Pet Trusts, Charitable Bequests, and Will Challenges
I recently came across this article on the Financial Times Adviser discussing estate litigation in the UK in general, and, in particular, a situation relating to the estate of Tracey Leaning. I thought the article was interesting as it touched upon a couple of topics that raised some thought-provoking points for me.
To briefly summarize, Ms. Leaning died in 2015 leaving a Will which provided that her entire estate was to be transferred to her partner, Richard, on the condition that he look after her three dogs. However, she had also made a prior Will leaving her entire estate to four charities. Somehow, the charities learned that, while they had previously been included as beneficiaries of Ms. Leaning’s estate, her last Will did not gift anything to them. They wrote to Richard to advise him that they intended to challenge the later Will. According to the article, it is not clear whether any proceedings have yet been commenced by the charities.
The first thing I wanted to touch on was the “pet trust” aspect of this situation. This topic was recently discussed in a paper by Jenny Pho of Dale & Lessmann LLP for the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Practice Gems: Probate Essentials program on September 29, 2017. The arrangement made by Ms. Leaning appears to be in the form of a cash legacy to a pet guardian, namely Richard, together with the condition precedent that Richard take care of her dogs. Generally this option for leaving money for the care of one’s pets would only be recommended if the testator trusts the chosen pet guardian to properly care for the pets, as once the funds have been bequeathed to the pet guardian, the testator loses control over how the funds can be used.
In this particular situation, Ms. Leaning not only left a specific legacy to Richard, but rather her entire estate. It is likely that, in doing so, she did not intend that her entire estate be used solely for the care of her dogs, but rather, she put her trust in Richard to care for the dogs generally, using funds from her estate as needed. According to the article, Ms. Leaning’s later Will had been prepared by Ms. Leaning herself, without seeking legal advice. However, had she not had a trusted individual to care for the dogs, the pet trust arrangements would likely have been much more complicated, and may have required legal advice in order to properly implement.
Secondly, I also found one of the alleged bases for the charities’ challenge to Ms. Leaning’s will interesting. As noted above, Ms. Leaning had allegedly prepared her later Will herself, without seeking legal advice. Additionally, the signature page of the Will, which had been stapled to the remaining pages, had apparently become detached, leading to questions as to whether there had been any additional pages that were missing at the time of Ms. Leaning’s death. If such a situation arose in Ontario, it’s not clear what the ultimate outcome would be. If the court could not determine how the Will should be interpreted based on the available pages of the Will itself, it could also consider indirect extrinsic circumstances that were known to the testator at the time the Will was made. However, as it is ultimately a question of interpretation, it would likely be up to the court to decide whether, taking all the facts into consideration, it is satisfied that the Will is complete and should govern the distribution of Ms. Leaning’s estate.
Had Ms. Leaning sought legal advice and assistance with respect to the preparation of her Will, this question would likely have been avoided by the standard use of simple page numbering to indicate that all pages are present and accounted for.
Thanks for reading,
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