Category: Executors and Trustees
As Ian Hull and Daniel Enright of our office blogged last week, as of April 1, 2021, small estates in Ontario will be defined as those worth $150,000.00, instead of the $50,000.00 figure we are all used to.
The Ontario Attorney General, Doug Downey, advised that the process of applying to manage an estate in Ontario was the same, whether it is worth $10,000.00 or $10 million, which often deters people from claiming smaller estates.
As a result of this change, more estates will be able to access a simplified probate process, though the amount of probate fees payable will not change.
Although these changes are welcome, some consider that there are still a number of other issues outstanding, such as:
- Due to real estate values, estates in Toronto could be considered small, whereas that would not be the case in other parts of the province (e.g. a $500,000.00 estate in Toronto could be considered small); and
- The probate process itself could be simplified, as many financial institutions take the position that assets cannot be managed until such time as probate is obtained (which in turn can often cost an estate, as asset values fluctuate).
A recent article discussing the above-noted points can be found here.
It will certainly be interesting to see if the new changes will make a difference, and whether more changes are coming, in light of the concerns expressed by various members of the legal profession.
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In recent months, an Ontario Superior Court of Justice province-wide Notice to the Profession has permitted the filing of applications for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee with a Will or a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee Without a Will (“probate applications”) by email. Since then, the Rules of Civil Procedure were updated, effective January 1, 2021 to permit for the service of most court materials by email (among other updates).
Most recently, as of January 8, 2021, the Rules of Civil Procedure were further updated to provide for the options of serving notice of probate applications by email, courier, or personal service. Amended sub-rules 74.04(7) and 74.05(5) now read as follows:
Notice under this rule shall be served on all persons, including charities, the Children’s Lawyer and the Public Guardian and Trustee, and, unless the court specifies another method of service, may be served by,
(a) personal service;
(b) e-mail, to the last e-mail address for service provided by the person or, if no such e-mail address has been provided, to the person’s last known e-mail address; or
(c) mail or courier, to the person’s last known address.
Previously, the Rules of Civil Procedure required the Notice of Application in respect of a probate application to be served by regular lettermail.
Forms 74.06 and 74.16 (Affidavits of Service in respect of probate applications) have also now been updated to refer to these new manners of service of the Notice of Application in respect of a probate application. The revised forms are available here.
This further development in the modernization of estates law procedures is welcome and can be expected to better enable lawyers to assist clients in serving and filing probate applications more efficiently while working remotely during the pandemic and beyond.
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Yesterday, I blogged on Public Guardian and Trustee v. Cherneyko et al, 2021 ONSC 107. Today’s blog will focus on some of the breaches of fiduciary duty that were found by the Court. For those who have not read yesterday’s blog, this is a case that involves Jean, a 90 year old woman, and Tina, the attorney for property, who was purportedly given a gift of $250,000.00 just days before Jean was hospitalized for acute delirium and progressive cognitive decline.
While the purported gift of $250,000.00 to Tina was found to be invalid, the Court went on to find that Tina was in breach of her fiduciary duty to Jean by accepting the money. Tina was in breach because she knew that Jean was exhibiting signs of cognitive decline when they went to the bank. In the Court’s view,
“a person acting in a fiduciary capacity for a person actively demonstrating moments of irrationality should be very cautious about any big financial moves that person claims they want to make in and around such periods of demonstrated incapacity. Even if Jean was clearly acting in a competent manner during the few hours she attended the CIBC with Tina on August 27, 2019, I agree with the submissions of the PGT it is no answer to an accusation of breach of duty to assert that an attorney was simply acting in accordance with the wishes of the grantor of the attorney. Tina should have proceeded with caution at that time. I find she did not exercise the appropriate degree of caution and good judgment given the circumstances about which she knew.” (para 42)
The Court also reiterated Justice Penny’s comments in Ontario (Public Guardian and Trustee) v. Harkins,  O.J. No. 3313, that a fiduciary’s first duty is to see to the best interest of the person regardless of what their stated wishes may be. The Court was very critical of how a $250,000.00 gift to Tina could possibly benefit Jean, and expressed disapproval on how there was no evidence of any effort on Tina’s part in considering whether this money would better serve Jean if it was applied towards Jean’s in-home care instead of admitting Jean to a long term care home.
Of relevance to the unique circumstances that surround the care of others during Covid-19, the Court commented that,
“since March 2020 more than at any time in the past, any genuinely concerned person charged with caring for an elderly person in long term care would have at least considered the issue of taking whatever steps could be taken to remove the person from this situation if it was in any way possible.” (para. 47)
Instead, Tina allowed her adult son to move into Jean’s home, and she was found to be actively misusing Jean’s assets for her own and her family’s benefit which were additional breaches of her duties as fiduciary. The Court also disapproved of how Tina did not take any steps to sell Jean’s house in order to maximize or preserve its value which, reading between the lines, seem to be a concern for the uncertainty in today’s markets.
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Broadly speaking, a trustee cannot personally profit from his or her role as a trustee. “Profit” can mean a variety of things. One way in which a trustee could potentially profit from a trust is through the purchase of trust property.
A trustee may not purchase trust assets unless there is an express power in the Will or trust instrument allowing a trustee to do so, or if the purchase is approved by the court. Even where a trustee has the express power to purchase trust assets, he or she must still act in accordance with his or her fiduciary obligations to the beneficiaries of the trust or estate. Additionally, a trustee who has been authorized to purchase trust assets would be well-advised to obtain consents and releases from the beneficiaries, or to consider seeking court approval in any event, given that such a situation is ripe for claims that the trustee breached his or her fiduciary duty.
The court should only approve the sale of trust property to a trustee where the sale is clearly to the advantage of the beneficiaries. Demonstrating that a sale is clearly advantageous to the beneficiaries can be difficult, as it is not enough to just show that the purchase price is fair. For instance, even if a trustee has offered a fair price, if there is another purchaser who is willing to purchase the asset for a greater price, the trustee’s purchase will not be to the advantage of the beneficiaries.
The problem with a trustee purchasing trust assets is that in doing so, he or she is practically putting him or herself in an irreconcilable conflict of interest: the trustee has a duty to maximize the value of the trust assets for the beneficiaries, but in his or her personal capacity, will want to minimize the price paid for an asset. A trustee seeking to purchase trust property will need to ensure that he or she has taken sufficient steps to satisfy the court that he or she has maximized the value of the asset.
In Re Ballard Estate, (1993) 20 O.R. (3d) 189, a trustee, S, obtained certain option rights to purchase trust property. The trustees obtained two valuations of the property in question, and S and the other trustees negotiated a purchase price for the property in question at the upper end of the range of values pursuant to the valuations. However, the property was not offered for sale on the open market, and the trustees did not take steps to identify other potential purchasers. The court found that the trustees could have done more to ensure the maximum value was obtained for the asset, stating that the trustees should have taken “all reasonable positive steps to ferret out the best price”. Trustees cannot avoid their obligation to maximize the value of the assets by taking a passive stance and hoping that other potential purchasers will find them.
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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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With so much taking place around us now, I forced myself to choose a topic for today’s blog that, although still estates related (this being, after all, an estates blog), allows me to think about something beautiful. I landed on art.
Full disclosure: I have blogged about art and estates before. See here and here for some shameless self-promotion. Without wanting to revisit these topics, I did some searching and was intrigued by this Financial Times article about the Art Loss Register (ALR).
The ALR is the world’s largest private database for lost and stolen art, antiques, and collectibles. Their services are essentially twofold. First, the ALR assists to deter the theft of art by promoting the registration of all items of valuable possession on its database and also the expansion of checking searches. Second, by operating a due diligence service to sellers of art, the ALR operates a recovery service to return works of art to their rightful owners. In addition, the ALR has expanded to negotiate compensation to the victims of art theft and the legitimising of current ownership.
In addition to art dealers, insurers, and museums, the ALR also assists private individuals including beneficiaries and trustees. A trustee who is intending to liquidate art may wish to rely on the ALR to prove title and authenticity, thereby potentially increasing value and mitigating risk of fraud.
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Trustees may be cautious or uncertain when administering trusts, even when the trust deed gives them unfettered discretion in carrying out their duties.
In Ontario, trustees are able to seek advice and directions from the court under section 60 of the Trustee Act and also seek advance approval of various exercises of discretion in administering a discretionary trust. The jurisdiction of the Court to approve the exercise of discretion by trustees was formally recognized in Public Trustee v. Cooper  WTLR 901, a decision of the High Court of Justice in the UK. These orders are often referred to as “Cooper orders”. However, trustees must consider when it is appropriate to involve the Court in decisions that should be made by trustees.
Justice Hart in Cooper outlines instances in which trustees can seek directions from the Court. He states that parties may seek to obtain the blessing of the Court for a “momentous decision” that they have resolved to make in the trust’s life. As long as the proposed course of action is within the proper exercise of the trustees’ powers and where there is no real doubt as to the nature of the trustees’ power, the Court may make a declaration that the trustee’s proposed exercise of power is lawful. The Courts have made it clear that they will not exercise discretionary powers on behalf trustees.
Cooper Orders have been successfully sought in Canada. In Toigo Estate (Re) 2018 BCSC 936, the Trustees of an Estate sought the Court’s declaration that their exercise of discretion was lawful. The deceased created a spousal trust which permitted the trustees uncontrolled discretion to encroach on the capital of the estate in favour of his wife. After his wife’s death, the residue of the estate was to be divided amongst the deceased’s children and grandchildren.
The wife asked the trustees for a significant encroachment. The trustees had uncontrollable discretion to make the encroachment. However, they still wanted the Court’s “opinion, advice or direction” as to whether they should proceed.
The Court held that because of the magnitude of the encroachment, the Court could provide advice on this “momentous decision”. In making the decision, the court asked the following questions:
- Does the trustee have the power under the trust instrument and the relevant law to make the “momentous decision”?
- Has the trustee formed the opinion to do so in good faith and is it desirable and proper to do so?
- Is the opinion formed by the trustee one that a reasonable trustee in its position, properly instructed, could have arrived at?
- Is the Court certain that the decision by any actual or potential conflicts of interest?
Ultimately, trustees need to consider whether it’s suitable in their circumstances to apply to the court for a stamp of approval when taking drastic or “momentous” action.
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On March 30, 2020, Noah Weisberg blogged about the estate trustee’s duty to invest during COVID-19, a time when market fluctuations have become the norm. Today, I consider how pandemic-induced changes in the housing market may impact an estate trustee’s management of real property held by an estate.
Real properties – including primary residences, cottages, and vacation properties – are often some of the largest assets an estate trustee will deal with during the course of their administration of an estate. Unless otherwise stated in the deceased’s will, the estate trustee has a fiduciary duty to sell the estate’s real property for its fair market value and is expected to do so in a timely manner.
However, the exact timing for the market and sale of real property can depend on many factors. It is common for a will to grant an estate trustee the discretion to choose whether to sell or retain assets. As it pertains to real property, this power allows the estate trustee to hold onto a property until such time as they can achieve the best possible sale price on behalf of the beneficiaries. At the same time, the estate trustee needs to be mindful of the costs incurred by the estate in having to maintain the property. Beneficiaries of the estate may also put pressure on an estate trustee to sell the property and convert it to money sooner rather than later.
Like most industries, the real estate market has been impacted by COVID-19. An estate trustee should be attentive to whether recent changes in the housing market make it an ideal or inopportune time to market a particular property for sale, while also bearing in mind the factors described above.
If an estate trustee decides to list a property for sale in today’s uncertain housing market, there are a few things they can do to help protect themselves against future claims from beneficiaries. First, the estate trustee should have the property appraised for its fair market value by a professional appraiser who is an independent third party. For added protection, the estate trustee may want to have the beneficiaries sign off on the property’s price. The estate trustee should also make an effort to keep the beneficiaries apprised of each step of the sale process. Lastly, the estate trustee should take care to keep detailed records of all advice received and steps taken in the event that they need to justify their actions at a later date.
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Further to my blog on Monday, the Court of Appeal also released another interesting decision last week with respect to the tort of conspiracy in the context of a family law proceeding. Leitch v. Novack, 2020 ONCA 257, is an appeal from a summary judgement motion that was brought by the husband’s father, a family trust, and a family company. Summary judgment was brought because the wife sought damages against the moving parties for an alleged conspiracy that they were intentionally withholding payments to the husband in order to reduce his family law obligations.
The motion judge, in 2019 ONSC 794, held that the conspiracy claim was appropriate for partial summary judgment. The conspiracy claims were dismissed even though the wife could still pursue a claim to impute additional income to the husband for the purposes of determining his income at trial. Over a million dollars in costs were later awarded to the husband and the moving parties and there was a subsequent order for security for costs that effectively froze all of the wife’s assets.
The appeal was allowed. The Court found that there was a material risk of inconsistent results because the wife was allowed pursue her claims that additional income ought to be imputed to the husband despite the motion judge’s finding that there was no unlawful conspiracy.
As for the tort of conspiracy, Justice Hourigan confirms and clarifies the application of this doctrine in the context of family law matters. The tort of conspiracy is part of the judicial toolbox to ensure fairness and for deterrence. It is also there for enforcement purposes because the purpose of the conspiracy is to hide income or assets and “a judgment against a co-conspirator will often be the only means which by which a recipient will be able to satisfy judgment” (paras. 46-47).
Justice Hourigan commented that
“a transfer of funds by loan, gift, or otherwise, is not the only way that the alleged co-conspirators could have acted in furtherance of the conspiracy. If the trial judge is satisfied that [the husband] had an entitlement to funds and that a co-conspirator withheld the transfer of funds to him as part of a conspiracy with the understanding that he would receive the money at some future date, the withholding of funds may itself be an act in furtherance of the conspiracy. It is not necessary to establish more than an acted-upon conspiracy to conceal [the husband’s] entitlement.” (para. 51).
The costs awards and the preservation order were also set aside.
This decision is certainly important to keep in mind when advising trustees of discretionary trusts.
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There is so much in flux right now due to COVID-19. In the area of estates and trusts though, the obligations that an estate trustee owes to beneficiaries remains stable. During this time, estate trustees need to consider how best to administer an estate, and what they should be doing to limit future claims against them. The purpose of today’s blog is to consider the estate trustee’s duty to invest.
According to section 27(1) of the Trustee Act, “In investing trust property, a trustee must exercise the care, skill, diligence and judgment that a prudent investor would exercise in making investments”. This is often referred to as the prudent investor rule. Section 27(5) sets out certain criteria the trustee is required to consider in investing trust property, including, amongst other things, the general economic conditions and the possibility of inflation or deflation.
Given the current market fluctuations, estate trustees need to give invested trust property considered attention. While they cannot be expected to produce resounding returns for the beneficiaries, they can take steps to make sure their investments are prudent in the circumstances and avoid future claims from beneficiaries. These could include claims that the estate trustee failed to properly invest trust assets or that they failed to exercise their discretion.
The estate trustee should consider doing at least four things. First, they should review the terms of the will as to whether there are any specific investment requirements. Second, they should contact their investment advisor to obtain professional advice and share any relevant terms of the will. Third, the estate trustee should ask the investment advisor to put their advice/comments in writing and the estate trustee should hold on to this. Fourth, if the trustee is afforded some sort of discretion (for instance, considering the interests of capital versus income beneficiaries), the trustee should prepare a memorandum to themselves. The memorandum should set out the reasons why they reached the investment decision that they did and the factors they considered, which should include the section 27(5) criteria.
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