Category: Estate Litigation
Living a double life can be complicated. A double life that involves a secret second family can be especially complicated, both during the deceiver’s life and after their death. How is the deceiver’s estate to be divided as between his first family and his secret second family? What rights does the unmarried secret spouse in particular have in the deceased’s estate? The Supreme Court of British Columbia addresses these issues in its recent decision of Boughton v Widner Estate, 2021 BCSC 325.
Boughton concerns the Estate of Michael Gregory Widern. Michael was a known member of the infamous Hells Angels and died on March 9, 2017 by homicide. Michael left behind his married spouse, Sabrina, and their two children. He also left behind Sara – whom he had been seeing for roughly eight years unbeknownst to his wife – and their two children. While Michael was alive he spent time with both of his families, alternating between the two households. Sabrina had no knowledge of Michael’s second family until after he passed away.
Michael died without a last will and testament, leaving his estate to be distributed in accordance with the intestacy provisions set out in British Columbia’s Wills, Estates and Successions Act (“WESA”). In Boughton, Sara brought a claim against Michael’s estate seeking, amongst other things, a declaration that she is a spouse of Michael for the purposes of the WESA and is consequently entitled to a share of his estate. As such, one of the issues to be dealt with by the court was whether the WESA permits the division of an estate as between two individuals who were in concurrent, subsisting spousal relationships with the deceased at the time of death.
The honourable Justice Jennifer Duncan declared that Sara was a spouse for the purposes of the WESA. Section 2 of the WESA provides that two persons are spouses of each other if immediately before the deceased person’s death they were married to each other or they had lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years. Justice Duncan found that on his death, Michael was still married to Sabrina and was also in a marriage-like relationship with Sara. Section 22 of the WESA states that if two or more persons are entitled to a spousal share of an intestate estate, they share the spousal share in the portions to which they agree or as determined by the court. Justice Duncan reasoned that this section clearly provides for more than one spousal share in the estate of an intestate. She also analyzed the legislative intent of section 22 and found that the intention of the Legislature was to continue to provide for individuals in a marriage-like relationship with an individual who was still married to someone else at the time of death. On this basis, Justice Duncan held that Sara was entitled to a declaration that she is a spouse of Michael as that term is defined in the WESA. It was further ordered that Sara and Sabrina were each entitled to half of Michael’s estate.
If this case were decided under Ontario law we would likely see a different result. Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”) has no provision equivalent to section 22 of the WESA which recognizes a “spousal share” in an intestate estate for someone other than the deceased’s married spouse. For purposes of intestate succession in Ontario, “spouse” has the same meaning as in section 1 of the Family Law Act (“FLA”), which is in essence a married person. It follows that an unmarried secret spouse would likely have no statutory entitlement to share in their deceased spouse’s estate. However, a secret spouse in Ontario could potentially claim an interest in their spouse’s estate pursuant to the dependent support provisions contained in Part V of the SLRA. In Part V, “spouse” has the same meaning as in section 29 of the FLA, which defines “spouse” more broadly as including persons not married to each other and have cohabited continuously for a period of not less than three years, or have children together and are in a relationship of some permanence. If a secret spouse meets this definition, they may still have a right to a portion of their deceased spouse’s estate by way of a dependent support claim.
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Handwritten Wills/Codicils are certainly quite rare, particularly for people with means. In certain circumstances, and particularly where the testator had made a pre-existing Will, the presence of a subsequent handwritten Will or Codicil can suggest the presence of suspicious circumstances.
As Paul Trudelle blogged last week, Larry King apparently executed a secret handwritten codicil in 2019 that divided his roughly $2 million estate amongst his five children, to the exclusion of his wife, Shawn King. Mrs. King apparently intends to challenge the validity of the 2019 codicil.
In Ontario, an amendment to a Will is referred to as a “codicil” and it is considered to be a Will, for the purposes of the Succession Law Reform Act. A handwritten Will, in Ontario, is referred to as a “Holograph Will” and the only requirement is that it be made wholly by the testator’s own handwriting and signature, without formality, and without the presence, attestation or signature of a witness. The fact that a Holograph Will is usually made without witnesses will often cause litigation, particularly if there are suspicious circumstances surrounding its execution and/or discord in the family of the deceased.
If Mr. and Mrs. King resided in Ontario, Mrs. King could pursue various claims in challenging the validity of the 2019 codicil (subject to the available evidence), including:
- Lack of requisite testamentary capacity on Mr. King’s part;
- Mr. King being subject to undue influence from any or all of his children (or other third parties);
- Presence of suspicious circumstances in the execution of the codicil; and
- Presence of fraud in the execution of the document (which is pleaded quite rarely, as there are serious costs consequences for those that make such an allegation but are unable to prove it).
It will certainly be interesting to see how this matter unfolds, particularly taking into account that $2 million is not a significant amount when the costs of litigation are taken into account.
Interestingly, some sources suggest that his Estate is actually worth $50 million, which sounds a lot more accurate!
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Re Crowley Estate, 2021 ONSC 582, raises an interesting question surrounding the potential impact of counsel missing a procedural deadline in association with a Notice of Objection to the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment (i.e. probate), and whether missing such a deadline is fatal to the Objector’s ability to generally proceed with a challenge to the Will.
The Notice of Objection process is governed by rule 75.03 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. It generally provides that at any time before the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment any individual who appears to have a financial in the estate may file a “Notice of Objection” to the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment. The impact of filing of the Certificate of Appointment is to in effect to pause the probate process, with the applicant Estate Trustee being required to vacate and/or deal with the Notice of Objection before probate can be issued. The process by which the Notice of Objection is generally dealt with is that upon being advised of the Notice of Objection the Estate Trustee is to serve a “Notice to Objector” upon the Objector in accordance with rule 75.03(4), which then provides the Objector with 20 days from the date on which they are served with the Notice to Objector to serve and file a “Notice of Appearance”. If the Notice of Appearance is served by the deadline, the matter proceeds to a motion for directions in accordance with rule 75.03(6), where the court would be asked to provide directions regarding how the objections that were raised are to be adjudicated before the court. If no “Notice of Appearance” is filed by the deadline the Notice of Objection is automatically vacated, and the probate application may proceed as if no Notice of Objection had been filed.
In Re Crowley Estate, the Objector filed a Notice of Objection to the issuance of probate, and was in turn served with a Notice to Objector by the Applicant. The date on which the Objector was served with the Notice to Objector was November 20, 2020, which would have resulted in a deadline of December 10, 2020 for the Objector to serve the Notice of Appearance. The Notice of Appearance was not served however by the Objector until December 15, 2020. The matter was directed by the Registrar to a Judge, who in turn asked the parties to make written submissions regarding the matter. The Applicant’s lawyer took the position that rule 75.03 was “unforgiving” with respect to its deadlines, and that as the Objector had missed the deadline to serve the Notice of Appearance the court was now required to proceed with the probate application as if no Notice of Objection had been filed. Objector’s counsel advised that the reason for the missed deadline was due to health related concerns surrounding COVID-19, appearing to note in any event that even if the Notice of Objection was vacated the Objector would be proceeding with a challenge to the validity of the Will, noting that the Objector had subsequently commenced a separate Application to address the concerns surrounding the validity of the Will on January 7, 2021.
The court ultimately extended the deadline for the Objector to file the Notice of Appearance under rule 3.02, which allows the court to extend any time prescribed by the rules on such terms as are just. In extending the deadline, Justice Boswell notes that the Objector clearly always intended to pursue the objection, and that there is no clear prejudice to allowing the extension. Perhaps interestingly however, although the comment does not appear to have played a decisive role in the final ruling, Justice Boswell references that even if the Certificate of Appointment was issued the Objector would likely have been at liberty to seek the return the Certificate of Appointment under rule 75.05, appearing to give credence to the Objector’s position that they would have been at liberty to proceed with their challenge to the validity of the Will regardless of the missed deadline for the Notice of Objection.
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Sometimes when parties arrive at a settlement, notwithstanding that the settlement may objectively be in their interests, they may not necessarily be pleased with the outcome. If the settlement has been concluded and fully documented, however, a party who has had second thoughts will likely be out of luck if they want to avoid complying with the agreement. This is important because parties should usually be held to the bargains that they make in a settlement.
A settlement does not necessarily have to be in writing to be valid, but like any contract, there must be a “meeting of the minds” on the essential terms of the agreement.
In a recent decision, Daehn v Lalonde, 2021 ONSC 301, the court considered a motion to enforce a settlement where draft minutes of settlement had been exchanged, but not signed. The dispute between the parties underlying the settlement concerned the validity of competing Wills. The parties were engaged in negotiations between January and July 2019, during which time several offers and versions of draft minutes of settlement were exchanged. In mid-July, counsel for the responding parties to the motion advised the moving party that he would no longer be acting for the responding parties, and retracted all offers to settle made by the responding parties.
The moving party took the position that certain conduct by counsel for the responding parties should be taken as akin to acceptance of terms in the minutes of settlement. Such conduct included providing bank statements that had been requested as a condition of settlement, and proposing changes to some terms of the draft minutes without complaint about others. The court did not accept this argument, and did not find acceptance of the agreement by words or conduct of the responding parties.
The court briefly reviewed the law regarding validity and enforcement of settlements. Like a contract, a concluded settlement requires both a mutual intention to create a legally binding contract, and agreement on all essential terms of the settlement.
The court found that the responding parties never agreed to the terms of settlement. Despite the moving party’s argument that the responding parties had agreed to the sole “essential” term, the court found that it cannot be the case that the moving party alone can dictate what terms of the settlement are essential. The court concluded that a settlement cannot be imposed where no agreement was reached.
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Something that surely no testator or beneficiary wants to see is the failure of a gift made in a Will. Unfortunately, circumstances can arise where the language of a Will may be ambiguous, or where events occurring during the estate administration expose uncertainty in a term of the Will that wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time of drafting or execution.
In Barsoski v Wesley, 2020 ONSC 7407, the estate trustee sought directions from the court regarding a clause in the deceased’s Will that allowed the deceased’s friend (the “Respondent”) to live in the deceased’s home during his lifetime, or such shorter period as the Respondent desires. Upon the earlier of the Respondent advising that he no longer wished to live in the home, or the Respondent “no longer living” in the home, the house and its contents are to be sold, and the proceeds added to a gift to another beneficiary of the Deceased’s Will, a charity, St. Stephens House of London (“St. Stephens”).
The deceased died in June 2017. Confusion arose when it became apparent that the Respondent was not actually living in the home on a full-time basis. This first came up around December 2017 and continued for a couple of years. The home was in London, but the Respondent continued living and working full-time in Toronto following the deceased’s death, and seemingly up until 2019. He then started a full-time job in Sault Ste. Marie in 2019.
The Respondent’s evidence was that he was using the home as his primary residence in that he spent time at the home on weekends 1-2 times per month, and used it as his address for his driver’s license and for CRA purposes. He stated that he planned to live in the home full-time after he retired around July 2021.
St. Stephens, as the gift-over beneficiary of the home, took the position that the Respondent had not been living in the home, and therefore it should be sold pursuant to the terms of the Will.
The court first considered whether the Will gave the Respondent a life estate or a licence to use the home subject to a condition subsequent, concluding that the proper interpretation was that it was a licence with a condition subsequent. The condition subsequent in question was when the Respondent was “no longer living” in the home. The court outlined that a “condition subsequent is void for uncertainty if the condition is ‘far too indefinite and uncertain to enable the Court to say what it was that the testator meant should be the event on which the estate was to determine’”. Accordingly, the court concluded that it was impossible to define, on the terms of the deceased’s Will, what it meant to “live” in the home.
The question of whether, on the facts, the Respondent’s use of the home constituted him “living” there is an interesting one. However, due to the court’s conclusion that the terms granting the Respondent an interest in the home were void for uncertainty, it was unnecessary for the court to make any findings of fact on this particular question.
The estate trustee, who was also the drafting lawyer, gave evidence (that was ultimately inadmissible) that the deceased had been considering some changes to her Will prior to her death. The changes would put time restrictions on the Respondent’s use of the home, including that he would be required to move into the home within 90 days of her death, and not be absent from it for more than 120 days. These additional terms may have provided sufficient certainty for the beneficiary to know what he had to do in order to maintain his interest in the home, and for the estate trustee to administer the estate. Although this evidence had no impact on the court’s decision, it can serve as an important reminder that if one wants to change their Will, one should do so as soon as possible to ensure the Will reflects their wishes at the time of their death.
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As my colleague, Nick Esterbauer, blogged about last week (here and here), the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed all of us, including the courts and the legal profession, towards the increasing use of technology. This has included the use of video-conferencing for examinations of witnesses in the litigation context. As we adapt to this new world, there are inevitably going to be ‘hiccups’. It is crucial to maintain the integrity of the process and to ensure that virtual examinations are not abused.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dealt with just such a situation. In Kaushal v Vasudeva et al., 2021 ONSC 440, the cross-examination of the respondent to an application was held over Zoom. The respondent required an interpreter for his cross-examination, and the respondent, his lawyer, and the interpreter all attended at the lawyer’s boardroom for the examination. They were all in the same room together, but on separate devices. The respondent’s wife and son came to the lawyer’s office with him, but according to the respondent they remained in the reception area at all times. It was confirmed on the record by the respondent’s lawyer that the only people present with the respondent during the examination were the lawyer and the interpreter.
Following the examination, the applicant noticed that a microphone and camera in the respondent’s lawyer’s boardroom had been left on, and he could hear the respondent’s wife and son speaking. It appeared to the applicant that the wife and son had listened in on the examination.
The respondent denied that his wife and son were present in the boardroom during his cross-examination. His lawyer’s legal assistant also provided affidavit evidence that the wife and son were not in the boardroom during the examinations.
The interpreter, however, ultimately swore two affidavits that the wife and son were present in the boardroom throughout the respondent’s examination, and were prompting the respondent’s answers by hand and facial gestures. The court accepted the interpreter’s evidence in its entirety.
The court concluded that there was misconduct during the respondent’s cross-examination on the basis that his wife and son were present and made hand and facial gestures to assist him with his answers. The court further concluded that the respondent’s misconduct amounted to abuse of process and that his affidavit responding to the application must be struck. It was the court’s view that it “must send a strong message that interference in the fact-finding process by abusing or taking advantage of a virtual examination will not be tolerated. In a broader sense, this type of misconduct strikes at the very heard of the integrity of the fact-finding process such that general deterrence is also a factor.”
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‘tis the holiday season – a time to drink egg nog (my favourite) and give and receive gifts. What better time than to highlight a recent gift given by the Superior Court of Justice to all those barristers out there! The gift, as you may be wondering, comes in the way of advice and assistance given to counsel by F.L. Myers J. in his Triage Endorsement in Paul v Veta.
Without going into the facts of the case, the applicant sought to bring an unopposed application for an order deleting a mortgage from title. Having difficulty in getting the application heard, counsel advised the court that, “I have exhausted all of my efforts but have not been able to file this online. I am humbly asking for some direction on how to have my materials filed in the most expedient fashion so I can get this order approved”. Justice Myers acknowledged that although it is not generally the role of the court to give advice to counsel, he nonetheless provided some assistance.
Taking into consideration the numerous Notices to the Profession resulting from the pandemic, Justice Myers had the following to say about the issuance of an application:
- register for a One-key account
- under Rule 4.05.2(6), submit the civil document to the portal, using your One-key account, wait 5 days to get an email, to tell you if your document was accepted
- once the application is issued, Rules 38.06 and 39.01 require that the notice of application and all affidavits to be relied upon be served on all parties
As it relates to motions in writing, Justice Myers states, “Judges receive numerous motions in writing (or “basket motions” as they are commonly called). It does not take very long to read a properly prepared basket motion. It is far more difficult and time consuming for a judge to deal with a poorly prepared basket motion. Struggling to find proof of service, or proof that it truly is on consent of all parties, or proof of the facts required for the relief sought, takes time and effort. So, the tacit deal is that if counsel provide us with motions in writing that contain the necessary proof of facts and law, we are all too glad to sign them. It’s quicker, easier, and a happier outcome for all concerned. I know of no judge waiting around to incur the extra time, effort, and frustration to reject well-prepared basket motions”.
There are other great nuggets of wisdom contained in the Endorsement including the permissibility of hearsay evidence and the filing of draft orders.
I hope you like your gift – I am sure the court won’t mind if you decide to re-gift it 🙂
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I came across an interesting report on Alberta’s succession law and what is perceived as a gap that has affected family maintenance and support in the province. The report was published by the Alberta Law Reform Institute (ALRI) and can be found here.
In accordance with the Family Law Act in Alberta, a child can apply for and may be entitled to support from a person standing in the place of a parent, when a couple separates. Under the Wills and Succession Act, however, which applies when a person dies, there is no provision addressing the distinction of a “person standing in the place of a parent”. What that means is that while a person who is characterized as a “person standing in the place of a parent” is alive, the child can apply for support under the Family Law Act but if this person dies, that same child has no ability to seek support from the Estate of this person “standing in the place of a parent”.
Consequently, the ALRI is of the view that there is a gap in the law that ought to be rectified on the basis of an equality argument, alone. This report was apparently recently sent to the province of Alberta but there has been no response, as of yet.
In comparing the provisions of the Succession Law Reform Act here in Ontario, it appears that the very issue raised by the ALRI is addressed by section 57(1) where the definition of a “child” includes a grandchild and a person whom the deceased has demonstrated a settled intention to treat as a child of his or her family, except under an arrangement where a child is placed for valuable consideration in a foster home by a person having lawful custody.” [emphasis added]
Certainly, it is important that children be able to bring a support claim against the estates of their parents, where not appropriately provided for out of the estate, even where not formally adopted but clearly treated as a child.
It will be interesting to see what happens and what the province of Alberta will do, if anything, in response to this report from the ALRI.
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As the readers of our blogs are well aware, the new COVID-19 ‘normal’ has extended into the practice of estates and trusts. While solicitors have had to adapt to the way wills are prepared, litigators (barristers) have also had to adapt. Procedures that were ordinarily done in person, such as mediation, examinations, and trials, are now being done virtually.
Amongst my peers, the decision by Justice Myers in Arconti v. Smith has been pointed to as the authority that despite COVID-19, the show must go on. Please see my firm’s blog for an excellent summary of Justice Myer’s decision. Those on the other side of the fence, wishing to delay the show, have pointed to Justice Morgan’s case conference endorsement who found that:
“I am anxious not to delay litigation any more than needed given the present court suspension and general societal lockdown. At the same time, I would not want to hold a hearing that in its very format raises due process questions for whichever party ends up being unsuccessful. I admire Defendant’s counsels’ enthusiasm, and would be willing to conduct the hearing via videoconference if both sides were willing to do so. However, I do not think it appropriate to compel the moving party to proceed under conditions where Plaintiffs’ counsel perceive that they may not be able to present the case as effectively as they would in person.”
However, since this endorsement, Justice Morgan has issued a continued case conference, whereby, following Arconti, the show will go on – the matter will now proceed virtually. Morgan J. found that:
“I have full confidence that counsel in this case, who, while arguing adversarial positions, appear to have developed a very professional and civil working relationship, will be able to rise to the challenge of conducting a complex hearing by videoconference. They have already indicated to me a willingness to work together to provide the court with a convenient method for filing and accessing the voluminous materials through cloud-based storage.”
So, are virtual hearings the new normal? It sure seems so. Decisions finding the contrary continue to be revisited and reversed. The show must go on.
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A testator appointed you as Estate Trustee of an Estate and a beneficiary filed a Notice of Objection to your appointment. What to do?
Typically, a Notice of Objection to an appointment of an Estate Trustee means that their authority is challenged such that before the administration of the Estate can be addressed, the Notice of Objection must be resolved, first and foremost.
Whereas in the case of a Notice of Objection, the party having filed it, is likely to commence a court proceeding to substantiate his or her claims, that is not always the case. As such, there are a couple of things that an Estate Trustee can do to force the Objector to move forward, in order to ultimately address the resolution of the objection.
- File a Notice to Objector
In accordance with Rule 75.03(4), an Estate Trustee can serve a Notice to Objector and file it with proof of service with the Court.
If the Objector does not serve and file a Notice of Appearance within 20 days of being served with a Notice to Objector, the Estate Trustee’s Application for a Certificate of Appointment is to proceed as if the Notice of Objection had not been filed.
If a Notice of Appearance is served on the Estate Trustee, they have 30 days to bring a motion for directions before the Court and if they do not do so, the Objector may seek directions, as well.
Essentially, the effect of a Notice to Objector is forcing the Objector to commence a claim or else abandon his or her objections.
- Commence an Application or Motion to propound the testator’s Will
Another option that exists for an Estate Trustee is simply skipping the steps that would follow the service of a Notice to Objector and seeking the directions of the Court, in accordance with Rules 14.05 and 75.06 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
In this case, the Estate Trustee becomes the party commencing a court proceeding such that the costs associated with such a step ought to be considered, before proceeding. It is important to note, however, that proceeding with the first option will not necessarily save on legal costs to be incurred, if the Objector ultimately proceeds with a claim.
The option that is selected by an Estate Trustee will depend on the circumstances of each individual case such that it is important to consult with a lawyer as to which option is best.
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