Author: Stuart Clark
I recently blogged about the growing use of home DNA tests and what impact an unexpected result could have upon your rights as a beneficiary of an estate. While such a blog was from the perspective of an individual who discovered through a home DNA test that their biological father was not in fact the individual they previously believed it to be, and the potential impact such a finding could have upon their status as a beneficiary of their “father’s” estate if their interest was based on their status as a “child”, questions would also emerge in such a scenario if you were the Estate Trustee of such an estate regarding what you should do.
If you are the Estate Trustee of an estate in which a bequest is based on parentage (i.e. an intestacy or a bequest to a testator’s “issue” or “children”), and you discover that one of the beneficiaries has voluntarily taken a home DNA test which revealed that they were not in fact related to the deceased, could you still make a distribution to such a beneficiary? If you have already made a distribution to such a beneficiary, is there a risk that the other beneficiaries could now make a claim against you as Estate Trustee, alleging that you distributed the estate to the incorrect individuals and that they have suffered damages as a result?
In response to whether an Estate Trustee could potentially be liable to the other beneficiaries for historically paying out amounts to a beneficiary who it is later discovered was not actually related to the deceased, it would appear that the Estate Trustee likely would not be liable under such a scenario. In my previous blog I discussed the provisions of the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“) which establish a person’s legal parentage in Ontario, and the various presumptions establishing an individual’s father. While sections 13(1) and 14(1) of the CLRA allow the court to make a subsequent different declaration as to a person’s parentage, section 14(2) of the CLRA provides that such an Order “does not affect rights and duties that were exercised or performed, or interests in property that were distributed, before the order was set aside“. As a result, it would appear, arguably, that if an Estate Trustee historically made a payment to an individual based off of parentage, and a subsequent declaration is made by the court that the individual in question was not actually the parent of the beneficiary, the historic payment to the beneficiary could not be put in issue or reclaimed provided that at the time the payment was made the beneficiary was still presumed and/or declared to be the child of the deceased.
The issue of what an Estate Trustee is to do if a payment has not yet been made and they discover that an individual who they previously believed to be a beneficiary is not in fact related to the deceased could be more complicated. In the event that the other beneficiaries who could be affected by the distribution do not unanimously consent to continue to allow the distribution to the individual notwithstanding the results of the DNA test, it is possible that one or all of the other beneficiaries may later bring a claim against the Estate Trustee for negligence, alleging that the Estate Trustee knew about the results of the DNA test before making the distribution and that they have suffered damages as a result of the distribution. To offset such a risk, it may be wise for the Estate Trustee in such a scenario to bring an Application for the opinion, advice and direction of the court pursuant to section 60(1) of the Trustee Act and/or rule 14.05, asking the court to determine whether the distribution may still be made to the potential beneficiary in light of the results of the home DNA test.
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One of the most gifted items this past holiday season were apparently the home DNA tests which can reveal your genetic ancestry or even if you are predisposed to certain health conditions. As anyone who has taken one of these tests (myself included) can tell you, the test results also contain a long list of other individuals who have also taken the test who you are related to, allowing you to reconnect with long lost relatives.
While my own test results did not reveal any family secrets, the same cannot be said for other individuals who have taken the test, as there have been a growing number of articles recently about how home DNA tests have revealed family secrets which otherwise may never have come to light. Although not all of these secrets are necessarily negative, such as finding a long-lost sibling, others, such as finding out that the individual who you believed to be your father was not in fact your biological father, could be life changing. For the latter, the phenomena is apparently common enough that the Atlantic has reported that self-help groups have formed around the issue, such as the Facebook group “DNA NPE Friends”, with “NPE” standing for “Not Parent Expected”.
In reading through these stories I couldn’t help but wonder if having such a result could impact your potential entitlements as a beneficiary of an estate. What happens if, for example, the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father but the test reveals was not in fact your father should die intestate, or should leave a class gift to his “children” in his Will without specifically naming the children. Could finding out that you were not actually biologically related to your “father” result in you no longer being entitled to receive a benefit as a beneficiary? Could you potentially be disinherited as a beneficiary of an estate by voluntarily taking a home DNA test if your right to the gift is founded upon you being related to the deceased individual?
Who is legally considered an individual’s “parent” in Ontario is established by the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“). Section 7(1) of the CLRA provides that, subject to certain exceptions, the person “whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child” is the parent of a child. Section 7(2) of the CLRA further provides for a series of presumptions regarding the identity of the individual’s “whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child“, including, for example, that there is a presumption that such an individual is the birth parent’s spouse at the time the child is born, or the individual in question certified the child’s birth as a parent of the child in accordance with the Vital Statistics Act (i.e. signed the birth certificate). To the extent that there are any questions about parentage, section 13(1) of the CLRA provides that any interested individual may apply to the court at any time after a child is born for a declaration that a person is or is not the legal parent of the child.
In applying these presumptions to our previous questions about the home DNA test, if, for example, the individual who you previously believed was your biological father was your birth mother’s “spouse” at the time you were born, or signed the birth certificate, it would appear that, subject to there being a declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA to the contrary, there would continue to be a presumption at law that the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father would continue to be your legal “parent” in accordance with the CLRA. To this respect, in the absence of a formal declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA that the individual was no longer your legal “parent”, there would appear to be an argument in favour of the position that the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father would continue to be your legal “parent”, and that you should continue to receive any benefits which may come to you as a “child” on the death of your “father”, whether on an intestacy or a class bequest to his “children” in his Will.
This presumption, of course, is subject to the ability of any interested person (i.e. the Estate Trustee or one of the other beneficiaries) to seek a formal declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA that you were not in fact a “child” of the individual you believed to be your biological father. If such a formal declaration is ultimately made by the court, you would cease to be the legal “child” of the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father, and would likely lose any corresponding bequests which may have been made to you on an intestacy or as a member of the class “children” in the Will.
The use of DNA tests to establish the potential beneficiaries of an estate is not a new phenomenon (see: Proulx v. Kelly). What is new, however, are people voluntarily taking such tests en masse in a public forum, potentially voluntarily raising questions about their rights to receive an interest in an estate when such questions would not have existed otherwise.
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If you are anything like me you have previously struggled with how you are to refer to Masters in court. Referring to them as “Master” always felt a little bit awkward, while at the same time you were always not sure if the more formal “Your Honour” was reserved solely for Judges.
If you have ever experienced similar uncertainty wonder no more, as the Consolidated Practice Direction for the Ontario Superior Court of Justice was recently amended to clarify how you are to refer to Masters in court. In accordance with the revised item 114 of the Practice Direction, it is confirmed that you are to refer to Masters as “Your Honour” in English and “Votre Honneur” in French.
Now that the potential embarrassment of using the incorrect honorific in referring to Masters has been resolved, now may also be an opportune time to provide a reminder that in accordance with item 58 of the same Consolidated Practice Direction lawyers are not required to gown when appearing before a Master.
So in summary, in accordance with the updated Consolidated Practice Direction you are to refer to Masters as “Your Honour” when appearing before them, while at the same time you are not required to gown. Consider yourself properly prepared for you next appearance before a Master.
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Canada is currently in the midst of a postal strike. Although the strike is currently “rotating” in nature, with different communities being subject to the strike on different days, it is possible that the strike could become country wide should negotiations remain unsuccessful. Although concern may immediately turn to the potential impact of a full strike upon online holiday shopping, a full national strike could also have an impact upon the legal world in relation to the service of documents.
Canada Post remains a vital service to the legal community, amongst other things remaining one of the official means of service upon a lawyer of record pursuant to rule 16.05 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Although there are alternate service mechanisms available to serve documents upon a lawyer of record should the strike become national, such as potentially using a courier, there are certain documents which the Rules of Civil Procedure provide may only be served by mail.
Rule 74.18(3) of the Rules of Civil Procedure contemplates that an Application to Pass Accounts is to be served by regular lettermail, providing:
“The applicant shall serve the notice of application and a copy of a draft of the judgment sought on each person who has a contingent or vested interest in the estate by regular lettermail.” [emphasis added]
Although such a rule typically assists the Applicant in serving the Application to Pass Accounts in a streamlined and cost effective manner, as otherwise personal service of the Application to Pass Accounts would be required pursuant to rule 16.01 as an “originating process”, the rule does not contemplate what is to occur in the circumstance that service by regular lettermail is not possible (i.e. in a full work stoppage). In such circumstances, how can the Applicant ensure that the Application to Pass Accounts is properly served as required by the Rules of Civil Procedure?
From a common sense standpoint there are likely alternatives readily available to serve the Application materials other than by regular lettermail, including potentially by courier or by personal service. From a strict reading of rule 74.18(3) however, service of the Application to Pass Accounts by any means other than “regular lettermail” is not proper service, such that it is possible that a beneficiary may argue that they have not been properly served should you serve them by any other means. Should this occur, it is possible that an Order validating service and/or substituting service for alternative means under rule 16.04 may be required.
Thankfully at present the strike is only “rotating” in nature, such that we can continue to mail out documents such as Applications to Pass Accounts to be served in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure (subject to any potential daily interruptions should your community be striking on a particular day). Should circumstances change however, and there is a full work stoppage, it is possible Orders may have to be sought validating and/or substituting service for service in a manner other than by regular lettermail for those items such as Applications to Pass Accounts which the Rules provide may only be served by mail.
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People can become upset when they find out that they have been written out of a Will. This frustration can often become multiplied when the individual in question received a significant bequest under a prior Will, believing the that the prior Will in which they received a more significant interest should govern the administration of the estate. In looking for recourse or answers, the “disappointed beneficiary” can often lash out against the drafting lawyer who was retained to prepare the new Will, believing that it was somehow improper or negligent for them to have prepared the Will, and that they have suffered damages in the form of the lost bequest. Some “disappointed beneficiaries” will even go as far as to commence a claim against the drafting lawyer for having seen to drafting the new Will. But can such claims be successful?
In order for the “disappointed beneficiary” to successfully have a claim against the drafting lawyer, the court must find that the drafting lawyer owed a “duty of care” to the beneficiaries under the prior Will. Generally speaking, the only individual to whom a drafting lawyer owes a duty of care when seeing to the preparation of a Will is the testator (and the beneficiaries listed in the new Will by extension). Although the court will sometimes in limited circumstances extend a duty of care to “disappointed beneficiaries”, such circumstances typically exist when the testator advised the drafting lawyer of an intention to benefit a certain individual, however as a result of the actions of the drafting lawyer such an individual did not end up receiving the intended bequest (see White v. Jones and Hall v. Bennett Estate). Such circumstances appear notably distinct from bequests to beneficiaries under a prior Will, for by creating a new Will the testator is in effect communicating to the drafting lawyer an intention to no longer benefit the individuals under the prior Will.
The Alberta Court of Appeal in Graham v. Bonnycastle succinctly summarizes why the court is typically not willing to extend a duty of care from the drafting lawyer to the beneficiaries listed in a prior Will, stating:
“There are strong public policy reasons why the solicitors’ duty should not be extended. The imposition of a duty to beneficiaries under a previous will would create inevitable conflicts of interest. A solicitor cannot have a duty to follow the instructions of his client to prepare a new will and, at the same time, have a duty to beneficiaries under previous wills whose interests are likely to be affected by the new will. The interests of a beneficiary under a previous will are inevitably in conflict with the interests of the testator who wishes to change the will by revoking or reducing a bequest to that beneficiary…” [emphasis added]
In noting that there are other avenues available to such “disappointed beneficiaries”, including challenging the validity of the new Will, the court in Graham v. Bonnycastle goes on to state:
“As noted above, several decisions have recognized the untenable situation that would be created by extending solicitors’ duty of care to include beneficiaries under a former will. Beneficiaries under a former will have other remedies available to them, and may block probate of the will where testamentary capacity is not established. The estate also has a remedy available where it suffers a loss as a result of solicitor negligence. There is no justification for imposing a duty on solicitors taking instruction from a testator for a new will to protect the interests of beneficiaries under a former will. There is not a sufficient relationship of proximity and there are strong policy reasons for refusing to recognize the existence of a duty. It is not fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty.” [emphasis added]
As cases such as Graham v. Bonnycastle suggest, the court appears unwilling to extend a duty of care from the drafting lawyer to a beneficiary listed under a prior Will. If no duty of care exists, no claim may now be advanced by the disappointed beneficiary against the drafting lawyer for any perceived “damages” they may have suffered on account of the new Will having been drafted. This appears true even if it is ultimately found that the testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time the new Will was signed.
Thank you for reading.
As anyone who has ever watched the show Friends can attest, “breaks” can happen in any relationship. For those attempting to claim common law spousal status however, what impact, if any, do such “breaks” have upon the length of time that the couple has to be together? Do you have to re-set the clock of the relationship after every “break”, or can the “breaks” be ignored?
Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act incorporates the definition of “spouse” from section 29 of the Family Law Act. Section 29 of the Family Law Act in turn defines “spouse” as including “two persons who are not married to each other and have cohabited continuously for a period of not less than three years“. This definition is often what is being referred to when someone says that a relationship is “common law”, with significant corresponding legal rights potentially being given to the two individuals if they are found to be “spouses”.
As the word “continuously” is included in the definition, one would be forgiven for thinking that there cannot be any “breaks” in the relationship, and that you must have a continuous three year period of “cohabitation” for two people to be considered spouses. As we will see below however, this may not necessarily be the case.
I have previously blogged about the factors that the court may look to in determining whether two people are “cohabitating”, with the Supreme Court of Canada in M. v. H. having confirmed that you look to the factors listed in Molodowich v. Penttinen to determine whether to individuals are “cohabitating” to the extent that their relationship becomes spousal. For the purpose of this blog however, the interesting question which follows is whether a couple who otherwise meets enough of the factors from Molodowich to be considered to be “cohabitating”, but had a “break” in their relationship during the three year period, could still be considered “spouses”.
In Boothe v. Gore,  O.J. No. 4376, the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) provides the following commentary regarding the effect of a “break” on a relationship:
“The law in Ontario recognizes that a man and a woman are considered to have continuously cohabitated, despite that while living together, there might have been separations for varying periods of time before reconciling. Cohabitation does not terminate until either party regards it as being at an end, and, demonstrate convincingly that this is the party’s intent. A brief cooling off period does not convincingly show a settled state of mind that cohabitation has terminated…
The effects of temporary separations depends on the intention of the parties. When one party leaves the other and provides an objective basis to believe that they do not intend to resume cohabitation and the separation lasts for a meaningful period of time, the period of cohabitation could well have been interrupted.” [emphasis added]
As Boothe v. Gore suggests, a “break” in a relationship should not necessarily preclude a finding that two persons are common law spouses. Rather, the court is to attempt to ascertain the intentions of the parties at the time of the “break”, with the spousal status only coming to a close if either of the parties regards the relationship as being “at an end“, or the period of separation lasts for a “meaningful period of time“.
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People change their mind all of the time. When someone changes their mind about the terms of their Will however, things can become more complicated. Going to a lawyer to formally make a change to the Will may seem daunting. If the change to the Will is relatively minor, an individual may be tempted to forgo meeting with a lawyer to draw up a new Will or Codicil, and simply make the change to the Will themselves by crossing out or inserting new language by hand on the face of the old Will. But would such handwritten changes be valid?
Although the advice to any individual thinking of changing their Will would always be to speak with a lawyer about the matter, people do not always adhere to such advice. If someone has made handwritten changes to their Will after the document was originally signed, such changes can under certain circumstances alter the terms of the Will.
Section 18(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“) provides that unless any alteration to a Will is made in accordance with the requirements of section 18(2) of the SLRA, such alterations have no effect upon the provisions of the Will itself unless such an alteration has had the effect that you can no longer read the original wording of the Will. Section 18(2) of the SLRA further provides:
“An alteration that is made in a will after the will has been made is validly made when the signature of the testator and subscription of witnesses to the signature of the testator to the alteration, or, in the case of a will that was made under section 5 or 6, the signature of the testator, are or is made,
(a) in the margin or in some other part of the will opposite or near to the alteration; or
(b) at the end of or opposite to a memorandum referring to the alteration and written in some part of the will.”
As a result of section 18(1) and 18(2) of the SLRA, any handwritten change to a Will does not validly alter the terms of the Will unless the testator and two witnesses sign in the margins of the Will near the alteration (subject to certain exceptions listed). If the handwritten change is not accompanied by such signatures it is not a valid alteration and has no impact upon the original terms of the Will, unless the handwritten change has had the effect of “obliterating” the original language of the Will by making it no longer readable.
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The Henson Trust has become fairly common estate planning tool for those looking to provide a bequest to someone who may be receiving government benefits such as ODSP without such an individual losing their qualification to the government benefits. At the core of the Henson Trust is the concept that the trust is wholly discretionary, with the assets that are placed in the trust not “vesting” in the beneficiary who is receiving the government benefits until the trustee has decided to make a distribution in their favour. This allows the trustee to ensure that the beneficiary does not receive a greater amount from the trust in a given time period than allowed under the government benefits, such that the beneficiary can continue to receive their government benefits as well as receive funds from the trust.
But what happens to any funds that may be left in the trust upon the death of the beneficiary for whom the Henson Trust was primarily established? Typically, the terms of the trust will provide for a “gift-over” of any residue to an alternate beneficiary. If the trust fails to provide for such a “gift-over” however, it could have significant repercussions to the primary beneficiary for whom the Henson Trust was established, and could result in the Henson Trust being declared void.
For a trust to exist it must have what are known as the “three certainties”. They are:
- Certainty of Intention – It must be clear that the settlor intended to create a trust;
- Certainty of Subject Matter – It must be clear what property is to form part of the trust; and
- Certainty of Objects – It must be clear who the potential beneficiaries of the trust are.
A trust that does not have the “three certainties” is an oxymoron, insofar as there can be no trust that offends the three certainties as the trust failed to be established. In the circumstance contemplated above, the lack of “gift-over” upon the primary beneficiary’s death would arguably equate to there being a lack of “certainty of objects”, insofar as it is not clear who all of the potential beneficiaries of the trust are. If it is found that the trust does offend the “certainty of objects” it would fail. Should the trust fail, the primary beneficiary for whom the Henson Trust was established would no longer have the funds which would have formed the Henson Trust available to top up the funds which they receive from their government benefits, with such funds likely now forming part of the residue or being distributed on a partial intestacy.
Although the historical application of the “three certainties” would result in the Henson Trust contemplated above having been declared void from the beginning, insofar as no trust that offends the three certainties can be found to exist, it should be noted that the court in Stoor v. Stoor Estate, 2014 ONSC 5684, went to great lengths to avoid such an outcome. In Stoor Estate, notwithstanding that the court found that the trust in question failed as a result of it offending the three certainties for a lack of “certainty of objects”, the court delayed the failure of the trust until after the primary beneficiary’s death believing that it was in keeping with the testator’s intentions.
There has been significant debate about whether the Stoor Estate decision was correctly decided, and what impact, if any, it should have upon the historical application of the “three certainties”. What is not in debate however is that it is important that when drafting a Henson Trust, or any trust for that matter, to ensure that you provide for a gift-over of the residue upon the primary beneficiary’s death. If you fail to provide for such a gift-over you run the risk that the trust will be declared void for offending the three certainties, thereby depriving the individual for whom you were establishing the Henson Trust the opportunity to receive such funds in addition to their government benefits.
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No words strike fear into the hearts of most estates lawyers like the “rule against perpetuities”. Horrible memories of first year property law class, and dire warnings about how nobody truly understands how to apply the ancient and archaic principles which have developed over centuries, leave most lawyers wanting to avoid the subject at all costs. Although the cases can sometimes be hard to understand, the foundational principles and modern application of the rule against perpetuities is actually relatively simple.
The rule against perpetuities is an ancient common law doctrine which restricts the ability of an individual to control property over a prolonged period of time. At its most simple, the rule against perpetuities can be understood as not allowing an individual to control the distribution or ownership of property for longer than the “perpetuity period”, with the perpetuity period equating to a “life in being” who is alive upon the death of the testator plus twenty one years. A “life in being” is the lifetime of an individual who may receive, or is somehow associated to, the gift of the property. To this respect, an individual cannot control the ownership or distribution of property in their Will for longer than the lifetime of an individual who is alive upon the death of the testator and somehow associated with the gift, plus twenty one years after such an individual’s death. If a gift offends the rule against perpetuities, it is declared void.
In Ontario, the application of the rule against perpetuities is governed by the Perpetuities Act. Section 4(1) of the Perpetuities Act establishes a “wait and see” approach to determining if a gift offends the rule against perpetuities. What this in effect means is that simply because a bequest could offend the rule against perpetuities does not result in the gift immediately being declared void, as you must wait to see if the gift actually does offend the rule against perpetuities. Only in the event that the gift does ultimately vest outside of the perpetuity period is it declared void.
Take for example the hypothetical bequest of a property to a local charity so long as they use the property for the benefit of the charity. Should the charity cease to use the property for the purpose of the charity, the property would instead be distributed to the deceased’s issue (i.e. descendants) in equal shares per stirpes. The “perpetuity period” in this instance would be the lifetime of one of the deceased’s descendants alive on the deceased’s death who ultimately lives the longest after the deceased’s death (likely the youngest descendant alive upon the deceased’s death, although not necessarily) plus twenty one years after such a descendant’s death. Although it is conceivable that the charity could continue to use the property for longer than the lifetime of such a descendant plus twenty one years, such that the gift-over to the deceased’s issue could offend the rule against perpetuities and be declared void, you do not immediately declare such a gift void at the time of the deceased’s death. Rather, you must “wait and see” if the triggering event (i.e. the charity ceasing to use the property) occurs during the perpetuity period (i.e. the lifetime plus twenty one years of the descendant in question). Only upon the triggering event not occurring during the perpetuity period would the gift be declared void for offending the rule against perpetuities.
See, not so scary after all.
Being a Power of Attorney for Property can often be a difficult and thankless job. It is not unforeseeable that, after originally accepting the job, circumstances may arise which leads the Attorney for Property to want to resign. But how do you go about actually resigning as Attorney for Property? Is it enough to simply stop acting as Attorney for Property, or to loudly scream “I quit!” to those that have caused you the frustration, or are additional steps required for the resignation to become effective?
The resignation process for an Attorney for Property is governed by section 11(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act, which provides:
“An attorney under a continuing power of attorney may resign but, if the attorney has acted under the power of attorney, the resignation is not effective until the attorney delivers a copy of the resignation to,
(a) the grantor;
(b) any other attorneys under the power of attorney;
(c) the person named by the power of attorney as a substitute for the attorney who is resigning, if the power of attorney provides for the substitution of another person; and
(d) unless the power of attorney provides otherwise, the grantor’s spouse or partner and the relatives of the grantor who are known to the attorney and reside in Ontario, if,
(i) the attorney is of the opinion that the grantor is incapable of managing property, and
(ii) the power of attorney does not provide for the substitution of another person or the substitute is not able and willing to act.”
As a result of section 11(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act, if an Attorney for Property wishes to resign from their position they must put such resignation in writing, which must then be delivered to the certain individuals, including the grantor, any other Attorneys for Property named in the document, as well as the grantor’s spouse and next-of-kin if the grantor is incapable and the Power of Attorney does not provide for a substitute Attorney for Property or the substitute is not willing or able to act. Once the resignation has been received by all of such individuals, the resignation is effective, and the individual is no longer the grantor’s Attorney for Property.
It should of course be noted that resigning as Attorney for Property would not release the individual of any liability for their historic administration of the grantor’s property. To do so, the resigning Attorney for Property would likely have to commence an Application to Pass Accounts regarding their management of the grantor’s property, or seek a release from the grantor if the grantor was still capable. This, however, is a topic for a further blog on a different day.
Thank you for reading.