Author: Nick Esterbauer
For many Canadians, one or more life insurance policies represent an important component of an estate plan. If a policy cannot be honoured as a result of the cause of the insured’s death, this may completely frustrate his or her testamentary wishes.
The terms of life insurance policies typically address the issue of whether a beneficiary will be entitled to the insurance proceeds in the event that an individual commits suicide. Policy terms typically include a restriction as to the payout of the policy if the insured dies by his or her own hands within a certain of number of years from the date on which the policy is taken out (most often two years).
With the decriminalization of physician-assisted death, there was initially some concern regarding whether medical assistance in dying would be distinguished from suicide for the purposes of life insurance. The preamble to the related federal legislation, however, distinguishes between the act of suicide and obtaining medical assistance in dying.
As mentioned by Suzana Popovic-Montag in a recent blog entry, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association suggested in 2016 that, if a Canadian follows the legislated process for obtaining medial assistance in dying, life insurance providers will pay out on policies that are less than two years old. Since then, the Medical Assistance in Dying Statute Law Amendment Act, 2017 has come into force to provide protection and clarity for Ontario patients and their families. This legislation has resulted in amendments to various provincial legislation, including the Excellent Care for All Act, 2010, a new section of which now reads as follows:
…the fact that a person received medical assistance in dying may not be invoked as a reason to deny a right or refuse a benefit or any other sum which would otherwise be provided under a contract or statute…unless an express contrary intention appears in the statute.
The amendments provided for within the legislation introduced by the Ontario government represent an important step in the recognition of physician-assisted death as a right that is distinguishable from the act of suicide. They also confirm the right of individuals who access medical assistance in dying to benefit their survivors with life insurance policies or other benefits.
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An Ontario Court of Appeal decision released yesterday provides clarity regarding the situations in which beneficiaries of legacies will be entitled to interest on the sum payable to them under a Last Will and Testament.
In Rivard v Morris, the testator had held farmland of significant value. A prior Will left a farm of comparable value to each of his daughters (as the testator had previously gifted a farm property to his son), and divided the residue of the estate equally between the three children. In the months preceding his death, however, the deceased amended his estate plan to provide for a greater benefit to his son, leaving him the residue of his estate (inclusive of the farm properties) after distributions to each daughter in the amount of $530,000.00.
After the testator died, the daughters challenged his Last Will on the basis of alleged undue influence. The will challenge was unsuccessful. The daughters subsequently commenced another proceeding after their brother (the sole remaining estate trustee after their previous resignations) refused to pay to the sisters interest with respect to the legacies of $530,000.00. They argued that they were entitled to interest commencing one year after the date of their father’s death, notwithstanding that the payment had been delayed in part because of the will challenge initiated by the daughters. Any interest would have been payable out of the assets to which their brother was otherwise entitled as sole residuary beneficiary of the estate.
The daughters were unsuccessful at the hearing of their application and appealed. The Court of Appeal found in their favour. Justice Paciocco ordered the payment to each daughter interest in the amount of $53,000.00 out of the residue of the estate. In doing so, Justice Paciocco relied upon the “executor’s year” and the “rule of convenience”. In describing the rule of convenience, Justice Paciocco stated as follows (at paragraphs 24, 25):
The “rule of convenience” can be easily explained, in my view. One of the maxims of equity is that it presumes as being done that which ought to be done. Since the beneficiaries should be enjoying the earning power of their legacies by at least the anniversary date of the testator’s death, where that enjoyment is postponed and the testator has not provided an alternative date for payment of the legacy, interest is to be paid…This general rule has been adopted in Ontario.
The rule of convenience was considered by the Court of Appeal to promote certainty and predictability, and the lower court’s decision to deny the daughters’ interest on the basis that they had commenced litigation against the estate was said to be contrary to principle, as this would have the impact of discouraging “even meritorious litigation”. While the Court of Appeal did neither confirmed nor denied whether judges are able to exercise discretion to deny interest to beneficiaries of legacies, it found that it had been inappropriate for the application judge to do so in this case.
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A recent article featured in the New York Times highlights the need to reconsider estate planning strategies in light of developments in the law of inheritance taxation.
As our blog has previously reported, during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump vowed to eliminate inheritance taxes, then payable on the value of American estates exceeding $5.45 million, altogether. To the disappointment of many wealthy citizens of the United States, President Trump has not carried out his promise and, while the exemption has been increased, inheritance tax remains payable in the United States in respect of estates of a size greater than $10 million.
The New York Times reports that these changes to the exemption in respect of inheritance taxation are temporary in nature and that the measures currently in effect will expire in 2026. At that time, Americans (and individuals who hold property of significant value in the United States) may need to amend their estate plans with a view to tax efficiency.
Gifts, including testamentary gifts, are not typically subject to taxation in Canada. While there is no Canadian estate or inheritance tax, assets that are distributed in accordance with a Canadian Last Will and Testament or Codicil that is admitted to probate will be subject to an estate administration tax (also known as “probate fees”). Many of our readers will already be aware of the relatively new requirement (as of 2015) that estate trustees in Ontario file an Estate Information Return with the Ontario Ministry of Finance within 90 days of the processing of a probate application. In some circumstances, details regarding both traditional estate assets and assets typically considered to pass outside of the estate are required, notwithstanding that the latter category may nevertheless be exempt from probate fees. Some anticipate that the law in Ontario may at some point be amended to require further details regarding assets passing outside of an estate in Estate Information Returns and/or the payment of estate administration tax or other fees in respect of these assets. Like variations in the exemptions to American inheritance tax, changes to estate administration taxes may in the future necessitate amendments to existing estate plans with a view to limiting the taxes payable on the transfer of wealth.
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I recently read an article that features a discussion of issues relating to seniors living in the “Little Tokyo” neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles. In the context of North America’s aging population, the residents of Little Tokyo are becoming increasingly isolated, both socially and linguistically.
Nearly half of L.A.’s senior population was born outside of the United States, with almost one-third unable to communicate well in English. Over half of the inhabitants of Little Tokyo are “linguistically isolated” and live alone, factors which have the potential to create barriers to accessing healthcare and other services, including legal assistance.
In multicultural cities like L.A. or Toronto, lawyers often encounter clients, both young and old, whose first languages are not English. It can be helpful to obtain the assistance of an interpreter when we are not fluent in the same language as our clients. Below, I briefly summarize a couple of points relating to language barriers that may be important for estate lawyers to keep in mind:
- In Ontario, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice will normally process Certificates of Appointment of Estate Trustee only in respect of wills that are written in one of Canada’s official languages. Section 125(2)(b) of the Courts of Justice Act otherwise specifies that documents filed in courts written in another language, including wills being admitted to probate, must be accompanied by a certified translation. Especially if a will can be prepared in English and translated to the client at the time of its execution, this may represent an unnecessary expense and cause for delay in obtaining probate.
- When working on matters involving the rights of an incapable person, a language barrier may skew the results of a capacity assessment. The Public Guardian and Trustee’s list of designated capacity assessors includes a number of professionals who are able to conduct assessments in languages other than English, for more accurate results. In the event that a person is determined to suffer from cognitive issues and the parties seek the appointment of counsel under Section 3 of the Substitute Decisions Act, it is best to propose the appointment of a lawyer who speaks the individual’s native language.
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Amendments to Alberta’s succession legislation took effect in 2012 to expand the authority of the courts to order that a will is valid, notwithstanding its failure to comply with the formal requirements otherwise imposed under the Wills and Succession Act, SA 2010, c W-12.2 (the “Act”). Specifically, section 37 of the Act reads as follows:
Court may validate non-compliant will
37 The Court may, on application, order that a writing is valid as a will or a revocation of a will, despite that the writing was not made in accordance with section 15, 16 or 17, if the Court is satisfied on clear and convincing evidence that the writing sets out the testamentary intentions of the testator and was intended by the testator to be his or her will or a revocation of his or her will.
Section 39(2) of the Act addresses the issue of the rectification of a will that has not been signed. If a court is convinced by “clear and compelling evidence” that the will was not signed as a result of pure mistake or inadvertence and the testator intended to give effect to the document as his or her last will, the court may add a signature to rectify the will.
The recent decision of Edmunds Estate, 2017 ABQB 754, provides clarification regarding the limits of the court’s ability to validate an unsigned will. In that case, a paralegal had received instructions from the deceased and prepared a will that reflected her instructions, but the new will was never signed by the deceased before she died. Justice C.M. Jones of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench found that the amended Act did not provide the Court with the authority to validate an unsigned will in the absence of clear and convincing evidence that the deceased had intended to sign the document and/or that she had failed to do so by inadvertence or mistake. The deceased could not have been said to have failed to sign the document by mistake, as she died before making arrangements to execute the will, and Justice Jones found that the evidence that the draft will was intended to be her last valid will fell short of what was required by the legislation.
In Ontario, the doctrine of strict compliance applies. Unless its defects can be cured by way of interpretation or rectification (the scope of which remedy remains limited), a will that does not comply with the formal requirements of the Succession Law Reform Act, RSO 1990, c S.26, will not be treated as valid and cannot be admitted to probate.
With several other provinces recently adding what Justice Jones refers to as “dispensing clauses” into their respective succession legislation, it will be interesting to see whether Ontario follows suit, opening the door to substantial compliance, in time.
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The Global Private Wealth Guide includes a chapter for nineteen different countries and features practical information regarding tax issues, succession law, the status of trusts, business and charitable planning, and the role of fiduciaries in each jurisdiction. The Guide also features a profile page for each country, in which general information related to relevant business practices is summarized.
The Private Wealth Guide is a helpful tool for lawyers assisting clients who may hold property or business interests in multiple jurisdictions. Among the interesting features of the website for the Guide is the option of comparing the treatment of each issue between two or more jurisdictions. For example, it offers the opportunity to obtain quick and reliable information regarding any differences between the treatment of marital property in Canada and the United States.
A complete electronic copy of the guide is available here. A link has also recently been added to the resources section of our website.
Thank you for reading and have a great weekend.
My other two blog posts this week have focused on the utility of model legislation that has been introduced in Canada and the United States to address the issue of fiduciary access to digital assets, and some of the primary differences between the uniform acts of these two jurisdictions.
Today, I take the opportunity to highlight the prevalence of digital assets through the use of some interesting (and somewhat surprising) statistics:
- 99% of North Americans use at least one personal online tool;
- A 2013 study by McAfee suggests that Canadians value their digital assets at an average of more than $32,000.00. Since 2013, the prevalence of digital assets has increased significantly;
- Worldwide, Bitcoins are valued at almost $22 billion, with over $2 million in Bitcoins exchanged every day;
- As many of our readers already know, many Canadians (estimated to be more than 60%) do not have a Last Will and Testament. Of those who do have a Will, 57% of North Americans aged 45 and older have not included provisions that address access to digital assets as part of their formal estate plan. Such provisions may be required in order for an estate trustee to gain access to digital assets, absent the enactment of legislation permitting same or a court order granting access.
Our blog has previously covered some of the common issues resulting from the inattention to digital estate planning, which can arise regardless of the financial value of the assets in dispute.
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Canada’s model legislation regarding digital assets, the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act (the “Canadian Model Act”), was introduced in August 2016, and borrows heavily from its American predecessor, the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “American Model Act”).
The Canadian Model Act defines a “digital asset” as “a record that is created, recorded, transmitted or stored in digital or other intangible form by electronic, magnetic or optical means or by any other similar means.” As with the definition appearing within the American Model Act, this definition does not include title to an underlying asset, such as securities as digital assets. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not define the terms “information” or “record.”
In the Canadian Model Act, the term “fiduciary” is also defined similarly as in the American Model Act, restricting the application of both pieces of model legislation to four kinds of fiduciary: personal representatives, guardians, attorneys appointed under a Power of Attorney for Property, and trustees appointed to hold a digital asset in trust.
One challenge that both pieces of model legislation attempt to address is the delicate balance between the competing rights to access and privacy. The American Model Act is somewhat longer in this regard, as it addresses provisions of American privacy legislation to which there is no equivalent in Canada. Canadian law does not treat fiduciary access to digital assets as a “disclosure” of personal information. Accordingly, under Canadian law, the impact on privacy legislation by fiduciary access to digital assets is relatively limited.
The Canadian Model Act provides a more robust right of access to fiduciaries. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not authorize custodians of digital assets to choose the fiduciary’s level of access to the digital asset. Section 3 of the Canadian Model Act states that a fiduciary’s right of access is subject instead to the terms of the instrument appointing the fiduciary, being the Power of Attorney for Property, Last Will and Testament, or Court Order.
Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian equivalent has a “last-in-time” priority system. The most recent instruction concerning the fiduciary’s right to access a digital asset takes priority over any earlier instrument. For example, an account holder with a pre-existing Last Will and Testament, who chooses to appoint a Facebook legacy contact is restricting their executor’s right to access their Facebook account after death pursuant to the Will.
Despite their differences, both pieces of model legislation serve the same purpose of facilitating access by attorneys for or guardians of property and estate trustees to digital assets and information held by individuals who are incapable or deceased and represent steps in the right direction in terms of updating estate and incapacity law to reflect the prevalence of digital assets in the modern world.
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Later this week, House Bill 432 will come into effect in Ohio to update state estate and trust administration law. One of the most notable updates is the adoption of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, along with corresponding updates to Ohio’s Power of Attorney Act.
The American Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act is intended to formalize the authority of attorneys for property and estate trustees to obtain access to digital assets for deceased or incapable users. Prior to its implementation in American states (and in other jurisdictions in which comparable legislation has not yet been introduced), the intervention of the courts has often been required to grant fiduciaries with access to information and assets stored electronically. There continues to be some debate as to whether an attorney for property or estate trustee, authorized to administer tangible property, also has the authority to manage digital assets without legislation and/or terms of the Power of Attorney or Will explicitly extending this authority.
Interestingly, the Revised Uniform Act has been endorsed by Google and by Facebook, both platforms on which a great deal of the world’s digital assets are stored. In 2016, 13 states introduced the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. With the introduction or enactment of the Revised Act in another 24 states since the beginning of 2017 alone, it is clear that state legislatures and online service providers alike agree that amendments to the law in recognition of the growth of technology is required to clarify the state of the law of digital assets and fiduciaries.
The Uniform Law Conference of Canada introduced the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act (2016) this past summer. While the uniform acts of Canada and the United States share a number of similarities, there are several important distinctions, which will be highlighted in Thursday’s blog post.
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Life insurance is a common estate planning tool, whether it may be engaged to increase the assets available to beneficiaries, to assist in equalizing inheritances received by multiple beneficiaries (for instance, when one child will receive an interest in a family business and other assets are not available to leave an equal benefit for other children), or to fund specific types of expenses that will become payable upon death. While the owner of a life insurance policy is more often than not the person whose life is insured, this is not always the case. In Canada, in order to purchase a life insurance policy on another person’s life, the policy owner must have an “insurable interest” in the policy subject’s life. Canada’s Insurance Act defines an insurable interest as follows:
Without restricting the meaning of “insurable interest”, a person, in this section called the “primary person”, has an insurable interest,
(a) in the case of a primary person who is a natural person, in his or her own life and in the lives of,
(i) the primary person’s child or grandchild,
(ii) the primary person’s spouse,
(iii) a person on whom the primary person is wholly or partly
dependent for, or from whom the primary person is receiving, support or education,
(iv) the primary person’s employee, and
(v) a person in the duration of whose life the primary person has a pecuniary interest; and
(b) in the case of a primary person that is not a natural person, in the lives of,
(i) a director, officer or employee of the primary person, and
(ii) a person in the duration of whose life the primary person has a pecuniary interest.
Other jurisdictions similarly allow individuals or companies to take out life insurance policies on the life of another on the basis of an insurable interest in certain circumstances. As David Freedman mentioned in his recent blog post, Disney had a life insurance policy worth $50 million in American funds on the life of Carrie Fisher as one of the stars of the Star Wars franchise, which Disney purchased in 2012 for $4 billion. This is reported to be the largest ever payout of a life insurance policy of this kind.
There is much speculation with respect to how Disney will fill the void left by Fisher’s death in the final entry in the current Star Wars trilogy (Fisher had apparently finished filming for Episode VIII prior to her passing). Some suggest that the script for the following installment will be drastically re-written as a result of Fisher’s absence. Others have referred to the posthumous appearance of Peter Cushing in Star Wars: Rogue One (I personally had no idea that it was not the original actor himself until I read Suzana’s blog on the topic) in support of the potential to use CGI technology to allow Princess-turned-General Leia Organa to appear again in Episode IX. As done with Cushing in Rogue One, Disney could, in theory, digitally impose Fisher’s face onto another actor’s body. In any event, the life insurance proceeds payable to Disney will no doubt assist in offsetting any loss that it will suffer as a result of Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing.
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