O Brother, Where Art Thou? Benjamin Orders
A testator provided in her will that a share of the residue of her estate was to go to three of the testator’s brothers. If any one of them predeceased the testator, their share would go to two nieces of the deceased.
The testator was predeceased by two of her brothers. A third could not be located. What was the estate trustee to do?
This question was addressed in the July 27, 2018 decision of Steele v. Smith, 2018 ONSC 4601 (CanLII). There, the Public Guardian and Trustee suggested that the share payable to the missing brother be paid into court, and that further efforts be taken to locate him. The estate trustee, on the other hand, asked the court for a “Benjamin Order”, allowing him to distribute the estate as if the missing brother had predeceased the testator.
The court reviewed the history of the Benjamin Order. The Order derives from the case of Neville v. Benjamin,  1 Ch. 723. There, the deceased was survived by twelve children. A thirteenth disappeared while on vacation, and after it was suspected that he had stolen money from his employer. The court held that the burden was on the missing person’s administrator (or those claiming through him) to prove that the missing person had survived the deceased. In Benjamin, the burden was not met, and the estate was allowed to be distributed as if the missing person had predeceased.
Benjamin Orders are rare, and not easy to obtain. The court will consider the “sufficiency” of the inquiries made by the estate trustee. In considering this, the court will look for information about:
- How much time has elapsed since the death of the testator?
- What specific steps have been taken to locate the missing person, and over what period of time?
- Who has made the inquiries? Are they appropriately qualified?
- Do the inquiries take into account consideration of the possible location of the missing person?
- Are further inquiries likely to produce any more information?
- What is the amount at state?
In Steele v. Smith, the estate trustee is said to have gone to “extensive lengths” to determine the missing brother’s location in the eighteen months since the testator’s death. The court held that the estate trustee had exhausted all available avenues of inquiry, and that there was no evidence that further efforts would yield positive results. Further, there was no reason why the missing brother would choose not to be found. Unfortunately, the value of the share of the residue in issue is not disclosed in the decision.
The court ordered that the estate trustee was at liberty to distribute the estate as if the missing brother did not survive the testator.
One of the benefits of a Benjamin Order is that it gives protection to the estate trustee. If the missing brother later appeared, he would have no claim as against the estate trustee. However, he may have a claim as against the beneficiaries who benefitted from the Order.
Thank you for reading.