Author: James Jacuta
A wave of changes in how wills can be signed is sweeping over the legal profession with the force of a tsunami in the last month. While there is still momentum for change, why not include other areas of estate law like an online mechanism to search for unclaimed estate assets. Now is the time to do it.
In the United Kingdom the government posts a weekly list of estates with unclaimed property in those cases where the responsible local authorities were unable to find the legal heirs of estates. It is known as the “Bono Vacantia “ list, and it also provides instructions on making claims where someone has died and not left a will, or where family could not be located.
This publicly available list works well and is similar to the Bank of Canada’s online list of bank accounts with unclaimed balances that can be found here.
In Ontario, there is no publicly available system in place for unclaimed property, or for provincially regulated financial institutions like credit unions, or for estates with unknown heirs. There have been attempts in the past, but, legislation was never put into force. Other provinces, like British Columbia, do have systems in place. In Ontario, if the Office of Public Guardian and Trustee does not locate the beneficiaries of an estate then the money will remain unclaimed. There is no way for a beneficiary to search online for inheritance assets that they might be legally entitled to receive.
The current wave of changes in estate law forced by the pandemic also creates opportunities for further changes – why not do it now?
For more information on unclaimed assets please see:
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A recent decision out of Alberta on holograph wills is interesting. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision released on February 20, 2020 in Edmonton in the Estate of Dalla Lana, 2020 ABQB 135 starts with the following :
“Mr. Dalla Lana made a will in 1997. On March 1, 2018 (four days before he died) and via notes made on two sticky notes, he made what he described as “changes to my earlier will”. The “changes” if valid, effectively rewrote the entire will.”
The decision then goes on to find that the “two sticky notes” were a valid will. This was one more decision in a long line of cases (in substantial compliance jurisdictions, unlike Ontario) with wills being upheld when written on everything from napkins to tractor fenders.
If a valid will can be done on a sticky note, one should ask is there any reason now why an electronic will could not be done on an iPad or smartphone?
Pandemic emergency Orders in Ontario have recently accepted wills being signed and witnessed by video conference or by counterpart. However, there is still a requirement for a “hard copy” of the will. A purely electronic will with a digital signature is still not permissible.
Some jurisdictions have already allowed electronic wills into probate. In Australia, the High Court of Queensland gave probate to a will in 2013 contained in the iPad of the deceased, in Yu Estate 2013 QSC 322.
Although digital electronic signatures have been allowed in Ontario for use in some business situations for many years, there are some restrictions on doing electronic will signatures which are found in the Electronic Commerce Act, 2000, SO 2000, c 17,
31 (1) This Act does not apply to the following documents:
- Wills and codicils.
- Trusts created by wills or codicils.
- Powers of attorney, to the extent that they are in respect of an individual’s financial affairs or personal care.
Given the emergency statutory provisions triggered by the pandemic, it seems inevitable that a meaningful debate will soon ensue about the merits of electronic wills and the broader question of whether Ontario should adopt substantial compliance in its estates legislation.
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Please enjoy these blogs on the subject:
Video conferencing has been around for about forty years. It has been used in criminal court bail hearings and on applications to the Supreme Court of Canada for more than thirty years in some parts of the country. There are many good reasons to now expand the use of video and other technology in the law of wills and estates. The technology “Genie” is now out of the legislative bottle it has been kept in for too long, and it is not likely to be put back in when this pandemic fully ends.
The changes made in the last month to how a will can be validly signed in Ontario have been made far more quickly than anyone expected. The substance of these changes has been dealt with in other Hull and Hull blogs. The Emergency Management and Civil Protection legislation in Ontario, and the Orders made pursuant to that legislation beginning on Tuesday March 17, 2020 have effectively amended past practice to such a degree that the usual caution of the legal profession has been surrendered. Wills can now be signed and witnessed over the internet. Counterpart signed wills are now allowed. Affidavits can be commissioned by video conference now. These and other changes have been made and implemented quickly, with effect to the core of basic principles. The legal profession in Ontario has not seen changes like this in the past one hundred years!
The changes are brought on by the circumstances of the current pandemic emergency and are necessary. It has been impressive to watch these changes being made so quickly. Immense credit is due to those involved. Led by the Attorney General of Ontario, Doug Downey, and with the Deputy Minister, lawyers at the Ministry, members of the Estate Bar, and others, they have all truly done monumental work. On Monday May 4, 2020 a notice was posted on the Ontario Court of Justice website that included the following statement that the Court would be, “…working closely with its justice partners, including the Ministry of the Attorney General, to adopt technology that will increase participants’ ability to access the Court’s services using remote means, such as by the electronic filing of court material, remote scheduling processes, and remote hearings.”
It is interesting to ask however, while changes were happening incrementally in other areas of the law over many years, why was there no progress in the area of execution of wills? It is important to also ask what further changes should be made at this time. For many lawyers the recent storm of events and the subsequent changes are anxiety making. Nevertheless, this is the time further permanent changes should be considered. What should be of interest now is how technology can be used to benefit all going forward. Before the timing of the window for change closes this should become an important discussion among estate lawyers.
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These blog posts on the subject may also be of interest:
This Sunday February 16, 2020 the NBA All-Star game will be played in Chicago. It is estimated that seven million people will watch that one game, and that about 450 million people are involved with basketball around the world annually. Forbes magazine has estimated the value of the 30 NBA teams at over 50 billion dollars with the Toronto Raptors valued at 1.7 billion.
On December 21, 1891 the game of basketball was invented by Canadian James Naismith. He was born on November 6, 1861 in Almonte Ontario about 50 kilometers west of Ottawa. Yet, the inventor of the game, James Naismith, never profited from any of this. In fact, he was generally in favour of advancing good values through sport and not profit. His estate did not profit either. However, his original two-page rules of the game of “Basket Ball” from 1891 were passed down to his family.
On December 10, 2010 the rules were purchased at Sotheby’s auction for a record 4.3 million dollars by David and Suzanne Booth. The couple then donated the original rules of the game of “Basket Ball” to the University of Kansas, where James Naismith had been director of athletics until retiring in 1937 at the age of 76. He died on November 28, 1939 at his home in Lawrence Kansas. The family heirs of James Naismith took the proceeds from the sale of the original rules and donated the money to the Naismith International Basketball Foundation charitable organization.
A notable legacy in a succession of events. The game of life played well, starting with James Naismith, then David and Suzanne Booth, and then the family and heirs of James Naismith!
Enjoy the game!
What do you do as a lawyer when you represent someone who is waiting to receive money from an estate, but the Estate Trustee will not pay? An interim distribution can commonly be made. The Estate Trustee can hold back some of the funds for potential liabilities and distribute some of the money immediately. Potential liabilities can involve delayed tax filings related to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) procedures being slow, or other estate liabilities. Final distribution can be delayed for a matter of 2-3 years, or even longer. As an example, on a $1,000,000 estate, the hold back might be $200,000 on $50,000 of estate liabilities that are known or can be knowledgeably estimated. This safely leaves $800,000 for immediate interim distribution, without waiting years until concluding administration of the estate. However, the practice of the Office of Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT) in Ontario is not to do interim distributions. They take the position that even if there is the remotest potential for liability they will not take the risk. As a government entity there is certainly no incentive to take any risk. The following rhetorical question illustrates the problem – What civil servant in a bureaucratic government agency is going to move quickly to take on liability and risk?
A recent decision clearly directs the Office of Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT) of Ontario to make an immediate interim distribution as Estate Trustee.
It is unfortunate, in my view, that anyone would have to take steps to seek an Order in these circumstances. This is what happened in Foundation for Human Development and Jack Benson v The Estate of Keith Irwin-Reekie, 2020 ONSC 299, with the decision released on January 15, 2020. The court directed an interim distribution by the OPGT, to distribute the inheritance to which the moving parties were entitled. The court found that it was appropriate to exercise discretion under rule 74.15 (1) (i) “Orders for Assistance” of the Rules of Civil Procedure, Courts of Justice Act. The reasoning was that it was usual practice for estate trustees to make interim distributions out of estates, “once the Estate Trustee has a good understanding of the taxes and other liabilities of the estate, holding back sufficient funds in the estate to satisfy those expenses / liabilities”.
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America’s Top Forty show was hosted for decades by Casey Kasem and was one of the top radio shows in the world. Casey was born Kemal Amin Kasem in Detroit on April 27, 1932 to Lebanese immigrant parents who worked as grocers. He succeeded on radio and also did other work like voice roles in cartoons like “Shaggy” on Scooby-Doo. When he died on June 15, 2014 at age 82 his estate was reported to be valued at over $ 80 million USD.
After his death, three children from his first marriage were involved in what can only be described as a very sad dispute with his second wife that went on for over 5 years. The dispute was recently reported to have been settled in December 2019. This, in my view, is another example of what goes wrong when proper estate planning is not considered by parents/spouses/children. The ensuing consequences are often unfortunate and can be played out, in large part, in the courts. There is too much to the Casey Kasem story for this blog but, the story involves his dementia from Lewy Body Disease, one of the most common progressive dementia’s after Alzheimer’s. It involves his disappearance and a Los Angeles court declaring him a missing person on May 12, 2014. It involves his not being buried for six months after he died and then being buried in Oslo Norway for some reason on December 16, 2014. For more on this story I suggest the article by Amy Wallace entitled “The Long, Strange Purgatory of Casey Kasem”.
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Some basic questions to get you thinking about starting a will with a surviving spouse scenario:
- Everything to spouse Absolute (no strings attached)?
- Some or all assets held in a Spousal Trust (some conditions will apply) ?
- An amount immediately to children with the balance to the spouse Absolute?
For lawyers – the Hull e-State Planner is a tool for making wills and has been called “the future of will planning”. To book your free demo today email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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If this blog is interesting, please consider these other related resources:
The book “The Beautiful Ones” was released last week in Canada. Part memoir (until his teenage years) and part biography, the book provides some insights into the life of one of the most influential musicians of our time. “Prince” Rogers Nelson, a multi-talented singer-songwriter died on April 21, 2016 at the age of 57 from an accidental fentanyl overdose at his estate outside Minneapolis. He died without a will.
The Minnesota Star Tribune reported about two weeks later, on May 8, 2016 that: “Suddenly, wills and estates are a topic everyone wants to learn about.” And “They are talking about it at the family barbecue, the Rotary Club, and the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce”.
According to several surveys, approximately 65% of Canadians do not have an “up to date” will. “Make a Will Month” encourages Canadians to make or update their wills. Doing so can save a lot of expense, delay, and conflict in the future. A proper will and estate plan means reducing or eliminating problems that arise when a person dies intestate (without a valid will). It has been reported that three years after his death Prince’s estate is still not distributed. Lawyers for his sister and half-siblings are squabbling. Claims by some alleged descendants have been dismissed. According to some estimates the estate is worth more than $300 million USD.
All kinds of people, including famous musicians, die without having made a valid will. Some who did not get around to making a will include: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, Duke Ellington, Barry White, George Gershwin, and Amy Winehouse.
Why wait? It is Make a Will Month! Please consider making a will. Thanks!
“Your Will is a Sacred Trust. It should be made when you are in the prime of life and better able to give it the consideration it deserves.”
From an advertisement in the National Post, Toronto Newspaper, by the Mercantile Trust Company on November 8, 1919.
One hundred years have passed since that advertisement and there have been many changes in the law since then, changes in the use of technology in making wills and changes in society. But, it does not appear that the advertising and marketing of wills has evolved much over the last hundred years. There is little advertising visible today and it does not appear to be effective. Recent surveys have shown that approximately half of all Canadians do not have a will. An Angus Reid Institute report indicates that the majority of Canadians today do not have a will, and only 35% say they have a will that is “up to date”. The main reason cited for not having a will was 25% who said, “Too young to worry about it”. Interestingly, only 18% responded that they thought “It’s too expensive to get a will written” – with this number being only 6% among people with a household income of more than $100K.
In a time when individuals are often spending what appears to be incredible sums of money on material things, and on sports events, concerts, stage productions, and other entertainment, one has to wonder if marketing of the legal service of “getting a will written” has somehow missed the mark when 65% of Canadians say they do not have a will that is up to date.
November is Make a Will Month, which is an opportunity for Ontario Bar Association members to help the public understand the importance of having a will and having it done by a lawyer. Please consider making a will in “Make a Will Month” and instead of putting it off – why not “do it now”. Make a Will Month will see many free legal information sessions presented by volunteers at places like libraries and community centers across Ontario throughout November. For more information, you can contact a lawyer or visit the Ontario Bar Association website.
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We live in a big and beautiful country that is great for summer vacation travel from sea to sea. The vast distance from British Columbia to Nova Scotia is not just geographic, as shown by court decisions involving the review of wills. There is also a great deal of public policy distance between these provinces.
In the recent British Columbia decision on July 17, 2019 of Grewal v Litt, 2019 BCSC 1154 the four daughters of the deceased sought a court-ordered variation of the mirror wills of their parents using the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13. In their wills, the parents left 95% of their nine million dollar estate to their two sons and the remainder to their four daughters. The daughters sought and obtained a variation based on the facts and legislation with the court ordering 15% to each of the four daughters and 20% to each of the two sons.
In the Nova Scotia decision in Lawen Estate v Nova Scotia Attorney General, 2019 NSSC 162, the court ruled that the deceased had a great deal of testamentary freedom and that this freedom was constitutionally protected. The Estate of Jack Lawen was subject to a claim by some of his adult and competent children under the Nova Scotia Testator’s Family Maintenance Act for a change in the distribution of assets from what was specified in his will. In this case, the daughters applied, but they were not successful. It is interesting to note that the Judge agreed with the argument that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms could be used to strike down those provisions of the legislation that allowed the adult competent children to even bring their application to the court. The Charter, it was argued, protects the right to decide where the property would go and to disinherit his children. Presiding Justice John Bodurtha wrote in his decision dated May 24, 2019, “A testamentary decision is a fundamental personal decision that is protected under section 7” of the Charter.
Legislation that infringes and limits a testator’s freedom, however, can be justified in some instances, and to certain degrees, depending on the province and the case facts. If you try to disinherit your dependant spouse then the courts would step in and limit your testamentary freedom. This also applies to not providing for dependants who are minor children, non-competent adult children, and even competent adult children in some provinces. One could ask, however, if it is fair and just that the daughters in British Columbia could achieve an equitable distribution of the family estate, but in Nova Scotia, they would have failed.
Canadian limitations on testamentary freedom are small and balanced in comparison to the forced heirship provisions of many European civil law jurisdictions. In those countries, a testator is forced by law to leave a portion of the estate to family members. The percentage of the estate to be distributed and those who are eligible varies by jurisdiction. It is an interesting public policy approach to make the family unit legally paramount in forced heirship jurisdictions, and not the individual testator.
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