Contracting Out of Statutory Entitlements?
As an estate planning tool, legal and financial advisors often impress upon their clients the benefits of designating beneficiaries of certain instruments such as RRSPs, TFSAs, and life insurance policies. In the absence of a beneficiary designation, the proceeds will fall into the estate and attract Estate Administration Tax and be available to creditors of the Deceased, possibly thwarting the objectives of the estate plan.
Pensions, however, are a special case. Like Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, section 48(7) of the Pension Benefits Act is remedial in nature and contemplates the necessity to provide safeguards for surviving spouses, including common law spouses. In short, if a beneficiary is not designated on the death of a member of a pension plan, the proceeds do not fall into the estate; rather, the surviving spouse is entitled to the asset.
But what if the spouses have entered into a cohabitation agreement prior to the relationship? What kind of language will suffice to contract out of this statutory entitlement if the pension plan member had not designated a beneficiary during his or her lifetime?
In Burgess v. Burgess Estate, the Ontario Court of Appeal considered whether a former wife of the deceased was entitled to receive all of the benefit available under the deceased’s deferred profit sharing plan for which she was the sole designated beneficiary, or whether she was entitled only to one-half of the benefit in accordance with the parties’ separation agreement, which read as follows:
“Except as specifically provided, neither the Husband nor the Wife will make a claim to a share in any pension of the other, including but not limited to any company pension plans, registered retirement savings plans and registered home ownership plans, provided that the Wife shall be entitled to one-half of the benefits under the Husband’s deferred profit sharing plan.” (emphasis added)
As a result of the express and specific wording of the separation agreement, the Court concluded that the former wife was restricted to receiving half of the benefit.
Following the principle in Burgess, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Conway v. Conway Estate, concluded that the separated spouse in similar circumstances was entitled to receive the pension benefit when there was no express reference in the Separation Agreement precluding her entitlement:
“…there is no provision like the one in Burgess. There is no express term which has the effect of revoking the designation of [the separated spouse] as beneficiary of the pension benefit or precluding her from receiving the benefit as beneficiary.” (emphasis added) (at para. 26)
Accordingly, having regard to the foregoing authorities, in order for a spouse to contract out of a benefit, the Court would appear to require specific and express language to such effect. A general release will not be sufficient.
It is a nice question whether a statutory entitlement under the Pension Benefits Act is to be considered as being in exactly the same category as a beneficiary designation. Certainly the plan which passes to the recipient is the same in either case and, arguably, the hurdle for contracting out of a statutory entitlement may be higher as compared to a beneficiary designation. In any event, the caselaw should be equally applicable to either situation
Thanks for reading,
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