Section 2(4) of the Substitute Decisions Act: Releases and Reverse Onuses
Under the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (“SDA”), if a person is eighteen years of age or more, there is a presumption of capacity. However, pursuant to section 2(4) of the SDA, if a gift, or contract is made by a person either while the person’s property is under guardianship, or within one year before the guardianship is established, the onus shifts to the other person to prove that they did not have reasonable grounds to believe the person incapable.
In the recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (Divisional Court), Foisey v Green, the Court provides clarification on the correct test to be applied under section 2(4).
In Foisey v Green, Ms. Foisey and Ms. Green were the co-beneficiaries of their brother’s estate, who had died intestate. Ms. Foisey and Ms. Green had been estranged for many years, however, through the use of a private investigator, Ms. Green was able to locate her sister at a retirement residence in Ontario. Ms. Green then met with her sister and arranged for legal representation. Ms. Foisey ultimately renounced her right to act as estate trustee of her brother’s estate and when the time came to distribute the assets of the estate, Ms. Foisey provided Ms. Green with a release.
Shortly after having provided the release, Ms. Foisey was found to be incapable of managing her own property, and the Public Guardian and Trustee (“PGT”) was appointed as her guardian of property. The PGT became concerned that Ms. Foisey had received significantly less than what was supposed to be a 50% share in the estate. The PGT made repeated inquiries for more information from Ms. Green and her counsel, but received little to no response. In result, the PGT brought an application seeking to compel Ms. Green to pass her accounts.
In applying section 2(4) of the SDA, the application judge concluded that because of the existence of red flags, Ms. Green had not satisfied that she did not have reasonable grounds to believe Ms. Foisey was incapable when she signed the release. The red flags identified by the application judge included the fact that Ms. Foisey had a long-standing mental illness, that Ms. Foisey lived in a retirement residence, that Ms. Foisey was part of a trusteeship program and that Ms. Green and her lawyer had failed to provide the PGT with any information to satisfy their concerns. For these reasons, the application judge ordered Ms. Foisey to pass her accounts.
On appeal, the Divisional Court held that the “red flags” test applied by the application judge was the incorrect test to apply, because in doing so, the judge failed to consider the extent to which each red flag was known by Ms. Green, and whether Ms. Green had reasonable grounds to believe that Ms. Foisey was incapable of providing the release.
The Divisional Court examined the meaning of “reasonable grounds to believe” looking to jurisprudence and dictionary definitions, concluding that it means a reasonable probability, or that there be an objective basis for the belief which is based on compelling and credible information.
The Divisional Court went on to hold that when assessing whether a person has capacity to enter into a contract, at the time of entering into the contract, they must understand the information relevant to deciding whether or not to enter into the contract. If they can do this, you must further ask if the person can appreciate the reasonably foreseeable consequences of entering into the contract.
After laying out the framework of section 2(4), the Divisional Court went on to consider the red flags identified by the application judge, holding that:
- there was no evidence to suggest Ms. Green knew of her sister’s mental illness,
- no one from the retirement residence suggested that Ms. Foisey was incapable,
- Green had spoken with the case manager of the trusteeship program and had not been told that Ms. Foisey had severe mental health difficulties,
- There was evidence from Ms. Green’s lawyer that Ms. Foisey had legal representation, and appeared to be lucid and understood the release that was properly explained to her by counsel. The Court further acknowledged that a person who suffers from a cognitive impairment is competent with respect to a specific act as long as the act in question takes pace during a lucid interval.
On balance, the Divisional Court concluded that the application judge erred in pointing to “red flags” without addressing what was actually known by Ms. Green, and whether or not that knowledge would lead to reasonable grounds to believe that Ms. Foisey lacked capacity to enter into the release. The Court noted that the most alarming of red flags was the failure of Ms. Green and her lawyer to provide the PGT with information to address his concerns. However, the Court found that the lack of cooperation of Ms. Green and her counsel was not relevant to whether or not Ms. Green had reasonable grounds to believe Ms. Foisey incapable, and, it occurred many months after the execution of the release.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that there is nothing inherently unusual or sinister about an estate trustee requesting a release from a beneficiary – such releases have been commonly used by estate trustees for decades.
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