Category: Estate & Trust
Recently, I experienced a series of coincidences involving American filmmaker Wes Anderson. In the span of a handful of days, I came across the newly-released trailer of his upcoming film, The French Dispatch, and had the opportunity to revisit his 2014 hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Not having seen the latter in several years, I had entirely forgotten a key plot point involving a handful of curious estate planning decisions. Although the film was released six years ago, I nonetheless attach a mild spoiler warning.
The plot of the film revolves around a specific bequest of a work of art made by one of the characters in the film, Madame D. The painting, Boy with Apple, is left to Ralph Fiennes’ character, Gustave H, the proprietor of the film’s namesake hotel, per Madame D’s (purported) Last Will and Testament.
Her decision to leave the painting to Gustave, rather than her nephew, Dmitri, creates a firestorm of controversy, not least of all because Dmitri accuses Gustave of murdering his aunt in order to secure
his entitlement to Boy with Apple. In reality, it is strongly hinted in the film that Dmitri is responsible for her murder. As an additional twist, a further Last Will and Testament executed by Madame D is discovered later, which appears to leave the entire residue of her estate, rather than just Boy with Apple, to Gustave. However, it is stated in the film that this further Last Will is only to be given effect in the event that Madame D is murdered.
This single plot point raises a number of points of discussion and policy concerns as to what would transpire if the film were set in Ontario. This blog will explore the nature of Dmitri’s and Gustave’s potential entitlements in the Estate.
Prior blogs have explored the concept of common law forfeiture rules in Canada, which preclude an individual from deriving a benefit from their own morally culpable conduct. Colloquially known as the “slayer rule” in the context of a testator-beneficiary relationship, a beneficiary who is found to have caused the unlawful death of a testator will be deemed at common law to have predeceased the testator, thereby extinguishing any interest in the testator’s estate.
In the film, Dmitri accuses Gustave of the murder of Madame D. In the ordinary course, a conviction proper is not a necessary precondition to the applicability of the slayer rule. Rather, common law suggests that the rule applies strictly in the event that the beneficiary’s deliberate act caused the death of the testator. In theory, Gustave’s interest in the estate of Madame D could be in jeopardy despite the lack of culpability. In practice, despite his efforts to frame Gustave, the evidence would likely show that Dmitri was the culprit, thereby extinguishing any interest in Madame D’s estate.
Of course, the further Last Will purportedly being given effect only in the event a murder adds a further layer of discussion, and will be explored in greater detail in part 2 of this blog.
Thanks for reading.
This Sunday February 16, 2020 the NBA All-Star game will be played in Chicago. It is estimated that seven million people will watch that one game, and that about 450 million people are involved with basketball around the world annually. Forbes magazine has estimated the value of the 30 NBA teams at over 50 billion dollars with the Toronto Raptors valued at 1.7 billion.
On December 21, 1891 the game of basketball was invented by Canadian James Naismith. He was born on November 6, 1861 in Almonte Ontario about 50 kilometers west of Ottawa. Yet, the inventor of the game, James Naismith, never profited from any of this. In fact, he was generally in favour of advancing good values through sport and not profit. His estate did not profit either. However, his original two-page rules of the game of “Basket Ball” from 1891 were passed down to his family.
On December 10, 2010 the rules were purchased at Sotheby’s auction for a record 4.3 million dollars by David and Suzanne Booth. The couple then donated the original rules of the game of “Basket Ball” to the University of Kansas, where James Naismith had been director of athletics until retiring in 1937 at the age of 76. He died on November 28, 1939 at his home in Lawrence Kansas. The family heirs of James Naismith took the proceeds from the sale of the original rules and donated the money to the Naismith International Basketball Foundation charitable organization.
A notable legacy in a succession of events. The game of life played well, starting with James Naismith, then David and Suzanne Booth, and then the family and heirs of James Naismith!
Enjoy the game!
