Author: Garrett Horrocks
A recent decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia examined the tension between a testator’s moral obligation, if any, to provide for a child under a will, and that testator’s freedom to dispose of his or her estate as that testator sees fit.
The facts in Grewal v Litt are relatively simple and were generally not in dispute between the parties. The applicants were the four daughters of the two testators whose wills were under scrutiny. The respondents were the testators’ two sons. The testators had died leaving mirror wills, each benefitting one another. Upon the death of the survivor, the wills left modest bequests of cash to each of the daughters, while the two brothers shared the residue.
The combined values of the estates exceeded $9 million. Pursuant to the terms of the wills, each daughter was to receive a bequest of $150,000, or about 1.5% of the total value of the two estates. The two brothers were the sole residuary beneficiaries and stood to split the remaining 94%.
The daughters brought an application to vary the wills under section 60 of British Columbia’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act (the “WESA”) to provide an equal distribution of the residue between all six children. The application was brought on the basis that the testators had purportedly discriminated against the applicant daughters based on their adherence to traditional cultural values. The respondent brothers agreed that the terms of the wills did not fulfill the testators’ moral obligations to the daughters, but did not agree that the solution was an equal distribution of the residue.
The court grappled with the tension between the need to make proper provision for the daughters versus recognizing the testators’ broad testamentary freedom to dispose of their estate as they see fit. Ultimately, the court found substantially in favour of the daughters and held that each daughter would be entitled to a 15% share in the residue, with the respondent brothers each receiving a 20% share.
In reaching that decision, the court first looked at section 60 of the WESA and noted that the value of the estates was large enough that the court could both consider the parents’ testamentary autonomy in favouring the respondent brothers while nonetheless making adequate provision for the applicant daughters.
The application judge then referred to numerous prior decisions in which the court had ordered variations of wills when unequal testamentary distributions were made by testators who believed themselves to be bound by cultural norms. Finally, the judge noted that the significant contributions by the daughters to the testators during the last few years of their lives, which were not replicated by the brothers, enhanced the testators’ moral obligation to provide for the daughters.
This case’s potential impact in Ontario remains to be seen, although it is important to the note that Ontario lacks a statute with as broad a mandate for varying testamentary documents as the WESA. Part V Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act is a comparable parallel that allows a court to make adequate provision for a testator’s dependants, but that language is less broad than the language of the WESA. In any event, the Court of Appeal for Ontario held in Spence v BMO Trust Company that absent any requirement by a testator to adequately provide for a dependant, the testator has broad testamentary freedom.
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In Drummond v Cadillac Fairview, the Court of Appeal for Ontario considered the issue of the admissibility of hearsay evidence on a motion for summary judgment. The facts in Drummond are quite simple. The plaintiff tripped on a skateboard while shopping at the Fairview Mall in Toronto, owned by the defendant. The plaintiff brought an action for occupier’s liability, supported by an affidavit sworn by him. The defendant, Cadillac Fairview, responded by bringing a motion for summary judgment.
At the hearing of the motion, not only did the judge dismiss Cadillac Fairview’s motion for summary judgment, but it granted summary judgment in favour of the plaintiff (a remedy that the plaintiff was not seeking). Cadillac Fairview appealed and was successful at the Court of Appeal.
In granting the appeal, the Court identified serious concerns regarding the hearsay evidence relied on by the plaintiff in responding to Cadillac Fairview’s summary judgment motion. The plaintiff’s responding affidavit relied heavily on statements purportedly made by his fiancée and his daughter, and two unidentified staff members working at the mall. The trial judge agreed that these statements were hearsay but admitted them nonetheless under the business records exception to the hearsay rule and under Rule 20.02 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
The Court of Appeal rejected the admission of the hearsay statements. While the Court agreed that Rule 20.02 permitted the admission of affidavit evidence “made on information and belief”, the Court also noted that the Rule permits a trier of fact to draw an adverse inference if a party with personal knowledge of contested facts does not give evidence.
The Court of Appeal found that the information relayed by the plaintiff from his fiancée and his daughter “went to the heart” of his claim. The plaintiff’s failure to have his fiancée or daughter swear their own affidavits with respect to the key facts at issue caused the Court to have considerable reservations about admitting their evidence. The Court of Appeal ultimately held that the finding of liability against Cadillac Fairview was based on an “erroneous admission of hearsay evidence on key, contested issues” and reversed the decision.
On motions for summary judgment, courts will expect the parties to put their best foot forward, including the nature and source of relevant evidence. As can be seen in this case, a party’s failure to do so can have serious consequences.
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In March of last year, I blogged on the decision in Hunt v Worrod which dealt with predatory marriages and an individual’s capacity to marry. There have been several developments in that case since then, most recently in a Court of Appeal decision released in June, concerning the issue of costs.
The facts of the case are set out in greater detail in my earlier blog, but a quick refresher may nonetheless be helpful. The application was commenced by the applicant, by his two litigation guardians, largely for the purposes of challenging the validity of his marriage to the respondent and its effect on her property rights as a spouse of the applicant. The respondent had been granted a legal aid certificate by Legal Aid Ontario (“LAO”), which funded her legal fees through trial. Importantly, LAO was not retained as counsel by the respondent. Rather, the respondent retained private counsel whose fees were funded by LAO.
The applicant was ultimately successful at trial and sought an order for costs against the respondent personally, the respondent’s counsel personally, and LAO. In his decision on costs, Justice Koke ordered the respondent was to pay the applicant’s costs on a full indemnity basis. However, he equally noted that, as a result of her limited means and tenuous financial position, it was unlikely that the respondent would be able to pay any amount of that costs award.
The trial judge then turned his mind to the request for costs payable by LAO. In reviewing the circumstances of LAO’s involvement in the case, the trial judge held that it had failed to carry out its mandate by continuing to fund the respondent’s fees notwithstanding the lack of merit. The trial judge ordered LAO to pay one-half of the amount of the costs award made against the respondent.
LAO appealed the costs award and was successful. In its reasons, the Court of Appeal plainly stated that the decision to award costs against LAO could not stand, as it had been made on a misapprehension of LAO’s role in the matter. While the trial judge had held that LAO purportedly failed to monitor the litigation that it had continued to fund, resulting in an abuse of process, the Court of Appeal took a markedly different view.
Notably, the Court of Appeal identified that LAO’s role was strictly limited to providing funding for the respondent to retain separate counsel in accordance with its statutory mandate. LAO itself did not act for the respondent, nor was it a party to the initial application.
Had LAO been a party to the litigation, the Court of Appeal held that they would properly have been exposed to a potential costs award, subject to the discretion of the trial judge. However, in the absence of evidence of any bad faith on the part of LAO in continuing to fund the litigation, the Court of Appeal held that a costs award against LAO was not appropriate in the circumstances.
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I recently had the good fortune of attending a dinner hosted by the Ontario Bar Association along with several members of the Toronto estates list Bench. The judges were kind enough to share a few pearls of wisdom with respect to practice tips and elicit some of the dos and don’ts of appearing before them. A few of the most salient points are highlighted in this blog.
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide that parties to a proceeding are to file a confirmation form with the court no later than 2:00pm three days prior to the hearing in order to ensure that a particular matter is properly scheduled. The form allows sets out several options to be selected by counsel regarding the purpose or anticipated outcome of the attendance.
However, in order to improve judicial efficiency, the Bench has asked that if counsel will be seeking the court’s assistance in resolving certain minor contested issues, a short description of these issues should be attached with the confirmation form. Particularly in the case of short scheduling appointments, which only typically last ten minutes, advising the court of relevant issues ahead of time will ensure a productive use of the attendance.
The Bench has also professed the benefits of scheduling case conferences before a judge with a view to resolving or otherwise narrowing the issues to be tried in a given matter. Case conferences typically follow the format of short scheduling appointments, though with significantly more time allotted to these attendances on the understanding that they are to be used to resolve substantive rather than procedural issues.
Ideally, the bench would like to see counsel attend such conferences prior to scheduling motions or hearings that would be dispositive of a proceeding or of certain issues, such as motions for summary judgment. In most cases, the opportunity for counsel to obtain the advice and direction of a judge while avoiding the significant costs of preparing for a motion can be a helpful step towards resolution.
On the administrative side, the Bench was kind enough to release a list of the most common errors in applications for certificates of appointment as raised by court staff. In no particular order, the court strongly encourages the following practical tips:
- Ensure parties are correctly and consistently identified throughout the application, especially if a party identifies under a different name or a pseudonym.
- Ensure the names of parties and entities are spelled correctly.
- If a particular section of the application does not apply on the facts, do not leave that section blank. Instead, expressly indicate that the section is not applicable.
- Ensure all exhibits included as part of the application, especially the Last Will and Testament that is the subject of the application, are stamped with an exhibit stamp and commissioned.
- Ensure the commissioner includes their full name below their signature.
These are only a few of the many tips shared by the judiciary, but they are as much to the benefit of the court as they are to counsel. Great advocacy is equal parts assisting your client and assisting the court.
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My colleague, Sayuri Kagami, blogged Tuesday on efforts to use artificial intelligence in scanning for risk factors that have historically contributed to premature death. Such efforts constitute a significant development in policy pertaining to preventive models of health care.
Broadly speaking, delivery of health care services can generally be categorized into one of two models. The reactive model of health care is one based on acute care, and focuses on the treatment of illness as it arises and on an ongoing basis. Your typical visit to the emergency room would generally fall within the scope of reactive health care.
The preventive model of health care, in contrast, is a proactive treatment model emphasizing, as one might expect, the prevention of illness and the mitigation of key risk factors contributing to chronic disease. This model emerged largely as a result of the significant financial strain placed on public health care models in Ontario and abroad by the reactive model.
Treatment of acute and chronic illness on an ongoing and extended basis is, by most accounts, exceedingly expensive and inefficient. In the context of estate planning, we are frequently exposed to the considerable financial and emotional tolls of treating Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses impacting cognition.
Since the 1970s, policy makers have made significant strides in advocating for a treatment model that sets out the benefits of preventive health care in an attempt to reduce the burden of reactive treatment models. In particular, this model focuses on steps that may be taken by individuals to reduce the risk of chronic illness in order to alleviate the strain placed on the public health care system.
A recent study performed by Cancer Care Ontario identified four main risk factors common to more than 90% of instances of chronic disease:
- Tobacco consumption;
- Alcohol consumption;
- Lack of physical activity; and
- Unhealthy eating habits.
Proponents of the preventive have therefore advocated for increased funding devoted to mitigating each of these factors in order to reduce reactive spending down the road.
If you didn’t pay attention to your grandmother while growing up, take it from the experts: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
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A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered an interesting question of fact and law. Will challenges in Ontario are ordinarily grounded on the basis that a testator lacked testamentary capacity, did not know and approve of the contents, or that the Will was procured by undue influence. In Cavanagh et al v Sutherland et al, however, the applicant sought to challenge the validity of her mother’s will on novel grounds; namely, that it was procured as a result of a mistake of fact.
The testator died in July 2016, leaving a Will benefiting 5 of her 6 daughters. The Will expressly excluded her sixth daughter, Carolynn, from sharing in the Estate. Carolynn objected to the issuance of a certificate of appointment on the basis that her mother lacked capacity or that the Will was procured by undue influence.
The estate trustees brought a motion for summary judgment seeking an order dismissing Carolynn’s objection and a declaration that the Will was their mother’s valid Last Will and Testament. At the hearing of the motion, Carolynn changed her position and chose instead to focus primarily on her belief that her mother had been operating on a set of mistaken facts.
Carolynn referred to a payment of $65,000 made to her by her parents in or about 2011, prior to the execution of an earlier will that also excluded Carolynn. She took the position that this payment was made in satisfaction of a loan to her father years earlier that her mother knew nothing about. Carolynn argued that her mother likely believed this payment was a gift to Carolynn in lieu of her inheritance and, accordingly, left her no benefit under the Will.
The court found that the evidence held otherwise. Notably, the evidence showed that the payment was not made in satisfaction of a loan, but rather as a result of a demand by Carolynn. In 1996, her parents had agreed to place her on title to a property to assist them in obtaining a mortgage. The mortgage was subsequently paid off in 2011, at which point Carolynn’s parents asked that she transfer her interest in the property back to them.
The evidence showed that Carolynn refused, instead asserting that there was always an intention that she remain on title to the property as legal owner. Carolynn’s parents ultimately offered to buy out her interest in the property in exchange for a payment of $65,000. Her mother later advised the lawyer who prepared the Will that this was to constitute Carolynn’s inheritance. It was clear to the court that the testator had considered this payment when the Will was drafted.
In the end, the evidence was such the court did not have to consider the effect of a true mistake of fact on the validity of a Will. However, the question of a mistake of fact would ordinarily tie into knowledge and approval and, specifically, whether the mistake was sufficient to negate the validity of the Will. In this case, it was apparent that the testator had turned her mind to the payment to Carolynn, and there was no question of a lack of knowledge and approval.
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Henson trusts are a valuable estate planning technique to protect the interests of individuals receiving asset-dependant social assistance, such as ODSP. However, as discussed in the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in S.A. v Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation, a Henson trust may be invaluable in preserving other forms of need-based assistance.
The appellant, S.A., was a disabled individual receiving monthly distributions under British Columbia’s Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act. S.A.’s father passed away in 2012 and S.A. was one-third residuary beneficiary of his Estate. In order to preserve her entitlement to assistance, her share was settled in a Henson trust in which S.A. was the primary beneficiary and a co-trustee.
In 2015, S.A. submitted an application (the “Application”) to the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (“MVHC”) in order to be eligible for subsidized rent. The Application required S.A. to disclose whether she held assets totaling in excess of $25,000. S.A. indicated that she did not. MVHC was made aware of the existence of the Trust as a result of prior correspondence with S.A. and, as a result of her failure to disclose her contingent interest, S.A.’s application for subsidized rent was denied.
S.A. commenced proceedings against MVHC seeking, among other relief, a declaration that her contingent interest in the Trust was not an asset for the purposes of the Application. Both the trial judge and the British Columbia Court of Appeal dismissed S.A.’s petition. S.A. appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
This case was the first instance in which the Supreme Court was tasked with considering the nature of a Henson trust. As such, the Court restated the central features of a Henson trust, namely:
- The beneficiary in question must not have a fixed entitlement;
- The trustees retain absolute discretion as to whether any distributions are made to the beneficiary, including the discretion to make no distribution; and
- The beneficiary must not retain the entirety of the beneficial interest in the trust such that he or she could collapse it pursuant to the Rule in Saunders v Vautier.
S.A. was ultimately successful at the Supreme Court level, but on the basis of contractual interpretation rather than the nature of her interest in the Trust itself. The central issue was whether S.A.’s beneficial interest in the Trust was an asset for the purpose of the Application.
The Court considered the Application and applied basic principles of contract law, namely, that the Application was to be read as a whole with the words to be given their ordinary grammatical meaning. The term “asset” was not specifically defined in the Application to include a contingent interest in a trust.
MVHC attempted to point to an Asset Ceiling Policy that it relied on to inform its definition of an “asset” for the purposes of the Application. This Policy was a separate document setting out a non-exhaustive list of assets that ought to be disclosed by applicants. However, the Court noted that the Policy was not referenced in the Application proper. The Court held that a “reasonable person” interpreting the Application would not consider a contingent interest in a trust to be an asset for the purposes of that Application.
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Section 38 of Ontario’s Trustee Act provides that an estate trustee may commence or maintain, on behalf of a Deceased individual, an action in tort that could otherwise have been commenced by that individual. As discussed in related blogs on this section, such actions are ordinarily subject to a stricter limitation period than that of other civil claims.
