Gathering Evidence for a Will Challenge
Earlier this year, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta directed that a party challenging a will may be able to obtain orders for disclosure before the Court determines whether the will must be proven in solemn form.
This case may be of interest in Ontario because the procedure for commencing a will challenge in Alberta and Ontario is relatively similar. If a party in either province wishes to challenge a will, that party must establish an evidentiary basis for doing so before a hearing will be ordered. In Ontario, the requirement to provide a “minimal evidentiary threshold” before a will must be proven in solemn form was reiterated by the Court of Appeal in Neuberger v. York, 2016 ONCA 191 (CanLII). The standard is worded differently in Alberta, where applicants must provide an evidentiary foundation to confirm that there is a “genuine issue to be tried” before the hearing of a will challenge will be ordered: see Quaintance v Quaintance (Estate), 2006 ABCA 47 (CanLII) and Logan Estate (Re), 2021 ABCA 6 (CanLII).
Evidence a party challenging a will in Alberta may obtain before a hearing is ordered:
In Gow Estate (Re), 2021 ABQB 305 (CanLII), the will dispute was between four of the deceased’s children. Two siblings were serving as the personal representatives of the estate, and two other siblings applied to challenge the deceased’s will on several bases, including undue influence. The personal representatives opposed the applicants’ request that the will be proven in solemn form.
The applicants also applied to the court for interim relief – an order that would permit them to question the personal representatives and obtain documentary disclosure, including the estate solicitors’ files, the deceased’s medical records and driver’s licence documents, previous wills, and other estate planning records, before the “threshold” application was heard. The personal representatives objected to the interim relief sought by the applicants on the basis that Alberta’s Surrogate Rules did not permit pre-application discovery and also argued that the testator’s privacy was to be respected unless the applicants proved that formal proof of the will was warranted in the circumstances.
Before the interim application was heard, the personal representatives also provided the applicant siblings with partial disclosure relating to the testator’s health, testamentary capacity and intentions, and estate planning, and also examined one of the applicant siblings in anticipation of the threshold application.
The interim application was heard by Justice Feth, who permitted both questioning and limited documentary disclosure, recognizing “the importance of early disclosure in surrogate disputes”. With respect to questioning, the Court confirmed that the personal representatives could be questioned “about their personal interactions with the testator during his lifetime, including their observations of his mental capacity and their involvement in his testamentary decision-making.” Justice Feth explained:
 Access to pre-application questioning advances procedural fairness since the Applicants are obligated to meet an evidentiary burden and obtain corroboration through material evidence from other sources. In meeting their onus, measured litigation procedures should not be foreclosed to them.
 Immunizing an adverse party from questioning is especially concerning when undue influence is raised. The living witness who is likely the most knowledgeable about the interactions with the testator would be hidden from the Court.
Justice Feth also observed that it would not be fair to permit the threshold application to be heard by the Court with only partial disclosure selected entirely by the personal representatives because of the potential for “a misleading presentation of the facts”.
Limited documentary disclosure of some of the deceased’s medical records and previous wills was also ordered in light of the partial disclosure already provided by the personal representatives. While Justice Feth acknowledged that individuals may have a significant privacy interest in their medical records, it was also recognized that such a privacy interest is not absolute and ordered the personal representatives to provide the applicant siblings with disclosure for the period during which the deceased’s testamentary capacity was in question.
Justice Feth acknowledged the potential for “[c]oncerns about fishing expeditions, the testator’s privacy interests, and excessive delay and expense occasioned by exuberant demands for disclosure” during the early stages of estate litigation, but held that those concerns could be managed by the Court rather than prohibiting early disclosure in surrogate proceedings.
Evidence a party challenging a will in Ontario may obtain before a hearing is ordered:
In comparison to Justice Feth’s decision, Ontario courts have in some recent instances been reluctant to provide documentary disclosure in will challenges during the preliminary stages of the litigation. In Seepa v Seepa, 2017 ONSC 5368 (CanLII), Justice Myers held that documentary disclosure should not occur until after a threshold will application has been granted. Recently, in McCormick v McCormick, 2021 ONSC 5177 (CanLII), Justice Wilcox described Justice Myers’ decision as follows:
 In Seepa, Meyers J. expanded on the policy considerations behind the minimum evidentiary threshold requirement. It was to protect from lengthy, intrusive, expensive documentary collection and investigation proceedings untailored to the needs of the individual case and from intrusion into a deceased’s privileged legal files and personal medical records. In the face of these, a litigant was not to be given tools such as documentary discovery that are otherwise ordinarily available to a civil litigant before the litigant has produced some evidentiary basis to proceed.
In keeping with the Court’s decision in Seepa, in Young v Prychitko, 2021 ONSC 3150 (CanLII), Justice George declined to order documentary disclosure in the context of a will challenge, holding that the Court would not entertain a fishing expedition and compel production of documents before the minimal evidentiary threshold had been met. The firm’s blog post about the Court’s decision in Young v Prychitko can be accessed here.
While document disclosure prior to a threshold application may have recently been discouraged, some Ontario decisions have instead permitted cross-examination on affidavit evidence as a next step, as noted in Justice Wilcox’s decision in McCormick. The Court even noted in Young v Prychitko that the parties would be able to cross-examine each other on their affidavit evidence before the threshold issue, in that case, was decided.
Having said that, the practice of permitting parties to cross-examine each other on affidavit evidence before documentary disclosure may not always be optimal. In Shapiro v Shapiro, 2021 ONSC 4501 (CanLII), for example, Justice Hurley noted that cross-examination on an affidavit before documentary discovery in that particular case was “unlikely to accomplish anything of real benefit” and likely “would only add to the legal costs and beget delay” – the very danger that Justice Myers indicated the minimum evidentiary threshold requirement was intended to avoid. The will threshold application was determined in Shapiro without any cross-examination.
In light of these recent decisions by Ontario and Alberta Courts in which we have seen two conflicting approaches in the disclosure of medical records and other documentary disclosure, the minimal evidentiary threshold issue should remain top of mind to lawyers assisting clients with the early steps of a will challenge.
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For further reading on threshold will challenges and the evidentiary burden, check out these other blog posts: