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Constructive Trusts in the Context of Mutual Wills

Mutual wills are a common tool used by two (or more) people who wish to preserve a will (or specific provisions thereunder) by entering into an agreement to avoid future changes. This is a particularly useful tool in blended families where partners have children from prior relationships, and both want to ensure that their children are equally provided for post-death.

The requirements for an application of the doctrine of mutual wills are three-fold: (1) there must be an agreement between the individuals who made the wills, which amounts to a contract; (2) the agreement must be proven by clear and satisfactory evidence; and (3) it must include an agreement not to revoke wills.

Once one of the parties to a mutual will agreement dies, the survivor is then bound by that agreement not to revoke his or her will. Typically, we see mutual wills cases arising after the death of both spouses, once it is discovered that the surviving spouse drafted a new will in breach of their mutual will agreement or disposed of assets contrary to their agreement.

The recent case of Nelson v Trottier grappled with a novel issue with respect to mutual wills: whether, in light of the existence of a mutual wills agreement, beneficiaries to a survivor’s estate could claim a constructive trust over her assets while she was still alive.

The applicants in this case were the deceased’s children. They were not beneficiaries under their father Bill’s will, but were beneficiaries under his wife Huguette’s will. After making a donation in Bill’s honour, the applicants sought, among other things, a declaration imposing a constructive trust over Huguette’s assets and preventing her from gifting property without further order of the court or the consent of the applicants.

After establishing that a mutual wills agreement existed between Bill and Huguette, the court then examined when a constructive trust is established. In deciding this issue, Justice Pattillo stated,

“in circumstances where one of the parties to a mutual wills agreement has died, however, and based on the nature of a mutual wills agreement and the purpose of imposing a constructive trust in respect of such agreement, it is my view that a constructive trust does not arise until either the survivor dies or earlier, in the event there has been a breach of the agreement by the survivor”

Since Huguette was still alive, the question became whether she had breached the mutual wills agreement by making the donation in Bill’s honour. Justice Pattillo ultimately found that Huguette had not breached the mutual wills agreement. His reasons included that the agreement provided that both Bill and Huguette would give the survivor all of their property absolutely and that the surviving spouse could deal with the property as absolute owner while alive (which includes the ability to make gifts).

Interestingly, Justice Pattillo acknowledged that the mutual wills agreement stipulated that the survivor could not dispose of “substantial” portions of the property received during his or her lifetime in order to defeat the agreement; however, he did not find that the donation given to be “substantial” in comparison to the size of the estate.

The application seeking, among other things, a declaration that there was a constructive trust over Huguette’s assets, was ultimately dismissed.

Thank you for reading!

Christina Canestraro