In typical civil claims, Ontario’s Limitations Act imports a two-year limitation period which begins to run as of the date the cause of action was discovered. The limitation period under the Trustee Act, however, begins to run as of the Deceased’s date of death and is not subject to this principle of discoverability, unless the Plaintiff can satisfy the Doctrine of Special Circumstances. The decision in Graham Estate v Southlake Regional Health Centre recently contextualized this Doctrine and, in so doing, suggests that the principle of discoverability will not always be dispensed with.
In May 2008, the Deceased in Graham Estate underwent a botched surgical procedure that ultimately gave rise to a claim in medical negligence. The Deceased subsequently died in February 2009, and a claim was commenced by the Deceased’s Estate in May 2010, well within the two-year limitation period under section 38(3).
As part of this initial claim, the Estate obtained disclosure of relevant medical records relating to the operation. In or about 2015, more than four years after the limitation period had expired, counsel for the Estate subsequently received an additional unprompted cache of records that had not been previously disclosed. This new set of records gave rise to a claim against a party who was not a party to the existing litigation.
In February 2017, the Estate subsequently brought a motion seeking to add the Proposed Defendant as a party to the litigation. At issue in this decision was whether the Estate was out of time as a result of the strict operation of section 38(3) of the Trustee Act. The Court ultimately held that the Estate ought to succeed on the basis of the Doctrine of Special Circumstances.
As the claim against the Proposed Defendant was, on its face, out of time, the Estate argued that the Doctrine of Special Circumstances ought to apply. This Doctrine is comprised of a two-step test to be satisfied by the Plaintiff:
- The Plaintiff must rebut the presumption of prejudice that would result to the party to be added; and
- The Plaintiff must satisfy the Court that special circumstances justify the addition of that party.
At the outset, the Court held that the loss of a limitation defence immediately gave rise to a presumption of prejudice in favour of the Proposed Defendant. However, the Estate identified a number of factors that operated to rebut the presumption of prejudice, notably:
- The claims to be made against the Proposed Defendant were identical to those already commenced against the existing Defendants;
- The action against the Proposed Defendant was tenable in law; and
- There would be no procedural unfairness to the Proposed Defendant if he were added as a party, as no trial date had been set and he would have sufficient time to prepare a defence.
The Court then considered whether there were any equitable special circumstances that merited the addition of the Proposed Defendant as a party. As above, the Court held that there were, but in so doing, in effect considered factors not unlike the discoverability principle.
Chiefly, the Court noted that the Proposed Defendant’s role in the circumstances giving rise to the initial negligence claim had not become apparent until the limitation period had already expired. The Court found that the Estate had made efforts to obtained the relevant records well within the limitation period, and that the records implicating the Proposed Defendant had erroneously been omitted. The Court held that this was not a case in which the Estate was “handicapped by its own inaction.”
While section 38(3) of the Trustee Act on its face imports a strict limitation period, the Graham Estate decision nonetheless suggests that the courts will consider discoverability, among other factors. That said, this analysis is only engaged if the presumption of prejudice is rebutted.
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A recent study published by the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of California at San Francisco represents a promising breakthrough in research relating to early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. At the core of the study, however, is a familiar yet unlikely trend: artificial intelligence.
The research team developed an algorithm to read and interpret PET scan images with a particular emphasis on monitoring and detecting changes in glucose uptake over extended periods of time. Glucose monitoring has historically been an important predictive factor in formulating a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Healthy cells generally display high levels of glucose uptake, indicative of robust cell activity. Conversely, lower glucose uptake suggests cell inactivity or death, for example, as a result of Alzheimer’s.
The slow, progressive nature of Alzheimer’s has historically rendered it difficult for radiologists to observe the subtle changes in glucose levels until symptoms had reached a stage at which they were no longer meaningfully reversible. The team at UCSF tailored the algorithm to detect subtle features that were imperceptible to the human eye.
To achieve this, the algorithm was fed thousands of PET scan images from thousands of patients at all stages of cognitive impairment, from no impairment through to late-stage Alzheimer’s. Over time, the algorithm learned to discern between the particular features of a given scan which were of assistance in predicting the eventual onset of Alzheimer’s and those which were not. At the conclusion of the study, the algorithm had correctly predicted the onset of Alzheimer’s in more than 92% of cases. Importantly, the algorithm was able to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s, on average, more than six years before the symptoms constituting a typical diagnosis had manifested.
Leaving aside the obvious benefits relating to treatment and reversibility, early detection of Alzheimer’s could stand to have numerous applications in the context of succession and estate planning. For example, a predictive diagnosis could spur a testator to take steps to implement a proper estate plan well before his or her capacity to do so could become a concern. In turn, the testator would have the security that their plan of succession would be carried out according to his or her instructions, reducing the risk of contentious post-death litigation.
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Applications to pass accounts are unique as civil proceedings go. The nature of the inquiries being made by the Court, the relief that a judge is empowered to grant, and the procedural considerations that apply are all features that distinguish applications to pass accounts from other civil applications. Procedural considerations in particular have garnered some notoriety recently as a result of several notable decisions released in the past few years. The recent decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario (then sitting as the Divisional Court) in Wall v Shaw, 2018 ONCA 929, provides some clarity to a few of the loose ends.
In Wall, the Deceased died leaving a Will naming the appellant as estate trustee and which created two testamentary trusts for the benefit of her two children. The Deceased’s nieces and nephews were also named as contingent beneficiaries in the event that both children died before vesting in the trust property.
The estate trustee acted for more than 10 years, but never formally passed his accounts. Instead, the estate trustee held frequent informal meetings with the Deceased’s children to review the administration of the estate and to discuss the estate trustee’s compensation.
A dispute between the Deceased’s daughter and the estate trustee relating to the latter’s compensation eventually led the daughter to bring an application seeking an order compelling the estate trustee to pass his accounts.
The estate trustee subsequently commenced an application to pass accounts in March 2015. In June 2015, the Deceased’s daughter filed a notice of objection to the accounts, followed in January 2016 by a notice of objection delivered by two of the Deceased’s nieces.
In response, the estate trustee brought a motion seeking to strike out the objections of the daughter on several grounds. Notably, the estate trustee took the position that the daughter’s approval of the accounts at the informal meetings constituted acquiescence of the estate trustee’s conduct. In the alternative, the estate trustee argued that the daughter’s objections were now statute-barred pursuant to sections 4 and 5 of Ontario’s Limitations Act or barred by the doctrine of laches.
The estate trustee was unsuccessful at first instance on all three grounds, but only chose to appeal the first ground. Specifically, the estate trustee argued on appeal that the judge at first instance had erred in refusing to apply the two-year limitation period under section 4 of the Limitations Act. The appeal was dismissed, and the reasons on appeal provide some procedural clarity in respect of the interplay between limitation periods and passings of accounts.
Section 4 of the Limitations Act generally provides that a “proceeding” cannot be commenced in respect of a “claim” if more than two years have elapsed since the date the claim was discovered. The Court of Appeal took issue with each of the quoted terms.
Notably, the held that a notice of objection does not commence a “proceeding” for the purposes of section 4 of the Limitations Act. Rather, a notice of objection ought to be viewed as a response to a proceeding that has already been commenced, being the application to pass accounts. The Court also pointed to its prior ruling in Armitage v The Salvation Army, in which it was held that an application to pass accounts was not a “claim” pursuant to section 4 of the Limitations Act. Accordingly, it followed that a responding objection raised in that application could also not constitute a claim.
Finally, the Court highlighted an important distinction between applications to pass accounts and other civil applications. Unlike a traditional civil claim, the Court in an application to pass accounts is not tasked with awarding judgment in favour of one party or the other. The purpose of an application to pass accounts to is initiate a “judicial inquiry” into the management of an estate and, if appropriate, provide redress to the estate, rather than to the beneficiaries personally.
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