What do you do as a lawyer when you represent someone who is waiting to receive money from an estate, but the Estate Trustee will not pay? An interim distribution can commonly be made. The Estate Trustee can hold back some of the funds for potential liabilities and distribute some of the money immediately. Potential liabilities can involve delayed tax filings related to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) procedures being slow, or other estate liabilities. Final distribution can be delayed for a matter of 2-3 years, or even longer. As an example, on a $1,000,000 estate, the hold back might be $200,000 on $50,000 of estate liabilities that are known or can be knowledgeably estimated. This safely leaves $800,000 for immediate interim distribution, without waiting years until concluding administration of the estate. However, the practice of the Office of Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT) in Ontario is not to do interim distributions. They take the position that even if there is the remotest potential for liability they will not take the risk. As a government entity there is certainly no incentive to take any risk. The following rhetorical question illustrates the problem – What civil servant in a bureaucratic government agency is going to move quickly to take on liability and risk?
A recent decision clearly directs the Office of Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT) of Ontario to make an immediate interim distribution as Estate Trustee.
It is unfortunate, in my view, that anyone would have to take steps to seek an Order in these circumstances. This is what happened in Foundation for Human Development and Jack Benson v The Estate of Keith Irwin-Reekie, 2020 ONSC 299, with the decision released on January 15, 2020. The court directed an interim distribution by the OPGT, to distribute the inheritance to which the moving parties were entitled. The court found that it was appropriate to exercise discretion under rule 74.15 (1) (i) “Orders for Assistance” of the Rules of Civil Procedure, Courts of Justice Act. The reasoning was that it was usual practice for estate trustees to make interim distributions out of estates, “once the Estate Trustee has a good understanding of the taxes and other liabilities of the estate, holding back sufficient funds in the estate to satisfy those expenses / liabilities”.
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America’s Top Forty show was hosted for decades by Casey Kasem and was one of the top radio shows in the world. Casey was born Kemal Amin Kasem in Detroit on April 27, 1932 to Lebanese immigrant parents who worked as grocers. He succeeded on radio and also did other work like voice roles in cartoons like “Shaggy” on Scooby-Doo. When he died on June 15, 2014 at age 82 his estate was reported to be valued at over $ 80 million USD.
After his death, three children from his first marriage were involved in what can only be described as a very sad dispute with his second wife that went on for over 5 years. The dispute was recently reported to have been settled in December 2019. This, in my view, is another example of what goes wrong when proper estate planning is not considered by parents/spouses/children. The ensuing consequences are often unfortunate and can be played out, in large part, in the courts. There is too much to the Casey Kasem story for this blog but, the story involves his dementia from Lewy Body Disease, one of the most common progressive dementia’s after Alzheimer’s. It involves his disappearance and a Los Angeles court declaring him a missing person on May 12, 2014. It involves his not being buried for six months after he died and then being buried in Oslo Norway for some reason on December 16, 2014. For more on this story I suggest the article by Amy Wallace entitled “The Long, Strange Purgatory of Casey Kasem”.
Thanks for reading!
In the recent case of Wilkinson v. The Estate of Linda Robinson, 2020 ONSC 91, the court rejected an argument that the 2-year limitation period set out in the Trustee Act applied to a claim against an estate for an interest in a real property on the basis of constructive trust. The court held that the 10-year limitation period set out in the Real Property Limitations Act applied.
In the case, the deceased died on July 2, 2015. The deceased died owning a real property that she and her common-law spouse lived in. In her will, the deceased allowed her spouse to live in the house for 2 years. The surviving spouse brought a claim that he was entitled to an equal interest in the house.
However, the claim was not commenced until September 25, 2017. The estate seized upon this delay and brought a motion to have the application dismissed on the basis of the passage of the 2-year limitation period set out in the Trustee Act.
The court dismissed this argument. It held that the appropriate limitation period was not the one set out in the Trustee Act, but the one set out in the Real Property Limitations Act.
The court quoted extensively from the Court of Appeal decision of McConnell v. Huxtable, 2014 ONCA 86. There, the court determined that a claim for a constructive trust in a common law relationship based on unjust enrichment was an action for recovery of land and therefore was governed by the Real Property Limitations Act. The applicable limitation period was therefore 10 years.
In a similar case, Rolston v. Rolston, 2016 ONSC 2937, the court refused to apply the 2-year limitation period to a claim for a remedial constructive trust brought 7 years after the date of death of the deceased. Again, the action was allowed to continue under the 10-year limitation period set out in the Real Property Limitations Act.
Ideally, any claim involving an estate should be brought within 2 years of the date of death of the deceased so as to avoid any limitation period issue. However, where this has not been done, it may still be possible to maintain a claim under certain circumstances.
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Changes made in 2016 to the Income Tax Act resulted in unfair treatment to disabled Canadians by restricting which types of trusts were eligible for a “principal residence exemption” (PRE). Now the Department of Finance has issued a letter of comfort, attempting to rectify these unfair changes.
What is the PRE?
In short, the PRE allows Canadians, when selling their principal residence, to avoid being taxed on their realized capital gains. Without this exemption, someone selling their principal residence would be taxed on 50% of their capital gains, which could be very significant when taking into account the value of the property.
Injustice with the Current Rules
The changes introduced in the Income Tax Act in 2016 meant only three categories of trusts could claim the exemption. The first was life interest trusts, the second was qualified disability trusts, and the third was inter vivos or testamentary trusts established for a minor child with one or more parents being deceased.
This definition significantly restricted the type of trusts that were eligible to claim the PRE. Because the second category, qualified disability trusts, are testamentary trusts (resulting from death), this meant that disabled taxpayers who were the beneficiaries of inter vivos trusts (not resulting from death) could not claim the exception and would have capital gains on their principal residence taxed at the highest rate.
In practice, this would result in an unexpected and significant amount of income tax being due 21 years after the creation of the trust, because after 21 years the trust will have been deemed to have disposed of its capital property. If a disabled beneficiary did not have enough funds available in the trust to pay the capital gains tax, there could be severe consequences.
In response to this problem, the Department of Finance has issued a comfort letter stating that it will make recommendations to the Minister of Finance to fix the issue. This would involve amending the Income Tax Act to permit certain inter vivos trusts to claim the PRE. This would also be subject to certain conditions. Firstly, the beneficiary needs to be a resident in Canada who is disabled (able to claim the disability tax credit). Secondly, the beneficiary must be a child, spouse, common-law partner, or former spouse or partner of the trust’s settlor. Thirdly and finally, no one other than the qualifying disabled beneficiary can receive the income or capital of the trust. If these three conditions are satisfied, the disabled beneficiary would be able to claim the tax exemption for their principal residence.
Fixing the injustice
This proposal was made recently and has not yet been implemented. Any laws that put disabled Canadians at a disadvantage, even inadvertently, ought to be changed and the injustice should be corrected. Implementation of these recommendations would be welcome and cannot arrive soon enough.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag & Sean Hess
Recently, Stuart Clark blogged about the film Knives Out and its relation to estate law. Another popular movie, Murder Mystery, which aired on Netflix last year, also offered some thoughtful considerations for those interested in estate law. The film, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, was the most popular title on Netflix in 2019. In its first three days on the streaming service, it was viewed by 30,869,863 accounts.
Just as Stuart gave a spoiler alert in his blog, this blog also contains spoilers.
In Murder Mystery, Nick Spitz and his wife, Audrey Spitz, embark on a trip to Europe. On the plane, Audrey meets billionaire Charles Cavendish, who invites them to join him on his family’s yacht for a party to celebrate Malcolm Quince’s (Charles’ elderly billionaire uncle’s) upcoming wedding to Charles’ former fiancée. While on the yacht, Malcolm announces that he will be changing his will to leave everything to his soon-to-be wife. After this surprise announcement, the lights suddenly go out, a scream is heard, and when the lights come back on, the guests are surprised to see that Malcolm has been killed. Nick and Audrey are framed for Malcolm’s death. To prove their innocence, they must find Malcolm’s real killer.
Throughout the movie, French inheritance law is heavily emphasized. As summarized by Nick in the film: “The French law states that a man’s estate must be divided equally amongst his children.” This type of estate plan is referred to as a “forced heirship.” France’s succession law is based on the Napoleonic Code introduced in the 1800s. Under France’s succession law, children are reserved a certain portion of their parents’ estate. If a parent has one child, at least one-half of the estate must be reserved for them. If a parent has two children, at least two-thirds of the estate must be reserved for them and if a parent has three or more children, at least three-quarters of the estate must be reserved for them.
Those who have watched the film may find themselves wondering if the succession laws in Ontario are similar to that of France. Unlike French inheritance law, in Ontario, a testator does not have an obligation to leave a share of their estate to an adult, independent child. Under subsection 58(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”), a testator is only under an obligation to provide support for their “dependants”.
According to subsection 57(1) of the SLRA, a “dependant” includes the deceased’s spouse, parent, child, brother or sister “to whom the deceased was providing support or was under a legal obligation to provide support immediately before his or her death.” Therefore, if a testator was not under a legal obligation to provide for an adult child, that child may not have an entitlement to share in their parent’s estate.
Just something to think about the next time you watch the film.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
Your sister (falsely) trash talks you to your mom. Mom then writes you out of her will.
“Fraudulent calumny!”, you scream.
Fraudulent calumny occurs where a person poisons the mind of a testator against another person who would otherwise be a natural beneficiary of the testator’s bounty by casting dishonest aspersions on his or her character.
The doctrine has been applied or considered in many UK decisions.
Fraudulent calumny is said to be a species of undue influence. However, rather than influence a testator to do something, the influencer influences a testator to NOT do something: leave a bequest to a certain party.
In order to establish fraudulent calumny, the person alleging fraudulent calumny must prove:
- That A made a false representation;
- To B, the testator;
- About C, a third person;
- For the purposes of inducing B to alter his or her testamentary dispositions;
- That A made the representations knowing them to be false, or reckless as to their truth; and
- That B’s will was made only because of the false representations.
See Kunicki& Anor v. Hayward,  4 WLR 32 at paragraph 122.
Like other undue influence, the test is a difficult one to pass.
In a recent UK decision, Rea v. Rea,  WTLR 1231, the court rejected a claim of fraudulent calumny. The court held that the challengers did not establish that their sister poisoned their mother’s mind against them, by saying that the challengers had abandoned her. The court found that the mother felt, of her own volition, that she was abandoned. Thus, whether it was true or not, the mother made her own decision without anyone “poisoning her mind”; therefore without fraudulent calumny or undue influence.
For a more artistic depiction of fraudulent calumny, see Boticelli’s Calumny of Apelles. The painting has been described as follows:
On the right of it sits a man with very large ears, almost like those of Midas, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents envy. There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.
In R. v. Muvunga, defence counsel tried to use the painting as a visual prop, to be referred to as an allegory about false accusations. The court rejected the bid. “While the painting is of great interest to art historians and other scholars, I find that it has no place in a modern Canadian criminal trial.”
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The testators died in 2008. The family realized there was a disagreement about the validity of their parents’ codicils that year but everything seemed to be on hold until Helen brought an application in 2015 to determine the validity of the codicil. In response, Krystyna brought a motion for summary judgment to dismiss Helen’s application on the basis it is statute barred pursuant to the Limitations Act, 2002. This motion was brought by Krystyna because she was interested in maintaining the force and effect of the codicils that gave her certain properties. Thereafter, Helen cross-motioned for summary judgment on her application.
