Category: Executors and Trustees
Cryptocurrency is aptly described in a recent post as “digital cash stored on an electronic file and traded online… like online banking but with no central bank or regulator. It also has virtual wallets which store the cryptocurrency.”
As with any online assets, access to a deceased person’s cryptocurrency is vital. Without it, heirs will not receive their intended entitlements and the cryptocurrency will remain dormant. A stark example of such a problem can be found in the QuadrigaCX debacle.
QuadrigaCX is Canada’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange. Its’ founder, Gerald Cotton, died unexpectedly and prematurely at age 30. He was the only one who knew the password to access the holdings of the company’s clients. Once news of his death got out, thousands of clients were rushing to withdraw millions in funds. They have not yet been successful, the reason being, as one author explains, is that “…Cotten was the sole person responsible for transferring QuadrigaCX funds between the company’s “cold wallet” — secure, offline storage — and its “hot wallet” or online server…Very little cryptocurrency was stored in the hot wallet for security purposes. Cotten’s laptop was encrypted, and his widow, Jennifer Robertson, and the expert she hired have been unable to access any of its contents.”
QuadrigaCX is evidently now in financial straits. It has filed for creditor protection in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Further, Ms. Robertson has reportedly sought the appointment of Ernst & Young to oversee the company’s dealings while attempts to recover the lost holdings continue.
This unfortunate situation highlights the risk that may accompany cryptocurrency’s lack of regulation. It also serves as a reminder to us that with ownership of digital assets growing, we need to think about how to ensure that gifting such assets is effected, including making sure to inform our intended estate trustees of how to access the assets. Doing so is helpful because, as the above case demonstrates, it is a must in the case of cryptocurrencies to have the password relevant to the wallet where the currency is held. Further, with an asset as volatile as cryptocurrency can be, a fully informed estate trustee will be in a better position to avoid delays in the administration of an estate and/or allegations of mismanagement if he/she is able to quickly access and distribute such assets.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,
Section 38 of Ontario’s Trustee Act provides that an estate trustee may commence or maintain, on behalf of a Deceased individual, an action in tort that could otherwise have been commenced by that individual. As discussed in related blogs on this section, such actions are ordinarily subject to a stricter limitation period than that of other civil claims.
In typical civil claims, Ontario’s Limitations Act imports a two-year limitation period which begins to run as of the date the cause of action was discovered. The limitation period under the Trustee Act, however, begins to run as of the Deceased’s date of death and is not subject to this principle of discoverability, unless the Plaintiff can satisfy the Doctrine of Special Circumstances. The decision in Graham Estate v Southlake Regional Health Centre recently contextualized this Doctrine and, in so doing, suggests that the principle of discoverability will not always be dispensed with.
In May 2008, the Deceased in Graham Estate underwent a botched surgical procedure that ultimately gave rise to a claim in medical negligence. The Deceased subsequently died in February 2009, and a claim was commenced by the Deceased’s Estate in May 2010, well within the two-year limitation period under section 38(3).
As part of this initial claim, the Estate obtained disclosure of relevant medical records relating to the operation. In or about 2015, more than four years after the limitation period had expired, counsel for the Estate subsequently received an additional unprompted cache of records that had not been previously disclosed. This new set of records gave rise to a claim against a party who was not a party to the existing litigation.
In February 2017, the Estate subsequently brought a motion seeking to add the Proposed Defendant as a party to the litigation. At issue in this decision was whether the Estate was out of time as a result of the strict operation of section 38(3) of the Trustee Act. The Court ultimately held that the Estate ought to succeed on the basis of the Doctrine of Special Circumstances.
As the claim against the Proposed Defendant was, on its face, out of time, the Estate argued that the Doctrine of Special Circumstances ought to apply. This Doctrine is comprised of a two-step test to be satisfied by the Plaintiff:
- The Plaintiff must rebut the presumption of prejudice that would result to the party to be added; and
- The Plaintiff must satisfy the Court that special circumstances justify the addition of that party.
At the outset, the Court held that the loss of a limitation defence immediately gave rise to a presumption of prejudice in favour of the Proposed Defendant. However, the Estate identified a number of factors that operated to rebut the presumption of prejudice, notably:
- The claims to be made against the Proposed Defendant were identical to those already commenced against the existing Defendants;
- The action against the Proposed Defendant was tenable in law; and
- There would be no procedural unfairness to the Proposed Defendant if he were added as a party, as no trial date had been set and he would have sufficient time to prepare a defence.
The Court then considered whether there were any equitable special circumstances that merited the addition of the Proposed Defendant as a party. As above, the Court held that there were, but in so doing, in effect considered factors not unlike the discoverability principle.
Chiefly, the Court noted that the Proposed Defendant’s role in the circumstances giving rise to the initial negligence claim had not become apparent until the limitation period had already expired. The Court found that the Estate had made efforts to obtained the relevant records well within the limitation period, and that the records implicating the Proposed Defendant had erroneously been omitted. The Court held that this was not a case in which the Estate was “handicapped by its own inaction.”
While section 38(3) of the Trustee Act on its face imports a strict limitation period, the Graham Estate decision nonetheless suggests that the courts will consider discoverability, among other factors. That said, this analysis is only engaged if the presumption of prejudice is rebutted.
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I recently blogged about the growing use of home DNA tests and what impact an unexpected result could have upon your rights as a beneficiary of an estate. While such a blog was from the perspective of an individual who discovered through a home DNA test that their biological father was not in fact the individual they previously believed it to be, and the potential impact such a finding could have upon their status as a beneficiary of their “father’s” estate if their interest was based on their status as a “child”, questions would also emerge in such a scenario if you were the Estate Trustee of such an estate regarding what you should do.
If you are the Estate Trustee of an estate in which a bequest is based on parentage (i.e. an intestacy or a bequest to a testator’s “issue” or “children”), and you discover that one of the beneficiaries has voluntarily taken a home DNA test which revealed that they were not in fact related to the deceased, could you still make a distribution to such a beneficiary? If you have already made a distribution to such a beneficiary, is there a risk that the other beneficiaries could now make a claim against you as Estate Trustee, alleging that you distributed the estate to the incorrect individuals and that they have suffered damages as a result?
In response to whether an Estate Trustee could potentially be liable to the other beneficiaries for historically paying out amounts to a beneficiary who it is later discovered was not actually related to the deceased, it would appear that the Estate Trustee likely would not be liable under such a scenario. In my previous blog I discussed the provisions of the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“) which establish a person’s legal parentage in Ontario, and the various presumptions establishing an individual’s father. While sections 13(1) and 14(1) of the CLRA allow the court to make a subsequent different declaration as to a person’s parentage, section 14(2) of the CLRA provides that such an Order “does not affect rights and duties that were exercised or performed, or interests in property that were distributed, before the order was set aside“. As a result, it would appear, arguably, that if an Estate Trustee historically made a payment to an individual based off of parentage, and a subsequent declaration is made by the court that the individual in question was not actually the parent of the beneficiary, the historic payment to the beneficiary could not be put in issue or reclaimed provided that at the time the payment was made the beneficiary was still presumed and/or declared to be the child of the deceased.
The issue of what an Estate Trustee is to do if a payment has not yet been made and they discover that an individual who they previously believed to be a beneficiary is not in fact related to the deceased could be more complicated. In the event that the other beneficiaries who could be affected by the distribution do not unanimously consent to continue to allow the distribution to the individual notwithstanding the results of the DNA test, it is possible that one or all of the other beneficiaries may later bring a claim against the Estate Trustee for negligence, alleging that the Estate Trustee knew about the results of the DNA test before making the distribution and that they have suffered damages as a result of the distribution. To offset such a risk, it may be wise for the Estate Trustee in such a scenario to bring an Application for the opinion, advice and direction of the court pursuant to section 60(1) of the Trustee Act and/or rule 14.05, asking the court to determine whether the distribution may still be made to the potential beneficiary in light of the results of the home DNA test.
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It is not uncommon for a trust or a Will to provide a trustee with broad and unfettered discretion in the administration of the trust or estate. We have previously blogged about the powers and duties of estate trustees, stating that it can be difficult to determine how such discretion should be exercised. Often, a trustee is given broad discretion to encroach on the capital of a trust or estate, for the benefit of a beneficiary. The issue then is: what factors can a trustee consider in determining whether to exercise their discretion to make a capital encroachment?
Broadly speaking, if a trustee is given unfettered discretion by a settlor or testator, the court will only intervene in the trustee’s decision-making if the trustee has exercised his or her discretion on the basis of mala fides, or bad faith. While there are a number of specific factors that a trustee may properly consider, for the purpose of this blog I will focus on one, namely the extent to which a trustee can consider a beneficiary’s income and/or assets.
Where a trustee is being asked to encroach on capital for the benefit of an income beneficiary, the trustee must consider the application of the even hand rule (briefly discussed in this blog). In doing so, a trustee may be tempted to consider the income beneficiary’s financial circumstances, as this information could illuminate how the trustee’s decision may affect the income beneficiary as compared to the capital beneficiary. However, the case law seems to indicate that this would not be a proper consideration.
In Re: Luke,  O.W.N. 25, the court considered whether the income beneficiary, who was also the trustee, should first look to her own financial resources before exercising her power to encroach on capital for her own benefit. The court determined that she did not have to first exhaust her own resources, as the testator had not expressed an intention in his Will that she do so. Similarly, in Hinton v. Canada Permanent Trust Company, (1979), 5 E.T.R. 117 (H.C.), a corporate trustee requested information from an income beneficiary as to the beneficiary’s own financial resources in the context of the trustee exercising its discretion to encroach on capital. Again, the court found that the testator had not indicated an intention in his Will that the income beneficiary’s income should be a factor in determining whether to encroach on capital, and the income beneficiary’s resources were, accordingly, not relevant.
The foregoing principle has been followed in a number of other decisions over the years, thus appearing to support the impropriety of considering a beneficiary’s personal financial resources as a factor in making capital encroachments, absent an intention by the testator in this regard.
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It is that time of the year when media outlets release their “top” or “most popular” lists, like the Time 100.
I came across a rather interesting and topical list the other day called “The Most Obnoxious Celebrity Wills” by Ranker. This particular list features 24 celebrity Wills and I will excerpt some of the notable mentions here:
- Napoleon Bonaparte’s Will was first on the list. Apparently, his Will included a direction for his head to be shaved and for his hair to be divided amongst his friends.
- Harry Houdini asked his wife to hold an annual séance to contact his spirit.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman wanted his son to be raised in three different cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
- Charles Dickens gave directions for a particular dress code at his funeral.
- Fred Baur, the person who designed the Pringles can, wanted to buried in a Pringles can.
Turns out testamentary freedom is whatever you want to make of it but the enforceability of provisions like these are another matter.
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A critical decision when making your estate plan is deciding who will administer your assets after your demise. Given the importance of appointing someone you trust, some find it to be a painstaking decision, at times complicated for those having loved ones living outside of Canada. The attached article speaks to three things to first consider before naming a foreign executor:
- Bond Requirement – If the executor is a non-resident he/she will generally need to post an administration bond equal to the value of the estate when applying for probate. The process to obtain a bond is time-consuming and costly. Bringing a motion asking the court to dispense with the bond requirement also adds expense.
- Tax Implications – An estate may be deemed to be non-resident for tax purposes as a result of a foreign executor in control. The ensuing added cost to the estate could include losing preferential capital gains and Canadian dividend tax treatments. An estate’s reporting and tax withholding obligations are also increased. Further, even if the estate is considered Canadian, there lies a risk that it will be subject to the tax laws of the executor’s country.
- Practical Challenges — Among an estate trustee’s duties are the obligations to gather the assets, inventory them, preserve them and distribute them. Such administrative tasks take time and are made more challenging when the executor is in another jurisdiction. If there is no trusted local individual, one work-around is to appoint a professional trust company, which has the added bonus of eliminating the bond requirement and tax risks noted above.
It may be prudent depending upon one’s individual circumstances to get the comfort of legal advice on the issue.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,
Applications to pass accounts are unique as civil proceedings go. The nature of the inquiries being made by the Court, the relief that a judge is empowered to grant, and the procedural considerations that apply are all features that distinguish applications to pass accounts from other civil applications. Procedural considerations in particular have garnered some notoriety recently as a result of several notable decisions released in the past few years. The recent decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario (then sitting as the Divisional Court) in Wall v Shaw, 2018 ONCA 929, provides some clarity to a few of the loose ends.
In Wall, the Deceased died leaving a Will naming the appellant as estate trustee and which created two testamentary trusts for the benefit of her two children. The Deceased’s nieces and nephews were also named as contingent beneficiaries in the event that both children died before vesting in the trust property.
The estate trustee acted for more than 10 years, but never formally passed his accounts. Instead, the estate trustee held frequent informal meetings with the Deceased’s children to review the administration of the estate and to discuss the estate trustee’s compensation.
A dispute between the Deceased’s daughter and the estate trustee relating to the latter’s compensation eventually led the daughter to bring an application seeking an order compelling the estate trustee to pass his accounts.
The estate trustee subsequently commenced an application to pass accounts in March 2015. In June 2015, the Deceased’s daughter filed a notice of objection to the accounts, followed in January 2016 by a notice of objection delivered by two of the Deceased’s nieces.
In response, the estate trustee brought a motion seeking to strike out the objections of the daughter on several grounds. Notably, the estate trustee took the position that the daughter’s approval of the accounts at the informal meetings constituted acquiescence of the estate trustee’s conduct. In the alternative, the estate trustee argued that the daughter’s objections were now statute-barred pursuant to sections 4 and 5 of Ontario’s Limitations Act or barred by the doctrine of laches.
The estate trustee was unsuccessful at first instance on all three grounds, but only chose to appeal the first ground. Specifically, the estate trustee argued on appeal that the judge at first instance had erred in refusing to apply the two-year limitation period under section 4 of the Limitations Act. The appeal was dismissed, and the reasons on appeal provide some procedural clarity in respect of the interplay between limitation periods and passings of accounts.
Section 4 of the Limitations Act generally provides that a “proceeding” cannot be commenced in respect of a “claim” if more than two years have elapsed since the date the claim was discovered. The Court of Appeal took issue with each of the quoted terms.
Notably, the held that a notice of objection does not commence a “proceeding” for the purposes of section 4 of the Limitations Act. Rather, a notice of objection ought to be viewed as a response to a proceeding that has already been commenced, being the application to pass accounts. The Court also pointed to its prior ruling in Armitage v The Salvation Army, in which it was held that an application to pass accounts was not a “claim” pursuant to section 4 of the Limitations Act. Accordingly, it followed that a responding objection raised in that application could also not constitute a claim.
Finally, the Court highlighted an important distinction between applications to pass accounts and other civil applications. Unlike a traditional civil claim, the Court in an application to pass accounts is not tasked with awarding judgment in favour of one party or the other. The purpose of an application to pass accounts to is initiate a “judicial inquiry” into the management of an estate and, if appropriate, provide redress to the estate, rather than to the beneficiaries personally.
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The recent decision of Re Milne, 2018 ONSC 4174, has caused a lot of discussion among estate planners and litigators. As a recap, in that decision, Justice Dunphy of the Superior Court found that multiple Wills were invalid where so-called “basket clauses” in the Wills provided the Estate Trustees with the discretion to determine which estate assets fell under which Will. The Court found the Wills to be invalid on the basis that Wills are a form of trust and therefore must meet the requisite three certainties of a valid trust (see our blog on the decision here). The decision is now under appeal and many are eagerly awaiting the outcome.
In the interim, estate planners and litigators should be aware of the recent decision of Re Panda, 2018 ONSC 6734, which directly addresses and declines to follow Re Milne.
Like in Re Milne, probate was sought for a Primary Will where a Secondary Will was executed which contained a different, but substantively similar, basket clause allowing the Estate Trustee of the Will to essentially determine which assets fell under the Primary Will and which assets fell under the Secondary Will. The application for probate came before Justice Dunphy who refused to grant probate. A motion for directions was then heard by Justice Penny who carefully analyzed the decision of Re Milne before granting probate.
The Issues in Re Panda
Justice Penny analyzed one procedural issue and two substantive issues, being:
- whether, on an unopposed application for a certificate of appointment as estate trustee, it is appropriate to inquire into substantive questions of construction of the will or whether the inquiry is limited to “formal” validity of the will for purposes of probate [the procedural issue];
- whether the validity of a will depends upon the testamentary instrument satisfying the “three certainties” which govern the test for the valid creation of a trust; and
- whether, apart from the questions of the validity of the will itself, a testator can confer on his or her personal representatives the ability to decide those assets in respect of which they will seek probate and those in respect of which they will not.
Probate vs. Construction
Unlike Justice Dunphy in Re Milne, Justice Penny found that at the stage of determining whether to grant or deny probate, a Court must determine only whether the document presented is a Last Will and Testament. The formal requirements under the SLRA must be met and it must be determined whether the document is testamentary in nature (i.e. disclosing an intention to make a disposition of the testator’s assets on death). Beyond that, Justice Penny found that broader questions of interpretation, including the validity of the conferral of authority to decide under which Will property will fall, should be addressed separately as matters of construction, not on probate applications.
A Will is Not a Trust
Justice Penny also disagreed that a Will was a form of trust such that a Will requires certainty of intention, object, and subject-matter. As stated by Justice Penny, “A will is a unique instrument. A will shares some of the attributes of a contract and some of the attributes of a trust but it is neither; a will is its own, unique creature of law.”
Validity of Estate Trustees’ Authority to Determine Which Assets Fall Under Which Will
With respect to the final issue, Justice Penny found that such a question involves the issue of the construction of a particular instruction to or power conferred in the Wills to the estate trustees. Justice Penny therefore found that it would be inappropriate to make any determination as to the scope and validity of the basket clause found in the Wills as such issues were not before him on the Application for Probate; however, in obiter, Justice Penny went on to note that it was not clear how the basket clauses in issue were “any more extreme or ‘uncertain’ than other, well-established discretionary choices frequently conferred on and exercised by estate trustees.”
Until the determination of the appeal of Re Milne is in, the decision in Re Panda may provide some comfort to practitioners worried about the implication of Re Milne.
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In the Estate of Divina Damm the Court answers the following question – what form of accounts must a guardian of property use when filing an application to pass accounts?
The facts in Re Damm Estate are not remarkable. A guardian of property commenced an application to pass accounts in accordance with Rule 74.18 of the Rules of Civil Procedure seeking court approval of her accounts. No objections arose with respect to the accounts, such that the guardian proceeded to file the application ‘over the counter’ as an unopposed application to pass accounts.
Notwithstanding that there were no objections, the Court refused to approve the accounts. The Court was concerned with the lack of detail and itemization in the entries, as well as the failure to comply with Rule 74.17. The judge tried to “…link all numbers listed in the draft judgment with information presented in the accounts but [was] unable to do so – because the accounts are not in proper form”.
Interestingly, the judge considered whether smaller estates should be permitted to file accounts in a simple format, but noted that it was for the Legislature and the Rules Committee to consider.
Accordingly, the Court directed the guardian to re-serve and re-file the accounts prepared in compliance with Rule 74.17.
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A recent decision from the Royal Court of Jersey was recently discussed here with respect to a beneficiary’s right to disclosure from a trust. This blog by lawyers from Ogier is an insightful read on this particular area of trust law.
According to the authors at Ogier, M v W Limited and Others was a case that considered a beneficiary’s broad request for documents, such as copies of all trust instruments, latest accounts, financial statements for the corporations owned by the trust, and details about all past distributions from the trust. While Court’s decision was grounded in an interpretation of the relevant Jersey legislation, some of its commentary remains instructive for those of us who practice outside of Jersey.
In M v W Limited and Others, the nature and immediacy of the beneficiary’s interest is salient to the inquiry. For example, a contingent beneficiary may not be entitled to as much disclosure as a beneficiary who is entitled to the assets of the trust at that point in time. By extension, it is also relevant to consider whether the disclosure at issue would negatively affect another class of beneficiaries as well as the proportionality of the request.
As for the law in Canada, I have blogged on a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision about a trustee’s duty to disclose the existence of a trust to the beneficiaries. Justice Brown for the majority in Valard Construction Ltd. v. Bird Construction Co., 2018 SCC 8, has stated the following at paragraph 19,
“In general, wherever “it could be said to be to the unreasonable disadvantage of the beneficiary not to be informed” of the trust’s existence,  the trustee’s fiduciary duty includes an obligation to disclose the existence of the trust.”
This notion of whether a beneficiary would be unreasonably disadvantaged by the non-disclosure is important to keep in mind because the right to disclosure is grounded in a beneficiary right to hold trustees accountable and to enforce the terms of the trust.
Practically speaking, issues of disclosure often leads to a request for the trustee to commence an application to pass accounts. While the trustee will have the benefit of a court order approving his/her administration for that period (if and when Judgment is obtained), an application to pass accounts must be served on all beneficiaries with a contingent or vested interest pursuant to Rule 74.18 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure. In turn, these beneficiaries will have the right to object to the trustee’s accounts and seek relevant disclosure from the trustee in the course of this process.
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