Category: Estate & Trust
Last month, in the case of McKitty v Hayani, 2019 ONCA 805, the Ontario Court of Appeal had to consider a challenge to the medical and common law definition of death on the grounds of freedom of religion. The Court also considered whether someone’s religious beliefs should be a factor when deciding whether they are legally deceased. In the end, the Court unanimously declined to rule on whether religious beliefs should be taken into account, but there were some key takeaways from the decision, and a framework was made that invites future challenges. This issue could have an important application in estates law, as it examines the standard for when someone is considered legally deceased.
Taquisha McKitty was declared dead in September 2017 following a drug overdose. The medical staff attending to her declared her dead due to “neurological criteria”; however her relatives were granted an injunction to keep her on life support, arguing their Christian faith only considers someone deceased upon cessation of cardiovascular, instead of neurological, activity. They made the argument that according to the freedom of religion in section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they have the right to have their religious views taken into account when it comes to determination of death and removal of life support. The point is now somewhat moot because McKitty has since died from both neurological and cardiovascular criteria; however important groundwork was laid for a potential future challenge.
The Court of Appeal unanimously concluded that it did not have enough information to rule on the matter. To be able to appropriately rule on the Charter issues, the Court held it would need more evidence on the duties and legal obligations of doctors, McKitty’s religious beliefs, and the religious beliefs of her community. The Court did accept the common law definition of death as being cessation of neurological activity, but left this definition open to future challenges based on freedom of religion. While not providing a definitive answer, the Court did craft a legal framework for how this issue should be addressed in future. This framework includes acknowledging that death is not just a medical determination but also an “evaluative” legal concept. The Court also ruled that the Charter still applied to McKitty as a legal “person” even though she was clinically dead, and a lack of neurological activity does not remove her right to challenge the criteria used to declare her death. With this framework in place, it remains very possible that we might see a further challenge within this framework in the near future.
In this case, the current definition of death as cessation of neurological activity was confirmed, but it remains very possible that this could be challenged on freedom of religion grounds. This has very interesting implications for estates law. For example, in families of mixed faiths, some members of the family might consider a relative to be deceased, while other members might consider them to be alive. This would cause a tricky situation when it comes to dividing up the estate. Watch this space!
Thanks for reading,
Ian Hull and Sean Hess
In Kirst Estate (Re), the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta had before it an interpretation case involving a holograph will of William Kirst (“K”). The will was a short handwritten document that divided the estate equally amongst K’s surviving children, with some qualifying language allowing Whitehorn (“W”), one of K’s children, to live in the family home. W had almost always lived in the home, which was the primary estate asset.
The phrase the Court was tasked with interpreting reads: “Whitehorn can live in the house for awhile, to be determined by Him and his brothers + sisters.”
The sole issue was the interpretation of the words “for awhile”.
The testimony of four of K’s children was considered (although ultimately of little assistance), with two of them believing K’s intention was that W remain in the house indefinitely, and the other two viewing their father’s intention as simply to permit W to stay in the home until he could get his affairs in order. As K discussed his estate with his children separately, each of them had his/her own understanding of K’s intentions. Notably, although K made the will in 1995, none of the kids had previously known about it or discussed its terms with K.
The Court cited and reviewed the following four general principles of interpretation recently set out by the Alberta Court of Appeal to assist in ascertaining K’s intention:
“First, a will must be interpreted to give effect to the intention of the testator. No other principle is more important than this one.
Second, a court must read the entire will, just the same way an adjudicator interpreting a contract or a statute must read the whole contract or statute.
Third, a court must assume that the testator intended the words in the will to have their ordinary meaning in the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.
Fourth, a court may canvas extrinsic evidence to ascertain the testator’s intention.”
The Court concluded that it could determine K’s intention by giving the words in his will their natural and ordinary meaning, and, in so doing, it was satisfied that the intention was to allow W to stay in the home subject to an enforceable condition that he and his siblings agree on how long he can continue to live there. The Court further found that as the siblings could not agree, the condition had not been fulfilled, such that W’s entitlement has ended.
The circumstances in this case are unfortunate, as the siblings had apparently been involved in protracted litigation since K’s death in 2010, including a dispute over the validity of the will. Although holograph wills can be helpful estate planning tools, I wonder if these same contentious circumstances would have developed if K had made his will with effective legal advice.
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Some basic questions to get you thinking about starting a will with a surviving spouse scenario:
- Everything to spouse Absolute (no strings attached)?
- Some or all assets held in a Spousal Trust (some conditions will apply) ?
- An amount immediately to children with the balance to the spouse Absolute?
For lawyers – the Hull e-State Planner is a tool for making wills and has been called “the future of will planning”. To book your free demo today email to email@example.com
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For those who are about to enter, or are in the very midst of, a long and arduous legal dispute, beware the ineffaceable nature of social media activity. The sands of time might erode Rome and the Pyramids, but they will bounce off the public record of your impassioned posts and hyperbolic tweets. Keeping in mind that such evidence lasts forever, and is also readily accessible, devoid of context, and cheap to procure, litigants may be wise to keep their online communication to a minimum – lest they spoon-feed their opponents material that could later prove hamstringing and self-defeating.
In recent years there have been stories about criminals sharing their crimes with the world via Facebook Live. In family law, we have seen a support claimant attain more support by citing a payor’s lavish life on Instagram, and a father’s custody compromised by his errant Youtube video. In estates law, where there is often mystery and ambiguity involved with testamentary intention, and much of the evidence is “he-said-she-said” – in other words, uncorroborated parole evidence tainted by self-interest – parties scramble for whatever concrete material they can find, such as a screenshot of a social media tirade.
In one recent Ontario decision (Lyons v. Todd,  O.N.S.C. 2269), a man not only dragged out litigation against his sister, who was the estate trustee, but engaged in a campaign of harassment, menaces, and defamation – all of which the court was able to scrutinize with ease:
“The transcription of voice messages, copies of emails and other social media posts, establish that Bob threatened to make what he described as Victoria’s ‘perverted’ sex life public. He threatened to expose her to the clients of the Park and bankrupt her with the costs of litigation if she did not settle. With some of the Facebook posts, he posted the location of the Park.”
The court did not accept the man’s argument that the posts were unrelated to the proceedings, finding instead that the “gratuitous humiliation and embarrassment” the estate trustee suffered was a further reason for which she should receive the $60,000 in costs that she requested.
In Nova Scotia (Public Safety) v. Lee,  N.S.S.C. 71, a man came under the fire of CyberSCAN and the Director of Public Safety, which are government bodies mandated with the policing, punishment and prevention of cyberbullying. The man was purportedly vexed with his sister, who was the sole beneficiary of the mother’s will. The rambling posts were addressed to “anybody out there in Facebook land” and the “cowards in my family”, but in fact the speech was tantamount to a naked admission before a stern court.
The frustrated litigant or potential litigant who needs to vent would be safer, and likely more satisfied, by confiding his or her troubles to a friend in a private setting rather than airing from a veritable rooftop grievances which will echo for the end of time.
Thank you for reading,
Ian Hull and Devin McMurtry
The book “The Beautiful Ones” was released last week in Canada. Part memoir (until his teenage years) and part biography, the book provides some insights into the life of one of the most influential musicians of our time. “Prince” Rogers Nelson, a multi-talented singer-songwriter died on April 21, 2016 at the age of 57 from an accidental fentanyl overdose at his estate outside Minneapolis. He died without a will.
The Minnesota Star Tribune reported about two weeks later, on May 8, 2016 that: “Suddenly, wills and estates are a topic everyone wants to learn about.” And “They are talking about it at the family barbecue, the Rotary Club, and the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce”.
According to several surveys, approximately 65% of Canadians do not have an “up to date” will. “Make a Will Month” encourages Canadians to make or update their wills. Doing so can save a lot of expense, delay, and conflict in the future. A proper will and estate plan means reducing or eliminating problems that arise when a person dies intestate (without a valid will). It has been reported that three years after his death Prince’s estate is still not distributed. Lawyers for his sister and half-siblings are squabbling. Claims by some alleged descendants have been dismissed. According to some estimates the estate is worth more than $300 million USD.
All kinds of people, including famous musicians, die without having made a valid will. Some who did not get around to making a will include: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, Duke Ellington, Barry White, George Gershwin, and Amy Winehouse.
Why wait? It is Make a Will Month! Please consider making a will. Thanks!
“Your Will is a Sacred Trust. It should be made when you are in the prime of life and better able to give it the consideration it deserves.”
From an advertisement in the National Post, Toronto Newspaper, by the Mercantile Trust Company on November 8, 1919.
One hundred years have passed since that advertisement and there have been many changes in the law since then, changes in the use of technology in making wills and changes in society. But, it does not appear that the advertising and marketing of wills has evolved much over the last hundred years. There is little advertising visible today and it does not appear to be effective. Recent surveys have shown that approximately half of all Canadians do not have a will. An Angus Reid Institute report indicates that the majority of Canadians today do not have a will, and only 35% say they have a will that is “up to date”. The main reason cited for not having a will was 25% who said, “Too young to worry about it”. Interestingly, only 18% responded that they thought “It’s too expensive to get a will written” – with this number being only 6% among people with a household income of more than $100K.
In a time when individuals are often spending what appears to be incredible sums of money on material things, and on sports events, concerts, stage productions, and other entertainment, one has to wonder if marketing of the legal service of “getting a will written” has somehow missed the mark when 65% of Canadians say they do not have a will that is up to date.
November is Make a Will Month, which is an opportunity for Ontario Bar Association members to help the public understand the importance of having a will and having it done by a lawyer. Please consider making a will in “Make a Will Month” and instead of putting it off – why not “do it now”. Make a Will Month will see many free legal information sessions presented by volunteers at places like libraries and community centers across Ontario throughout November. For more information, you can contact a lawyer or visit the Ontario Bar Association website.
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The monetary jurisdiction of Ontario’s Small Claims Court is set to increase on January 1, 2020. The jurisdiction of the Court will increase from $25,000 to $35,000.
The current limit of $25,000 was in place since 2010. Prior to that, the limit was $10,000.
In a press release from the Ministry of the Attorney General, the change is said to “make it faster, easier and more affordable for people and businesses to resolve their disputes in front of a judge.”
Claims over $35,000 would need to be brought in the Superior Court of Justice. As noted by the Ministry of the Attorney General, claims in the Superior Court of Justice can take years to resolve, and can involve expensive legal representation. Claims in the Small Claims court, however, can be resolved in less than a year, and litigants are not required to hire lawyers or other legal help.
The Ministry also stated that the change should have the effect of reducing wait times in the Superior Court of Justice, as many claims that would otherwise have been brought in the Superior Court of Justice could now be brought in the Small Claims Court.
Another change is that the minimum amount of a claim that may be appealed to the Divisional Court is increased from $2,500 to $3,500.
As to transition, litigants who started a claim in the Superior Court of Justice for an amount between $25,000 and $35,000 can move to have their claim transferred to the Small Claims Court.
There are costs consequences if a proceeding is brought in the wrong court. Under Rule 57.05 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, if a plaintiff recovers an amount within the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court, the court may order that the Plaintiff shall not recover any costs. If a Plaintiff recovers default judgment that is within the monetary jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court, costs shall be assessed in accordance with the Small Claims Court’s tariff.
Costs in the Small Claims Court are limited under its rules, and are subject to a limit under the Courts of Justice Act, s. 29, to 15% of the amount of claimed or the property sought to be recovered, subject to the court’s right to award higher costs to penalize a party or the party’s representative for unreasonable behavior.
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In the spirit of the season, we take this opportunity to explore potential estates issues with respect to age-old Halloween stories, supposing they occurred in Ontario.
Spawned from historical and mythic accounts of Vlad the Impaler and reimagined in Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula is the prototypical vampire – debonair and inconspicuous gentleman by day, bloodthirsty and puissant ghoul by night – a personification of evil. With such notoriety, it is unsurprising that his estate is fabulous. Once Dracula is deceased (from a silver bullet), his estate trustee could liquefy all the treasures he has accumulated through the ages. And there is no doubt that his castle, with its grand halls, ornate architecture, and scenic view of the Transylvanian mountains, would be worth a fortune. But what of the beneficiaries? If Dracula has a will, surely it would have some foul purpose that would be voided on public policy grounds. Applying the laws of intestacy, then, we would look for Dracula’s spouse and next of kin, but being as his life goals were far from romantic and familial, it is most probable “that the property becomes the property of the Crown, and the Escheats Act, 2015 applies” (Succession Law Reform Act, s. 47(7)).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein illustrates how social alienation can lead to monstrosity (a subject explored more subtly than in Joker), but in film and popular culture it is best remembered as a warning against science going too far (i.e., the wakening of an uncontrollable force, akin to the Jewish golem and symbolic of nuclear warfare). Now we must imagine that Dr. Frankenstein’s estate would be less than the Mummy’s (what with all the riches in an Egyptian crypt), but much as Dr. Frankenstein might port the shabby dress of a man in his station, we should not doubt that a mad scientist can accumulate valuable assets. Since the wretch probably does not have legal personhood, however, any bequest from Dr. Frankenstein to his creation would probably have to be in the form of a charitable donation (similar to the woman who gave everything to dogs, as we blogged about here). But then we must wonder if the wretch were exercising undue influence on Dr. Frankenstein … There is also the question of claimants against the estate, for the wretch’s many victims would be expected to sue.
Hansel and Gretel
The Brothers Grimm memorialized this cautionary tale about two children who get lost in the woods and end up the captives of an evil witch. In the aftermath of the children outsmarting and destroying their captor, the question arises: what will happen to her gingerbread house and other candy assets? We may infer that her will would be invalid, for a cannibalistic witch cannot be said to be operating with a sound enough mind to meet the threshold for testamentary capacity. In any case, the children could claim dependant support according to section 58(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act, for they were being fed (especially Hansel) large quantities of candy and were provided with shelter. And if estate litigation were to ensue, the Ontario Children’s Lawyer would likely have to get involved: Hansel and Gretel, precocious as they may be, are still children.
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry
We all know how long an Estate Trustee typically has to wait for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee With or Without a Will, if filed in Toronto. Sometimes a Certificate of Appointment is not granted for six to eight months from the filing date.
The Court recently expressed its frustration with the frequency of motions being commenced by Estate Trustees seeking to expedite the granting of the Certificate of Appointment. The option of obtaining the Certificate of Appointment on a more urgent basis appears to no longer be available as a result. Apparently, it was not unusual for Estate Trustees to seek to expedite the process when real property of an Estate needed to be sold. The Court does not always agree that the sale of real property cannot wait until the Certificate of Appointment is granted.
Despite the Court’s stance on expediting the granting of Certificates of Appointment, there are special circumstances that would arguably warrant the Court’s intervention. What if an Estate Trustee’s authority is required to manage a certain asset of an Estate such that, if it is not obtained within a reasonable amount of time, the Estate could suffer significant expense?
An option that is available which should be carefully considered (particularly given the Court’s position on expediting the process overall) is seeking a limited grant from the Court for a particular purpose. Historically, this was known as a grant ad colligenda bona, and was limited to particular purposes as well as limited until such time as a general grant could be made (see Charles H. Widdifield, Surrogate Court Practice and Procedure, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 1930) at 190).
Today, where the conditions for an appointment of an Estate Trustee During Litigation are not met, and there is a delay in the appointment of an Estate Trustee, a limited grant for the purpose of gathering in and protecting the assets may be sought by way of a motion or application for directions under Rule 75.06 of the Rules of Civil Procedure (see Ian M. Hull & Suzana Popovic-Montag, Macdonell, Sheard and Hull on Probate Practice, 5th ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2016) at 384).
This option should be carefully considered where the circumstances are truly special such that the Court’s intervention is required on an urgent basis and the Estate Trustee cannot wait until the Certificate of Appointment is granted.
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Judges are sworn to decipher, apply, and uphold the law, an exercise that takes great care and sense considering the ambiguity of statute, the discordant doctrines of interpretation, and the prevalence of emotional tinderboxes in litigation. Perhaps more challenging, however, is the judge’s task of navigating through brambles of facts.
In the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court decision of O’Dea Estate (Re),  N.L.S.C. 178, Orsborn J. was imposed with the burden of sorting out a conflict between Michael and Shannon, who were named co-executors and whose acrimonious sibling relations are reminiscent of a previous blog. Contrary to the testator father’s wishes, in the two-and-a-half years since his death, neither sibling was appointed executor; instead, litigation between the two raged, with each accusing the other of fraudulent behaviour. In competing applications, Michael sought the appointment of the Public Trustee, whereas Shannon applied to have herself appointed sole executrix.
Justice Orsborn decided as follows: “By asking to have the Public Trustee appointed, Michael has effectively renounced his appointment pursuant to the will.”
A mere proposed solution was construed as a renunciation. Michael’s position was undermined by his willingness to see the estate depleted (by hiring the Public Trustee, a pricy endeavour) combined with his disinclination to assume the role of co-executor.
Other factors were present in this decision. Orsborn J. was reluctant to accede to Michael’s request for financial reasons, for the estate was not large and the Public Trustee could be expected to take a significant chunk out of what remained. It also mattered to him that the testator’s intention to have Michael and Shannon administer the estate be at least half-honoured. Additionally, the judge ascribed significance to the fact that the other estate beneficiaries, who were also children of the deceased testator, preferred Shannon’s claim.
O’Dea Estate is another case in which the court has emphasized its commitment to limiting costs with small estates, but more importantly, it suggests the court will draw an adverse inference when litigants seek to hand off their responsibilities to third parties.
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David Morgan Smith and Devin McMurtry