Rule 20.04 of the Rules of Civil Procedure sets out the basis for summary judgment. Summary judgment shall be granted if: (a) the court is satisfied that there is no genuine issue requiring a trial with respect to a claim or defence; or (b) if the parties agree to have all or part of the claim determined by a summary judgment and the court is satisfied that it is appropriate to grant summary judgment. The Supreme Court of Canada in Hryniak v. Maudlin, 2014 SCC 7, determined that “a trial is not required if a summary judgment motion can achieve a fair and just adjudication, if it provides a process that allows the judge to make the necessary findings of fact, apply the law to those facts, and is a proportionate, more expeditious and less expensive means to achieve a just result than going to trial.”
With that in mind, Justice Dietrich found that Krystyna’s motion for summary judgment was appropriate for the following reasons (see para. 35):
- There were no material facts in dispute;
- No additional facts would emerge at trial;
- The application of an absolute limitation period was generally a fairly straightforward factual analysis;
- That based on the evidence before her, this matter can be resolved without a trial and that a trial of this narrow issue would be a more expensive and lengthy means of achieving a just result.
The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed with Justice Dietrich’s finding on this point. The panel emphasized how both parties brought summary judgment motions and filed affidavits with exhibits of their own.
In contrast, a similar summary judgment motion was unsuccessful in Birtzu v. McCron, 2017 ONSC 1420, 2019 ONCA 777 (on the issue of costs, only). The Court in Birtzu found that summary judgment was not appropriate and ordered costs against the defendant in any event of the cause (with reasons that were unreported). That said, the defendant was ultimately successful in proving that the plaintiffs were statute barred after a full trial on all issues.
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Doreen So and Celine Dookie
In wills, trusts, and estates litigation, much hinges upon expert evidence. In a will challenge that is based upon alleged testamentary incapacity, both the objector and propounder of the will would be prudent to enlist a capacity assessor. A party suspicious of undue influence may wish to consult a physician, a police officer, or some other party who could be privy to abuse. In a contested passing of accounts, an expert investor can speak to the soundness of a trustee’s investments.
Though in theory expert evidence should clarify the points of contention, in practice it can sometimes render matters murkier and more uncertain. For instance, what happens if two equally distinguished handwriting experts draw opposite conclusions? What if a coroner’s findings contradict the preponderance of other evidence?
Another concern is experts’ impartiality, as evidenced by Wilton v. Koestlmaier, wherein one party unsuccessfully charged an expert witness with advocating for the other side. Courts have long been apprehensive that some experts may (perhaps unwittingly) be kinder with the parties with whom they interact and from whom they collect their bills. In 1873, Sir George Jessel, M.R., wrote:
“There is a natural bias to do something serviceable for those who employ you and adequately remunerate you. It is very natural, and it is so effectual, that we constantly see persons, instead of considering themselves witnesses, rather consider themselves as the paid agents of the person who employs them.”
One possible fix for this source of apprehension is to have both parties deal with the same expert. At the very least, litigators should not employ the same expert to too great an extent, which might appear as a “red flag”.
Courts have also looked into the timing for delivery of expert reports. The Rules of Civil Procedure prescribe that expert reports are served no less than 90 days before the pre-trial conference (or 60 days for responding parties’ reports). Oftentimes, however, parties should exchange their reports well before these deadlines, for once parties receive these reports, they have a much better idea of the relative strength of their positions, which may steer them towards settlement. In Ismail v. Ismail, Grace J. spoke to this:
“How can the parties’ lawyers advise their clients concerning settlement without knowing their case and the one they must meet? How can the parties make informed decisions?”
Too many experts can increase costs exponentially (especially if the experts are famous or from faraway places), but too few experts could lead to a scantiness of evidence. As a nice medium, the Australians have come up with the practice of “hot tubbing” experts—which, despite its fun name, does not involve splashing, shouting, or the unusual combination of horn-rimmed spectacles with bathing suits. Rather, “hot tubbing” refers to having a panel of experts questioned together, which can allow for an identification of the points of agreement and disagreement and more lively discussion.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy your day!
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry