Category: Estate Litigation
The main issue on appeal was whether Justice Dietrich was right in finding that the applicant could still ask the court to determine whether certain codicils were valid (or invalid) seven years after death. Justice Dietrich based her limitations analysis on whether this proceeding would fall under section 16(1)(a) of the Limitations Act, 2002 where there is no limitation period in respect of “a proceeding for a declaration if no consequential relief is sought”.
In her reasons, Justice Dietrich distinguished the case before her from the other limitations cases that have applied the two-year, basic limitation period to will challenges: Leibel v. Leibel, 2014 ONSC 4516, Birtzu v. McCron, 2017 ONSC 1420, and Shannon v. Hrabovsky, 2018 ONSC 6593. The case before her was different from Liebel, Birtzu, and Shannon because nothing had been done by the respondent beneficiary to propound the codicils that she had an interest in. If the proceeding was started differently in 2015, by the very beneficiary who has an interest in the codicils, then the estate trustee would have a limitations defence against the beneficiary. Since the beneficiary had done nothing, it remained opened to the estate trustee to commence an application for declaratory relief. Such declaratory relief is “a formal statement by a court pronouncing upon the existence or non-existence of a legal state of affairs.’ It is restricted to a pronunciation on the parties’ rights” (see para. 46, 2019 ONSC 1190).
The Court of Appeal agreed that there was no limitation period in this case because the applicant did not seek consequential relief in addition to a determination of the validity or invalidity of the codicils. The Will had not been probated and nothing had been done for seven years to resolve the issue.
“In these circumstances, Helen was entitled to seek declaratory relief, simply to establish the validity, or lack of validity, of the codicils – to define the rights of the parties in order to avoid future disputes.”, Strathy C.J.O., MacPherson J.A., and Jamal J.A.
Thanks for reading and more on these limitation cases to follow later this week!
In our estate litigation practice, we commonly seek orders permitting registration of a Certificate of Pending Litigation (CPL) against title to property that is, for instance, an estate asset that a client is seeking to preserve until the litigation is concluded.
In order to obtain a CPL, one needs to demonstrate that an interest in land is in question, and in determining whether to order the issuance of a CPL, the following legal principles ought to be considered, as highlighted in Perruzza v Spatone:
- the threshold in respect of the “interest in land” is “whether there is a triable issue as to such interest, not whether the plaintiff will likely succeed”;
- the onus is on the party opposing the order for a CPL to demonstrate that there is no triable issue with respect to whether the party seeking the CPL has “a reasonable claim to the interest in the land claimed”; and
- the governing test is that the Court must exercise its discretion in equity and look at all relevant matters between the parties in determining whether a CPL ought to be granted.
We can see from the above that the threshold to obtain a CPL is not high; presumably the rationale being that it is more favourable to have a property in dispute secured during litigation than risk it being dissipated to the prejudice of a litigant.
Once a CPL is obtained it is prudent to assess the circumstances throughout the life of the litigation so that it is discharged at the appropriate time. As noted in Perruzza, factors the court can consider to discharge a CPL include whether the land is unique, whether there is an alternative claim for damages, whether there is or is not a willing purchaser and the harm if the CPL is or is not removed.
If the litigation stagnates, without reminders in place it is possible for the registered CPL to be left unaddressed. These were the circumstances in Novia v. Saccoia Estate (Trustee of). The CPL had remained on title for more than 20 years and even after the defendant’s death, ultimately forcing the defendant’s executor to obtain an order dismissing the action and discharging the CPL.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,
Recently, Stuart Clark blogged on the procedural differences between Applications and Actions in the context of civil litigation. In his blog, he aptly describes key differences between the two proceedings, which rests largely on the manner in which evidence is heard. Applications are determined on a written record, meaning that evidence before the court is contained in affidavits sworn by the parties in advance of the hearing date. In contrast, actions are heard by way of viva voce evidence (i.e. parties are examined, and cross-examined in open court).
As parties inch towards their final hearing date, the benefits and disadvantages of proceeding by way of application versus action may sharpen into focus. As Stuart noted, parties may decide that there are strategic benefits to converting their application into an action, such as having a sympathetic witness. Parties are free to take steps necessary to effect that change.
However, if parties don’t convert their proceedings in advance of their hearing, Judges have the discretion to convert applications to actions, and can order a conversion at the hearing of an application. In other words, if a Judge decides that justice would best be served by hearing a matter by way of trial, they can order the conversion of a proceeding at the hearing of an application.
Such was the case in Halar v Bacic, wherein the court determined that there were significant and material facts in dispute relating to capacity, and that a trial was necessary to assess the credibility of the witnesses.
In that case, a mother appointed her son and daughter to act as her attorneys for property and personal care in 2017. Following execution of the POAs, she was diagnosed with moderate Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Shortly thereafter, the mother and her husband sold their home and moved back to Croatia. The proceeds of sale of their home were deposited in their Canadian bank account, with the understanding that the son and daughter would send money from the Canadian bank account when funds were requested by the mother.
The daughter and son ran into some conflict with respect to how the Canadian bank account was managed, resulting in the mother executing a new Power of Attorney in 2018, which raised questions regarding whether the mother had capacity to execute the new Power of Attorney.
The Judge was not satisfied that the medical evidence before him supported the position of the applicants and was not satisfied that he was in a position to make the findings and orders requested of him on the evidentiary record before him.
Ultimately, the Judge converted the application to an action and ordered that a trial be directed pursuant to Rule 38.10(6).
Thanks for reading!
In the past, we have written about whether an Estate must first obtain a Certificate of Appointment before issuing a statement of claim.
But what about an Estate that may be entitled to claim a portion of a court-approved settlement?
Over the past year, a number of court-approved class action settlement agreements involving deceased class members appear to have taken into account the cost and complexity of appointing an Estate Trustee.
The settlement agreement approved by the Federal Court in McLean v. Canada is the culmination of litigation concerning tragic, historic events in the lives of those who attended Indian Day Schools. These events include allegations of systemic abuse and mistreatment of children. The “class period” runs from January 1, 1920 until the date of closure or relinquishment of control by Canada of any particular day school or, that date on which the written offer of transfer by Canada was not accepted by the respective First Nation or Indigenous government.
The settlement approval noted that if a class member dies on or after July 31, 2007, their “Estate Executor” is still eligible to be paid the compensation to which the class member would have been entitled.
Similarly, the more recent settlement agreement approved by the Federal Court in Toth v. Canada addresses the claims of veterans who were in receipt of various benefits, including disability pension benefits, and had the disability pension amounts deducted from the other benefits which they received or were entitled to receive. The decision reads:
“Under the proposed settlement, which totals $100 million, every Class Member and the estates of Class Members who have passed away since the Certification Notice was published will receive a payment. Payments will be calculated and made promptly as the majority of Class Members are known and every effort will be made to ensure that all Class Members, or their estates, receive their payment, which will not be subject to income tax.”
If a proceeding has been commenced by an estate before probate has been issued, Rule 9.03 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure offers some relief in stating that the proceeding shall be deemed to have been properly constituted from its commencement.
It is not always necessary for an estate trustee to obtain a Certificate of Appointment in order to administer an estate; however, in certain matters, an estate trustee may be required to obtain probate before being able to represent the estate, whether or not there is a valid Will. The Ontario Superior Court in Carmichael et al. v. Sharpley et al. has set out three circumstances in which probate is required:
- Third parties dealing with the executor may refuse to accept the authority of the Will and demand production of letters probate as authentication of that power…
- Proceedings involving the executor representing the estate as plaintiff or as defendant. It would seem that in such circumstances the court requires probate as an evidentiary matter…
- Where a foreign executor wishes to establish title to estate assets in Ontario he must have his letters probate resealed in Ontario or obtain ancillary grant letters probate. This requires that he first obtain probate in the primary jurisdiction.
Moreover, the Estates Act ensures that estate trustees named in a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee have sole authority in respect of the estate:
“30. After a grant of administration, no person, other than the administrator or executor, has power to sue or prosecute any action or otherwise act as executor of the deceased as to the property comprised in or affected by such grant of administration until such administration has been recalled or revoked”
It will be interesting to see if the Courts will continue to take into consideration the necessity and of appointing an Estate Trustee in light of historic claims, and how third parties making efforts to award a portion of the settlement to the Estate will deal with the requirement for probate.
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The recent decision of Muth Estate, 2019 ABQB 922, a decision of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, is a cautionary tale (and a scary one, at that) for estate trustees when distributing an estate.
There, the estate trustee distributed the estate to herself and other beneficiaries of an estate, subject to a holdback. The holdback was insufficient to satisfy amounts owing to CRA. The estate trustee then brought an application for an order requiring that the beneficiaries indemnify her for the amounts owing to CRA.
The estate trustee moved for summary judgment. Summary judgment was denied. The court found that the respondent beneficiaries had no obligation to indemnify the estate trustee.
As background, the estate trustee retained an accountant to prepare estate tax returns. The accountant advised that a holdback of $25,000 was sufficient. The estate trustee therefore held back $25,000, and distributed the balance of the estate. Unfortunately, that accountant did not file the required returns. A second accountant then completed the returns. The tax owing and the second accountant’s invoice totalled $60,772.19. The estate trustee paid this amount, and sought indemnification from the beneficiaries for their share of this amount.
(Query: Whether the estate trustee would have a claim against the first accountant?)
Of note, when making the distributions, the estate trustee could have but did not ask the beneficiaries to provide an indemnity.
The court held that the Income Tax Act imposed personal liability on the estate trustee for unpaid taxes where a clearance certificate is not obtained.
The court went on to find that one of the duties of an estate trustee is to file tax returns and pay taxes owing. As the estate trustee breached her duties, she was not entitled to an indemnity. Relief may have been available if it was the beneficiaries who instigated or requested the breach. However, this was not the case.
The natural corollary of that principle [breach of trust at instigation of beneficiaries] is that if the beneficiaries did not instigate or request the breach, they cannot be obligated to indemnify the trustee. In a fiduciary relationship such as that between a trustee and a beneficiary, the logic of that corollary is that as between the two parties, one who had the obligation to perform the duty and failed and one who had neither the obligation nor the means to satisfy it, it is the former who should bear the consequences of the action or inaction.
Interestingly, the judge dismissed the estate trustee’s motion for summary judgment, but, notwithstanding the finding that the beneficiaries were under no obligation to indemnify the estate trustee, did not dismiss the proceeding. The beneficiaries did not ask for this relief. The matter was therefore allowed to proceed. However, the estate trustee was warned that “if she continues with the lawsuit, she may face a significant costs award if another judge comes to the same conclusion at the end of the suit.”
Thank you for reading.
In a decision out of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, a computer file prepared by the deceased was accepted as a will and admitted to probate. Applying the curative provisions of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13 (“WESA”), which came into force on March 31, 2014, the court was able to conclude that the computer record represented the deceased’s full and final testamentary intentions.
In Hubschi Estate (Re), 2019 BCSC 2040 (CanLII), the deceased died after a short illness. No formal will was found. However, his family was able to locate a Word document on his computer labelled “Budget for 2017”. In that computer file, there was the following statement: “Get a will made out at some point. A 5-way assets split for remaining brother and sisters. Greg and Annette or Trevor as executor.”
By way of family background, the deceased was given up by his birth mother at birth to Children’s Aid. At age 3, the deceased was placed in a foster home with the Stacks. He grew up in the Stack house, and was extremely close to his foster parents and 5 foster siblings. He was treated by the immediate and extended Stack family as a member of the family. Upon his foster mother’s death, her estate was divided into 6 shares, with one share passing to the deceased.
On the other hand, if the document was not found to be a will, the deceased’s estate would pass on an intestacy, and would pass to his birth mother’s sister, with whom the deceased had no contact whatsoever.
The court reviewed a number of decisions applying WESA. The court observed that the purpose of the curative provisions in WESA was to avoid the injustice of a deceased’s testamentary intentions being defeated for no good reason other than strict non-compliance with execution and attestation formalities.
In order to obtain probate of a non-compliant document, the propounder must demonstrate (1) that the testamentary document is authentic, and (2) that the testamentary document contains the full, final and fixed intention of the will-maker. The court found that both of these requirements were met in the Hubschi case.
Previously, I blogged on an Australian case where an unsent text message was admitted to probate under similar legislation. Read about it here. This decision was referred to by the court in Hubschi.
For better or for worse, Ontario legislation does not allow for substantial compliance with the formalities of will execution, and strict compliance is required. While this may lead to greater certainty, it also means that the testamentary intentions of a will-maker are often disregarded where there is not strict compliance with the formal requirements of execution.
Have a great weekend.
One of the ways a Will can be declared invalid is if the court finds that there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the preparation of it. In Graham v. Graham, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that significant involvement from the testator/grantor’s child was indicative of suspicious circumstances regarding the preparation of a Will and Power of Attorney (POA).
The testator, Jackie, had four children: Tim, Robert, Christine and Steven.
Jackie suffered from terminal cancer. She was hospitalized from November 22, 2015 to December 7, 2015, and again from December 22, 2015 to December 24, 2015, to receive treatment for severe pain.
In mid-December 2015, Robert’s wife, Tammy, searched for and contacted a lawyer to prepare a Will and POA for Jackie. Tammy obtained a Client Information Sheet (CIS) from the lawyer’s office and completed it herself. The lawyer prepared the documents based on this CIS. At Robert’s request, the lawyer went to the hospital to meet Jackie and have her sign the Will and POA. This was the first time Jackie met the lawyer and saw the Will and POA.
Jackie’s Will named Robert as estate trustee and sole beneficiary of her estate. The POA named Robert as Jackie’s sole attorney for property. Robert’s wife, Tammy, was named as the alternate estate trustee and attorney.
On January 4, 2018, Robert used the POA to transfer Jackie’s house to himself as sole owner. Four days later, Jackie died of cancer.
Tim challenged the validity of Jackie’s Will and POA claiming that they were prepared under suspicious circumstances and that Jackie was subject to undue influence by Robert and Tammy.
- Jackie had been in ill health for a long time prior to her death, so it was reasonable to infer she had chosen to die without a will, until Robert’s involvement.
- Jackie was treated with heavy painkillers on the night and morning of the day she signed the will and POA.
- Robert and Tammy “orchestrated virtually every aspect of the Will and the POA”, which included searching for a lawyer, providing instructions, arranging for the lawyer to meet Jackie, remaining in Jackie’s room for part of the meeting, and taking part in the discussions concerning the Will and POA.
- The drafting lawyer relied entirely on Robert and Tammy to provide him with all of the information concerning the Will and POA.
After finding that suspicious circumstances existed, the burden then shifted to Robert to prove that Jackie had testamentary capacity and that she knew and approved of the contents of the Will and POA. Using the test for testamentary capacity as outlined in Banks v. Goodfellow (1870), the court found that Robert could not establish that Jackie had testamentary capacity. In coming to this conclusion, the court considered the following:
- There was no evidence that Jackie was given the Will or the POA to read or that it was read to her.
- Although Jackie knew where she was living, there was no evidence to indicate that she had any knowledge or understanding of the monetary value of her house.
- It was unclear whether Jackie could do more than repeat what she was told.
- Jackie was confused and/or mistaken in certain beliefs about her son, Tim.
- The medications that Jackie was taking for her pain left her confused and drowsy.
As a result, the Will and the POA were declared invalid.
Graham v. Graham serves as a cautionary tale for adult children who become too involved in the drafting of their parents Wills and POAs. It warns us that the courts view this type of involvement as suspicious. Moreover, Graham v. Graham suggests that physical impairment can impact a testator’s mental state, thus making them vulnerable.
Thanks for reading!
Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
One way that dispositions such as a gift during one’s lifetime, or a Will, may be challenged is on the basis of undue influence. However, allegations of undue influence are often difficult to prove. Additionally, due to the nature of these types of allegations, which often call into question the character of the alleged influencer, they are taken seriously by the court. As a result, parties should be cautious in alleging undue influence, and should be virtually certain that they will be able to back up their claims.
A recent example of this was in the costs decision of Nimchick v Nimchick, 2019 ONSC 6653. A mother and daughter had claimed that their son/brother (“B”) had devised a plan to financially exploit his mother for the benefit of himself, his spouse, and his son, (“J”). The circumstances leading to this allegation involved the mother adding J’s name to a bank account belonging to the mother, for the purpose of paying for J’s student loans, with any excess going to B. The trial judge dismissed the mother and daughter’s claim, finding that the mother intended to gift the money to B and J, and that B had not exerted undue influence over his mother.
The defendants, who were wholly successful, sought their substantial indemnity costs, in the amount of approximately $147,000.00. The court noted that the defendants’ partial indemnity costs of the action were approximately $100,000.00.
In making its determination as to costs, the court considered the circumstances in which elevated costs are warranted, including where the unsuccessful party has engaged in reprehensible, scandalous, or outrageous behaviour that is worthy of sanction. The court found that the mother and daughter’s behaviour had been of this nature. This conclusion seemed to have largely been based on the court’s finding that the mother and daughter advanced baseless allegations of wrongdoing and failed to prove their claims of civil fraud and deceit. Overall, the court preferred B’s evidence to the evidence from the mother and daughter.
The court ultimately awarded costs to the defendants in the amount of $100,000.00. This amounted to the defendants’ partial indemnity costs, according to a note included in the decision. Accordingly, it does not appear that the award against the plaintiffs was necessarily on an elevated scale. The costs awarded were, however, $15,000.00 more than the amount submitted by the plaintiffs as being appropriate.
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My father used to have a saying: “Whatever drags gets dirty.” He would trot it out whenever one of us waited too long to do something and as a result, doing that thing became messy, complicated or impossible. For example: I was supposed to mail a letter. I didn’t mail the letter. Now I can’t find the letter. “Whatever drags gets dirty!”. Thanks, Dad.
Growing up, I thought that this was a widespread adage. Apparently, it isn’t. I searched it up on the internet and most of the results referred to Rupaul’s “Drag Race”.
The adage may fittingly sum up the lesson contained in the decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Probate in Kelly Estate, 2019 NSPB 1 (CanLII).
There, the deceased’s daughter and estate trustee, Carrie, brought an application for the possession of an urn containing the cremated remains of the deceased. The deceased died 13½ years before the application. Probate was granted 8 years before the application.
In the deceased’s will, cremation was requested, and Carrie was expressly given “the powers to decide what will happen with the said ashes.” This was consistent with the court’s observation that “Disposition of the deceased is one of the most fundamental tasks an executor/rix can undertake on behalf of the deceased.”
However, after the deceased’s death, the ashes were taken by Carrie’s sister, Cheryl. They remained at Cheryl’s home, apparently with the acquiescence of Carrie. The court noted that there was no evidence to suggest that there were prior attempts by Carrie to regain custody and control of the ashes over the 13½ years since death.
The court cited the BC decision of Re Popp Estate, 2001 BCSC 183 (CanLII) where the deceased’s husband, as estate trustee, was said to be entitled to control the disposition of the deceased’s remains, provided he did not act capriciously. As the husband was acting capriciously, he lost the right to deal with his spouse’s remains.
The court went on to find that by allowing the urn to remain in Cheryl’s possession for 13½ years, Carrie as estate trustee had in fact determined the disposition and final resting place of the urn: with Cheryl. A change of Carrie’s decision this late in the game “seems capricious at best or malicious at worst”, and the court was not prepared to order a transfer of the urn from Cheryl to Carrie.
When administering an estate, as in life in general, don’t let things drag.
Thanks for reading.
Estate litigation involves risk and reward, heartbreak and vindication. Costs and other consequences often flow from the strength of litigants’ positions. Delay, however, is shared equally. In a protracted legal battle, the symptoms of delay – stress, distraction, gloomy foreboding – linger around like a shadow or a bad cold. Wary of these tribulations, the courts are increasingly focused upon smoothing and straightening, and thereby shortening, the road to decisions.
In today’s blog we explore how this shift has affected the granting of adjournments in estate litigation.
Judicial economy is not always served by the refusal of an adjournment. For example, if two proceedings are interrelated, the preliminary matter should be heard first. If an appeal is scheduled before an associated lower court motion, the appeal should be adjourned until the other has been settled, lest the courts “waste limited judicial resources and increase expense for all of the parties” (Mancinelli v. Royal Bank of Canada,  O.N.S.C. 1526 at para. 5).
Reasons for granting adjournments include the ill health of a party, the emergence of new issues, and “to permit the appellants to file fresh evidence” (Morin v. Canada,  F.C.T. 1420 at para. 11). Courts are also more inclined to adjourn when the other party is not prejudiced by such a request. If there is an urgent need for resolution of the dispute – in the estates context, for instance, when an estate has been tied up for years, to the detriment of the beneficiaries – an adjournment could be denied. Other factors which may lead to the denial of a request for an adjournment consist of “a lack of compliance with prior court orders, previous adjournments … the desirability of having the matter decided and a finding that the applicant is seeking to manipulate the system by orchestrating delay” (The Law Society of Upper Canada v. Igbinosun,  O.N.C.A. 484 at para. 37).
Long waits and swollen court bookings have influenced today’s judicial decision-making. Judges are more inclined, progressively, to punish vexatious litigants, encourage parties to settle, and employ other strategies that are conducive to easing the strain on the courts. Much as the courts have emphasized the need to expedite decisions, however, the adjournment is still a mainstay in the judicial tool belt:
Perhaps to the chagrin of those opposing adjournments and indulgences, courts should tend to be generous rather than overly strict in granting indulgences, particularly where the request would promote a decision on the merits. (Ariston Realty Corp. v. Elcarim Inc.,  CanLII 13360 (O.N.S.C.) at para. 38).
In other words, fast adjudication should not compromise fair adjudication.
Enjoy the rest of your day, and thanks for reading.
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry