Be Careful When Holding Back (or Not Holding Back)
The recent decision of Muth Estate, 2019 ABQB 922, a decision of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, is a cautionary tale (and a scary one, at that) for estate trustees when distributing an estate.
There, the estate trustee distributed the estate to herself and other beneficiaries of an estate, subject to a holdback. The holdback was insufficient to satisfy amounts owing to CRA. The estate trustee then brought an application for an order requiring that the beneficiaries indemnify her for the amounts owing to CRA.
The estate trustee moved for summary judgment. Summary judgment was denied. The court found that the respondent beneficiaries had no obligation to indemnify the estate trustee.
As background, the estate trustee retained an accountant to prepare estate tax returns. The accountant advised that a holdback of $25,000 was sufficient. The estate trustee therefore held back $25,000, and distributed the balance of the estate. Unfortunately, that accountant did not file the required returns. A second accountant then completed the returns. The tax owing and the second accountant’s invoice totalled $60,772.19. The estate trustee paid this amount, and sought indemnification from the beneficiaries for their share of this amount.
(Query: Whether the estate trustee would have a claim against the first accountant?)
Of note, when making the distributions, the estate trustee could have but did not ask the beneficiaries to provide an indemnity.
The court held that the Income Tax Act imposed personal liability on the estate trustee for unpaid taxes where a clearance certificate is not obtained.
The court went on to find that one of the duties of an estate trustee is to file tax returns and pay taxes owing. As the estate trustee breached her duties, she was not entitled to an indemnity. Relief may have been available if it was the beneficiaries who instigated or requested the breach. However, this was not the case.
The natural corollary of that principle [breach of trust at instigation of beneficiaries] is that if the beneficiaries did not instigate or request the breach, they cannot be obligated to indemnify the trustee. In a fiduciary relationship such as that between a trustee and a beneficiary, the logic of that corollary is that as between the two parties, one who had the obligation to perform the duty and failed and one who had neither the obligation nor the means to satisfy it, it is the former who should bear the consequences of the action or inaction.
Interestingly, the judge dismissed the estate trustee’s motion for summary judgment, but, notwithstanding the finding that the beneficiaries were under no obligation to indemnify the estate trustee, did not dismiss the proceeding. The beneficiaries did not ask for this relief. The matter was therefore allowed to proceed. However, the estate trustee was warned that “if she continues with the lawsuit, she may face a significant costs award if another judge comes to the same conclusion at the end of the suit.”
Thank you for reading.