Wills, Divorce and Tying Up Loose Ends
In Ontario, by reason of s. 17(2) of the Succession Law Reform Act, if a testator’s marriage is terminated by a judgment absolute of divorce or is declared a nullity, any devise or bequest to his or her former spouse, any appointment of his or her former spouse as estate trustee, or any grant of a power of appointment to his or her former spouse is revoked, and the will is to be construed as if the former spouse had predeceased the testator.
This is subject to a contrary intention appearing in the will.
This provision was enacted in 1974. Prior to that, bequests to a former spouse remained valid until the testator made a new will, revoked the will, or remarried. (S. 16 of the SLRA provides that a will is revoked by marriage, subject to certain exceptions.)
In Page Estate v. Sachs (H.C.J.), 1990 CanLII 6903, the court had to grapple with the question of the retrospective application of this section. There, the testator made a will in 1968. The will gave the estate to the testator’s spouse. The testator and his spouse were divorced in 1974. The testator died in 1986. The question for the court was whether s. 17(2) would apply in those circumstances.
The court found that s. 17(2) has retrospective application. The gift to the spouse was revoked. The testator’s estate was distributed as if the former spouse had predeceased.
In the decision, the judge quoted from the “Report On The Impact of Divorce on Existing Wills” by the Ontario Law Reform Commission. It was said that s. 17(2) “represents remedial reform legislation in aid of those former spouses who neglect to alter their wills following a divorce and thereby bestowed upon their former spouse unintended windfall benefits.” The judge went on to observe that the section “simply asserts the finality which a decree absolute renders to the relationship and status of the former spouses and ties up any inadvertent loose ends which could resurrect the spousal status.”
Note that the provision only comes into play where there is a divorce or the marriage is declared a nullity. Separated spouses should “tie up any loose ends” and ensure that they consider revising their will upon separation. My first exposure to estates law involved a matter where a wife moved to divorce her husband. The husband was so irate that he vowed that she would not get anything from him in the divorce, and committed suicide. He did not revise his will. As a divorce had not yet been granted, his entire estate passed to his wife, which was clearly contrary to his intentions.
Don’t leave your ends loose.