Equality and the Debate Over Statutory Wills
Amidst this terrible COVID-19 pandemic, as with past crises and other contentious affairs, we see the steady emergence of dichotomies in the policy debate – public health versus the economy, liberty versus protection, individual versus group interests … In some cases, however, we see disputes arise wherein two sides share the same source of inspiration but disagree upon how best to do justice to their ostensibly common cause. Many of history’s religious wars demonstrate this phenomenon – two factions purportedly fighting for the same god, but interpreting the god rather differently. In the context of estates law, this phenomenon is discernible in the commentary surrounding statutory wills in Canada: proponents of statutory wills want to incorporate them in our law out of concern for incapable people’s equality rights, while critics of statutory wills oppose their introduction out of concern for incapable people’s equality rights.
A statutory will, in essence, allows for a judge to execute, revoke or amend a testamentary instrument on behalf of an incapable person. They are often praised for their tax advantages, as they may include testamentary trusts and other tax-avoiding instruments (avoid not evade, an important distinction for the C.R.A.) that are not available to incapable people if their estates devolve under intestacies. The drafter of a statutory will may also arrange a statutory will in a manner that will tend to preserve the affection of an incapable person’s relatives – no spurned children or blindsided spouses, in other words.
There is more controversy with respect to whether statutory wills should be used to “protect”. In one prominent English case, Re Davey,  3 AII E.R. 342, a 92-year-old incapable woman, who was residing in a nursing home, married one the nursing home’s employees, a man 45 years her junior. The woman’s relatives, alarmed at the prospect of the man gaining everything on an intestacy, applied to the court for a statutory will, and won.
Critics of statutory wills observe that since courts cannot interfere with the testamentary freedom of the capable, they should not have the power to commandeer and transform the estate plans of the incapable. Perhaps, as well, skeptics are wary of variable outcomes (i.e. how judges will devise statutory wills), which may flow from what they may perceive as an excess of judicial discretion – unlike an intestacy, the terms of which are definite and predictable; a similar debate is often had with respect to minimum sentences in criminal law, which boils down to, as with statutory wills, how one balances trust for legislators with trust for judicial discretion, to achieve the best results.
In Canada, only New Brunswick has a statutory will. Section 11.1 of the New Brunswick Infirm Persons Act emphasises that courts must act in concert with what incapable people would want, if competent to make a will themselves. In somewhat of a legal bombshell, however, the Manitoba Law Reform Commission has favoured the adoption of a statutory will in Manitoba’s Wills Act.
Thank you for reading … have a wonderful Wednesday!
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Devin McMurtry