Conner Estate: Will Drafting Errors and Rectification
An oft-repeated maxim of equity is that “equity regards substance rather than form”. Just outcomes, it is thought, should not be frustrated by mere technical shortcomings or other superficial flaws. However, in applying this principle, courts are mindful not to neglect form in every case or to too great an extent, lest legal drafting becomes slipshod and legal results unpredictable.
A recent British Columbia decision dealt with, in part, the dichotomy of form and substance in the context of will drafting errors. In Conner Estate v. Worthing, there were three patent errors on the face of the deceased’s will: (1) the will provided for 150% of the sale proceeds of the deceased’s house, owing to, seemingly, a mathematical error (50% given to the husband, 20% to five others); (2) the residue was gifted twice, once to the husband and once to the children; and (3) several lines appeared to have been missing. While the court acknowledged that it was generally barred from adding words to erroneous wills (though it had the power to delete words), it found that this case was an exception to the rule, for the deceased’s intentions could be clearly ascertained from the extrinsic evidence – the solicitor’s notes and the deceased’s letter of instructions – and the solicitor was responsible for the errors:
“While the exception to the prohibition against adding words on an application to rectify a will at the court of probate stage in Moiny Estate is extremely narrow, I conclude that the facts in this case fit within that narrow exception. Ms. Conner’s stated intentions should not fail simply because her solicitor failed to draft her will in a manner that gave effect to her wishes.”
A similar result likely would have been reached in Ontario, where it has long been held that in matters of “equivocation” – when the words in a will apply to two or more persons – courts can look to extrinsic evidence to infer a testator’s actual intention. If a will is not equivocal, and the testamentary intention can be discerned in the will, the courts cannot examine extrinsic evidence – and whatever the substance, the form will prevail.
As we have previously written, the courts may be hindered from rectifying drafting errors in scenarios where the errors are subtle and there is little extrinsic evidence of true testamentary intention. It is important, therefore, for both drafting solicitors and testators to carefully review their wills before executing them, and to watch out, in particular, for those minor errors which may burn while emitting no smoke.
Thank you for reading!
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry.