Author: Arielle Di Iulio
The looming threat of COVID-19 has caused some people to see their own mortality in a new and clearer light. In addition to the existential and/or religious contemplation that may arise from this reality, individuals are also turning their minds to more practical end of life planning.
An end of life plan, also referred to as an advance care plan (“ACP”), sets out how an individual would like to be cared for in the final months of their life. In Ontario, an ACP will usually include a Power of Attorney for Personal Care designating a trusted person(s) to make healthcare decisions on behalf of an individual in the event of their incapacity.
An ACP may also include an advance directive, or “living will”, which is a written statement of wishes about future care. Unlike a Power of Attorney, advance directives are not referenced in Ontario’s health care legislation and are not a legal document. However, Ontario law does recognize that wishes and preferences regarding future care choices that are expressed when mentally capable ought to be respected and followed, if possible. Thus, a Power of Attorney or other substitute decision maker is expected to abide by an advance directive to the extent possible. This makes advance directives a useful tool for anyone seeking greater control over the medical treatment they receive while incapable.
Interestingly, a COVID-19-specific advance directive has emerged in the United States. Dr. Andrea Kittrell, a head and neck surgeon practicing in Virginia, established an organization called Save Other Souls (“SOS”) whose objective is to assist individuals with their advance care planning as it pertains to COVID-19-related medical treatment. Specifically, SOS provides guidance on preparing a document that has been coined the “COVID-19 SOS Directive”. This document is a type of altruistic advance directive wherein a person expresses their wish to defer lifesaving critical care hospital placement, medication, and/or equipment to another patient in need during a declared emergency and where there are insufficient health care resources to go around.
Since the COVID-19 SOS Directive was developed for use in jurisdictions outside of Ontario, I will not opine on the effectiveness of this particular document. However, the document is a reminder of the importance of considering one’s own ACP in light of the global pandemic. For information on COVID-19-related advance care planning for Canadians, you can check out Dying With Dignity Canada’s COVID-19 ACP Toolkit. Another helpful resource is the Plan Well Guide which is discussed in Nick Esterbauer’s blog here.
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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario government enacted O. Reg. 129/20 (the “Regulation”), which allows for the remote execution of wills and powers of attorney using video conferencing and counterpart. The Regulation was effective as of April 22, 2020 and was recently extended until September 22, 2020.
In light of the above, we can presume that many of the wills executed over the past five months were done using video conferencing. According to the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020, the Regulation may be extended by further orders up to July 24, 2021. Thus, it is possible that the remote execution of wills may continue in the weeks to come.
As with all client meetings, the execution of a will using video conferencing should be well-documented. In most cases, the attendees of a video conference have the option to record both the audio and visual of the meeting. Thus, those who seek a more comprehensive account of the virtual meeting might consider recording the video conference. For information on the benefits and risks of recording client meetings using virtual communication technologies, such as a will signing by video conference, you can visit the Law Society’s COVID-19 Practice Management FAQs.
In the event of a challenge to the will, any video recording of the will signing that may exist will likely be producible documentation. This recording has the potential to be a crucial piece of evidence in the dispute. First, the recording can be used to show that the requirements for due execution of the will have been complied with. To the extent that the testator commented on the dispositions made in their will during the will signing meeting, the video recording may also assist in confirming the testator’s wishes and providing a rationale for their testamentary choices. A video recording could also help demonstrate that the testator was of sound mind at the time they signed their will.
However, it is also important to note that any video recording of the will signing will probably be heavily scrutinized by the person challenging the will. Any behaviour displayed by the testator that could be perceived as hesitation, uncertainty, forgetfulness, or misunderstanding could potentially be used to undermine the validity of the will. As such, depending on the idiosyncrasies of the testator, and how they react to being on camera, retaining a video record of the execution of the will might not be especially helpful in warding off challenges to the will.
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While remote communication has become the norm for many, there continues to be resistance to using technology in the legal sphere. A recent decision by Justice Myers of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice suggests that, in 2020, the court will not easily acquiesce to such resistance.
In Arconti v. Smith, the plaintiffs sued their former lawyer and his partner for negligence, breaches of duty, and other causes of action in connection with the lawyer’s representation of the plaintiffs in a securities fraud case. In January 2020, Justice Myers ruled that a focused mini-trial was required to determine if summary judgment ought to be granted with respect to one of the issues. In a later case conference, he agreed with the plaintiffs that they should be entitled to further examination for discovery of the defendants prior to the mini-trial. An examination of one of the defendants was then scheduled for May 6, 2020.
However, at a case conference held on May 1, 2020, counsel for the plaintiffs advised that his clients did not want the examination of the defendant to proceed by video conference. He argued that because in-person examination is not possible due to the implementation of social distancing in response to the pandemic, the proceedings should be delayed until the requirement for social distancing is ended. The plaintiffs objected to a videoconference examination on the bases that:
- they need to be with their counsel to assist with documents and facts during the examination;
- it is more difficult to assess a witness’s demeanour remotely;
- the lack of physical presence in a neutral setting deprives the occasion of solemnity and a morally persuasive environment; and
- the plaintiffs do not trust the defendants not to engage in sleight of hand to abuse the process.
In his case conference endorsement, 2020 ONSC 2782 (the “Decision”), Justice Myers dealt with the issue of whether the plaintiffs ought to be required to conduct an examination out-of-court by video conference rather than in person. He ultimately held that if the plaintiffs wish to take advantage of the opportunity to examine the defendant out-of-court, before the upcoming mini-trial, they must do so remotely by video conference. The general sentiment of Justice Myer’s reasons is captured in paragraph 19 of the Decision:
“In my view, the simplest answer to this issue is, “It’s 2020”. We no longer record evidence using quill and ink. In fact, we apparently do not even teach children to use cursive writing in all schools anymore. We now have the technological ability to communicate remotely effectively. Using it is more efficient and far less costly than personal attendance. We should not be going back.”
Justice Myers further explained that the use of readily available technology is a necessary component of a civil litigator’s basic skillset. Like other tools at a lawyer’s disposal, technology does not produce perfection and parties ought to remain vigilant to the risks and shortcomings associated with remote processes. However, one’s own unfamiliarity with the technology is not a good basis to decline to use available technology, particularly where remote processes can help move a proceeding forward more efficiently and affordably.
As the Decision suggests, justice will not be served by sitting and waiting for the pandemic to pass. We must learn to accept our circumstances and adapt to the new normal. As Max McKeown wrote, “adaptability is about the powerful difference between adapting to cope and adapting to win.” It is becoming increasingly evident that in today’s legal system, adopting technological processes is adapting to win.
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The last will and testament of the gunman responsible for Nova Scotia’s mass shooting in April 2020 was recently made public. The gunman’s will names his common law spouse as the executor of his estate, estimated to be worth around $1.2 million. However, the gunman’s spouse has renounced her right to be executor of his estate and it is now being administered by the Public Trustee. It was also rumoured that the spouse had renounced any interest she may have had in the gunman’s sizable estate.
Whether the gunman’s partner did in fact relinquish any inheritance remains to be confirmed. However, there are a multitude of reasons why someone may choose to waive their right to an inheritance, including:
- Emotional grounds;
- Personal moral or ethical grounds;
- To avoid taking possession of an undesirable or costly asset, such as real property that requires significant repairs or maintenance;
- To avoid subjecting assets to potential creditors if the beneficiary is on the brink of bankruptcy or involved in a lawsuit; or
- To allow the asset to pass to a secondary beneficiary.
For an overview of what is required to properly disclaim an inheritance, you can read Ian Hull’s blog here.
As shown by the above list, even where a beneficiary does not plan to benefit personally from an inheritance they may still be interested in what happens to that inheritance. In such situations, the beneficiary may want to think carefully about whether disclaiming their inheritance is the best option.
It is important to note that a person can only disclaim a gift if they have not yet benefited from the assets and, once disclaimed, that person has no control over the assets. In other words, a beneficiary who renounces a gift should not have anything to do with those assets either before or after they have been disclaimed. This also means that the beneficiary should not have any say in who receives the inheritance.
If a person wants to disclaim their inheritance in order for it to pass to a secondary beneficiary, they should confirm whether the deceased’s will or intestacy laws, as applicable, provide for that outcome. If it does not, or if the person wishes to direct their inheritance to some other individual or charity, there is another option: they can accept the inheritance and give some or all of the assets to whomever they choose. Depending on the beneficiary’s particular goals and circumstances, accepting an inheritance and distributing the assets as they see fit may be preferable to disclaiming the assets.
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On March 30, 2020, Noah Weisberg blogged about the estate trustee’s duty to invest during COVID-19, a time when market fluctuations have become the norm. Today, I consider how pandemic-induced changes in the housing market may impact an estate trustee’s management of real property held by an estate.
Real properties – including primary residences, cottages, and vacation properties – are often some of the largest assets an estate trustee will deal with during the course of their administration of an estate. Unless otherwise stated in the deceased’s will, the estate trustee has a fiduciary duty to sell the estate’s real property for its fair market value and is expected to do so in a timely manner.
However, the exact timing for the market and sale of real property can depend on many factors. It is common for a will to grant an estate trustee the discretion to choose whether to sell or retain assets. As it pertains to real property, this power allows the estate trustee to hold onto a property until such time as they can achieve the best possible sale price on behalf of the beneficiaries. At the same time, the estate trustee needs to be mindful of the costs incurred by the estate in having to maintain the property. Beneficiaries of the estate may also put pressure on an estate trustee to sell the property and convert it to money sooner rather than later.
Like most industries, the real estate market has been impacted by COVID-19. An estate trustee should be attentive to whether recent changes in the housing market make it an ideal or inopportune time to market a particular property for sale, while also bearing in mind the factors described above.
If an estate trustee decides to list a property for sale in today’s uncertain housing market, there are a few things they can do to help protect themselves against future claims from beneficiaries. First, the estate trustee should have the property appraised for its fair market value by a professional appraiser who is an independent third party. For added protection, the estate trustee may want to have the beneficiaries sign off on the property’s price. The estate trustee should also make an effort to keep the beneficiaries apprised of each step of the sale process. Lastly, the estate trustee should take care to keep detailed records of all advice received and steps taken in the event that they need to justify their actions at a later date.
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George Floyd died tragically during an arrest by Minneapolis Police officers on May 25, 2020. Mr. Floyd’s highly publicized death ignited demonstrations and protests across the United States and Canada against police brutality and in support of anti-racism. Many individuals are also showing their support to this cause with donations to community groups, non-profit organizations, and other fundraising campaigns with a related mission or purpose.
One of the more successful fundraising campaigns has been the George Floyd Memorial Fund established by Mr. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, on GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform. This campaign has raised just over $14 million to date, far surpassing its original target of $1.5 million. The overwhelming success of this GoFundMe campaign invites the question – what happens if more funds are donated to a fundraising campaign than originally requested?
Crowdfunding campaigns are often created in order to raise money for a specific purpose or project. If more money is raised than is needed to fulfill the campaign’s intended purpose, then there will be surplus funds. A common example is a GoFundMe campaign created to defray funeral expenses and the campaign ends up raising funds over and above the actual costs incurred for the funeral. What is the campaign promoter entitled, or perhaps required, to do with the leftover funds?
In general, if money is donated for a specific purpose and not all of the funds raised can be applied to that specific purpose, the surplus funds may be returned to the donors via a resulting trust. Returning donated monies can be burdensome where there have been a significant number of donors and/or anonymous donors who cannot be easily identified. To help avoid this situation, a campaign promoter can include alternative purposes for which funds can be used. These additional purposes must be set out at the time the funds are solicited.
In the case of the George Floyd Memorial Fund, the GoFundMe page states:
“This fund is established to cover funeral and burial expenses, mental and grief counseling, lodging and travel for all court proceedings, and to assist our family in the days to come as we continue to seek justice for George. A portion of these funds will also go to the Estate of George Floyd for the benefit and care of his children and their educational fund.”
The above description includes multiple purposes for the collected funds. Some of these purposes likely have been or will be fulfilled, such as the payment of funeral expenses. However, other purposes are seemingly unbounded, such as supporting the care and education of Mr. Floyd’s children. Thus, although the George Floyd Memorial Fund garnered millions of dollars in excess of its original goal, it is likely that all of these funds can properly be applied to the campaign’s defined purposes. If this is the case, then no portion of the collected funds will be considered to be surplus and all of the money should remain available for the benefit of the Floyd family.
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Ontario has officially declared a state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to quell the spread of the coronavirus are now stronger than ever. Indeed, the Federal Government is urging everyone to engage in social distancing, and the courts are no exception.
On March 15, 2020, the Superior Court of Justice published a Notice to the Profession, the Public and the Media Regarding Civil and Family Proceedings (the “Notice”), wherein it announced the suspension of Superior Court of Justice regular operations.
Specifically, the Notice states that all criminal, family and civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after March 17, 2020 are adjourned except for urgent and emergency matters. Matters considered to be “urgent” are set out in the Notice and include motions and applications related to public health and safety and COVID-19; the safety of a child or parent; and time-sensitive civil motions with significant financial repercussions if not heard, among others.
To bring an urgent matter, the motion and application materials can be filed with the court by email. Notably, where it is not possible to email a sworn affidavit, an unsworn affidavit can be delivered as long as the affiant participates in any telephone or videoconference hearing to swear or affirm the affidavit. Urgent matters may be heard and determined in writing, by teleconference or videoconference, unless the court determines that an in-person hearing is necessary and safe.
Although people are being advised to avoid unnecessary attendances at Court, they nevertheless remain open and parties can continue to process “regular filings”. However, the flexible procedures that have been put in place for urgent matters do not extend to regular filings, which remain subject to the Rules of Civil Procedure.
The court’s response to COVID-19 is a prime example of how the legal system as a whole is being forced to lean on technology in these unusual and uncertain times. While many legal professionals have already adopted digital practices, the courts continue to be behind the times. The Auditor General’s latest audit of Ontario’s court system found that “the Ministry’s pace in modernizing the court system remained slow, and the system is still heavily paper-based, making it inefficient and therefore keeping it from realizing potential cost savings”. Perhaps this period will give the much-needed impetus for courts to modernize their operations by using electronic service, filing, hearings, and document management more routinely. This would likely be a welcome change for all.
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Yesterday, I blogged about estate planning for cryptocurrency, a type of digital asset. Today, I provide a snapshot of what happens to some of your other digital assets when you die.
Facebook: When a Facebook user dies, their profile can either be memorialized or permanently deleted. The Facebook user can opt for one or the other while they’re still living. If a user does not choose to have their profile permanently deleted, Facebook will automatically memorialize the profile whenever they become aware of the user’s death. When a user proactively chooses to memorialize their profile, they can appoint a “legacy contact” to manage their memorialized profile. The legacy contact will have the authority to manage the memorialized profile but will not be permitted to log in to the deceased’s account, read the deceased’s messages, and add or remove friends.
Instagram: When an Instagram user dies, their account can either be memorialized or deleted. Anyone can request for a deceased person’s account to be memorialized, but only an immediate family member can request for an account to be deleted. Instagram will not memorialize an account without sufficient proof of death, such as a link to an obituary or news article. To delete an account, the requester is required to verify that they are an immediate family member by providing documentation such as the deceased person’s birth certificate, death certificate, or a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee for the deceased’s estate.
Twitter: When a Twitter user dies, a person authorized to act on behalf of the deceased’s estate or a verified immediate family member of the deceased can request to have the deceased person’s account deactivated. In order to complete this request, Twitter requires a copy of the requester’s ID and a copy of the deceased’s death certificate. Twitter also does not permit anyone to access the deceased person’s account.
LinkedIn: When a LinkedIn user dies, anyone can request to have that person’s LinkedIn profile removed. A person can request that an account be removed by filling out a form with information on the deceased and submitting the form to LinkedIn for their review.
Google: When a Google user dies, their immediate family members and/or the executor of their estate can request to close the deceased’s account. Google will not permit anyone to log into the deceased person’s account; however, individuals can ask Google to provide content from the account. With respect to these requests, a court order issued in the United States is apparently required before Google releases any information. To circumvent this, Google users can use their Inactive Account Manager to automatically share their data with “trusted contacts” after a period of inactivity.
As illustrated by the above, different online platforms restrict a family member’s and/or executor’s access to a deceased person’s online accounts to varying degrees. Notably, most platforms will not allow anyone to log in to a deceased person’s account. As such, if a person would like trusted relatives or friends to be able to access their online accounts following their death, they may want to take steps to ensure that their login credentials will be available to those trusted persons.
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Coinbase co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong recently blogged about the future of cryptocurrency, predicting that it will reach 1 billion users by the year 2030 (up from about 50 million at the start of this decade). With the anticipated increased uptake of cryptocurrency, we can expect that more and more people will hold these types of digital assets on their death. The question then arises: how should cryptocurrencies be dealt with in one’s estate plan?
By way of background, cryptocurrency is virtual currency that uses cryptography to verify financial transactions and control production of currency units in a decentralized, peer-to-peer exchange network. Cryptocurrency runs on Blockchain technology, which allows for blocks of information about transactions to be recorded and stored on a distributed ledger. When a transaction takes place, a block is added to the blockchain and there is a corresponding change in balance in the buyer and seller’s cryptocurrency wallets.
A cryptocurrency wallet or “crypto wallet” contains a person’s public and private keys – the former is used to receive cryptocurrency and the latter is used to spend/send cryptocurrencies to other wallet addresses. The crypto wallet is the only means of accessing one’s digital currency. There are different types of wallets that can be used to store and access digital currency, such as online accounts, mobile apps, external hard drives, or simply paper.
Because cryptocurrency is an intangible asset with little to no paper trail, special estate planning considerations should be made to ensure that the value of these digital assets is not lost on death and can be distributed to the intended beneficiaries.
First, the cryptocurrency owned by a person should be expressly referred to in their will to ensure that their executor is aware that these digital assets exist. A testator should then provide sufficient detail for their executor to be able to locate and access the testator’s crypto wallet. Specifically, the testator should describe what type of crypto wallet they have, where it is stored, and provide any other information that may be needed to access the crypto wallet. Instead of listing this sensitive information in the will itself, which becomes part of the public record through the probate process, a testator should include it in a memorandum to their will.
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With giving season upon us, the philanthropic impulse is stronger than ever. As prospective donors craft their charitable giving plan, they will endeavour to make their charitable contributions as impactful and rewarding as possible. Achieving this philanthropic goal requires careful consideration of the multitude of charitable giving options available to donors.
With more than 85,000 registered charities in Canada, there is no shortage of organizations to whom a prospective donor can donate. In addition, there are a variety of ways in which individuals can donate to their charity of choice, as discussed by Suzana Popovic-Montag in her blog, “Giving money to charity? Know your options to maximize your impact”.
An important consideration that can influence how and to whom a person chooses to donate is what restrictions, if any, they wish to place on their gift. Accordingly, as one evaluates the charitable giving options available to them, they should think about whether they want to make a restricted or unrestricted gift.
Unrestricted and restricted gifts
An “unrestricted” charitable gift refers to a gift made towards a charitable purpose that is free from any restrictions or limitations imposed by the donor. Unrestricted funds can be used by the donee charity in any way so long as the use of the funds supports the general charitable purposes of the organization.
On the other hand, donors may opt to restrict how their donations are used by the donee charity. These types of gifts are referred to as “restricted” or “donor-restricted” charitable gifts. As the name suggests, a donor places restrictions, conditions, directions or other limitations on their gift which constrains the use of the funds to a particular purpose, program, or project. In essence, a restricted gift can only be used for the specific charitable purpose to which it is devoted. Thus, restricted gifts have the effect of fettering the charity’s discretion in deciding where the donated funds will be allocated.
This article provides a more detailed comparison of unrestricted and restricted gifts: http://www.carters.ca/pub/article/charity/2006/tsc0421.pdf.
Charities have tended to prefer unrestricted gifts since their flexibility allows the charity to apply the funds wherever they are most needed. However, charitable organizations are increasingly recognizing that prospective donors may want a greater say in their charitable giving and might be inclined to give more if they have some certainty as to exactly how their gift will be spent. Restricted gifts can therefore be a useful tool to achieve one’s personal philanthropic goals, as well as to increase overall charitable giving.
Making a restricted gift
There are many ways in which a donor-restricted charitable gift can go awry, such as where:
- the precise restrictions imposed on the gift are ambiguous and the charity consequently administers the funds in a way the donor did not actually intend;
- the donor has given money to a very specific program or project within a charity which is not in need of funding or has been discontinued, and the surplus funds cannot be used for any other purpose; and
- the charity amalgamates with another organization, or dissolves altogether, and transfers its remaining assets (including the restricted funds) to another charity that has a sufficiently different charitable purpose such that the organization can no longer give effect to the gift’s designated purpose.
In light of the above, there are certain precautions that a prospective donor should consider taking to ensure optimum impact of their restricted charitable gift.
A donor should refer to a charity’s gift acceptance policy for guidance on what types of restricted gifts a donor can give to the charity. In particular, a gift acceptance policy will usually prescribe what purposes or uses a donor can restrict their funds to. Gift acceptance policies may also specify what language will be accepted to confirm the donor’s charitable intent and what procedure will be followed when the donor’s charitable intent is unclear or cannot be carried out. For larger gifts, it is also advisable to meet with a representative from the potential donee charity to determine whether the organization’s gift acceptance policy coincides with the donor’s specific philanthropic goals.
Donation agreements and testamentary documents can also be drafted to contemplate scenarios in which the designated purpose of a restricted gift cannot be brought to fruition. Specifically, donors may want to consider adding to these documents a contingency that permits their gift to be used for alternate charitable purposes, or permits the donee charity to vary the restriction to a use that most closely corresponds with the donor’s original charitable intent.
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