that there may not be enough to satisfy the needs of the grantor him or herself, during the grantor’s lifetime. The gifts or loans must also only be made if the attorney has a reason to believe, based on any expression the grantor might have made while capable, that the grantor would have made these gifts or loans if capable. Charitable gifts have further restrictions.
In addition to the prohibition against making a will, an attorney for property has an obligation to find and read the grantor’s will (SDA s33.1). Unless necessary to perform one’s duties to the incapable person, the attorney must not dispose of property subject to a specific testamentary gift, although this prohibition does not apply to a testamentary gift of money (SDA s35.1). The court highlighted the importance of the will in Weinstein v. Weinstein (Litigation Guardian of), stating obiter that s 33.1 of the SDA is “indicative of the importance the legislators attach, appropriately, to the will of an incapable person, in view of the permanent character of the will if the incapable person does not regain capacity.” Taken together, these provisions can be read to support the proposition that an attorney does not have the authority to dispose of assets in a way that undermines the grantor’s estates plan.
The case law on the subject of an attorney’s ability to make gifts is limited. Moreover, the cases largely deal with relatively small gifts. While not directly related to the issue of gifts made by an attorney on behalf of a grantor, the court in Banton v Banton held that it is improper for an attorney to deprive the grantor of his or her testamentary freedom by making inter vivos transfers. The attorneys in this case made a large transfer to a trust to protect the grantor from a predatory marriage, which is both allowed and an appropriate action for an attorney to take. However, the secondary beneficiaries of the trust were the grantor’s children, which the court held functioned as a will substitute, which is an inappropriate use of the power of attorney.
In summary, gifting must be done carefully and in a manner that would survive judicial scrutiny. An attorney should not make gifts if they represent so large a proportion of the estate that the attorney has substituted the testamentary intentions of the grantor with their own discretion. An attorney should also not make any gifts if the grantor was not in the habit of making gifts to friends and family or had expressed a contrary intention while capable.
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