A recent decision dealing with the estate of a French rock star highlights the potential relevance of social media evidence in estates matters.
Johnny Halliday, known as the “French Elvis”, died in 2017, leaving a Last Will and Testament that left his entire estate to his fourth wife, disinheriting his adult children from a previous marriage. The New York Times reports that French law does not permit a testator to disinherit his or her children in such a manner, and the adult children made a claim against the estate on that basis. The issue became whether the deceased singer had lived primarily in the United States or in France.
Halliday was active on Instagram, using the service to promote his albums and tours, as well as to share details of his personal life with fans. The adult children were, accordingly, able to track where their father had been located in the years leading up to his death, establishing that he had lived in France for 151 days in 2015 and 168 in 2016, before spending 7 months immediately preceding his death in France. Their position based on the social media evidence was preferred over that of Halliday’s widow and their claims against the estate were permitted.
Decisions like this raise the issue of whether parties to estate litigation can be required to produce the contents of their social media profiles as relevant evidence to the issues in dispute. Arguably, within the context of estates, social media evidence may be particularly relevant to dependant’s support applications, where the nature of an alleged dependant’s relationship with the deceased, along with the lifestyle enjoyed prior to death, may be well-documented.
The law regarding the discoverability of social media posts in estate and family law in Canada is still developing. While the prevalence of social media like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook is undeniable, services like these have not become popular only in the last fifteen years or so and it seems that users continue to share increasingly intimate parts of their lives online.
Thank you for reading.
Sydney Osmar‘s blog from yesterday covered the issue of the recent cuts to legal aid funding, which can only be expected to result in increased barriers to Ontario residents in accessing the court system.
Within the context of estates, high legal fees may contribute to the inability of (would-be) litigants to obtain able assistance in accessing the court system. Some meritorious estate and capacity-related litigation may not be commenced simply because of a lack of funds required to hire a lawyer to assist in doing so.
While successful parties may be awarded some portion of the legal fees that they have incurred, payable by the unsuccessful party to the litigation (or out of the assets of the estate), recovery of all legal fees incurred in pursuing litigation is rare. The balance of legal fees that a party can be expected to pay out of whatever benefit they may ultimately receive dependent on the outcome of the litigation may eliminate some or all of the financial benefit of the funds that they may stand to receive.
For example, a dependant’s support application brought by a surviving spouse who lacks the financial means to support him or herself may result in protracted litigation. Even if the application for dependant’s support is successful, the court may not always make an order that adequately reflects the entitlements of the dependant and the total fees that he or she has incurred to bring the application, limiting the funds available for the dependant’s expenses going forward. While interim support orders or orders directing payments toward professional fees related to bringing the application may be available during litigation in some circumstances, the related motions will serve to further increase the legal fees incurred by the applicant if such relief is not obtained on consent. In the absence of contribution from the assets of the estate to fund the litigation or an alternative arrangement for the payment of legal fees, it may not be possible for a surviving spouse in need to make a dependant’s support claim in the first place or he or she may need to do so without a lawyer’s assistance.
In 2016, it was reported that the numbers of self-represented litigants in Canada have increased over the last two decades and more significantly in recent years. The inability to afford a lawyer and ineligibility for legal aid assistance were cited as the primary reasons why a party is self-represented. Research suggests that parties who are self-represented are less likely to be successful in litigation (with success rates of only 4% in responding to motions for summary judgment, 12.5% for motions and applications, and 14% at trial) than represented parties.
While assistance with estate-related matters may be available to some from the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, the Queen’s University Elder Law Clinic, or other clinics (which are funded by Legal Aid Ontario and will be impacted by the recent budget cuts) in some circumstances, many individuals simply do not qualify for assistance or require assistance that is not provided by these clinics.
Our colleague, The Honourable R. Roy McMurtry, is a strong advocate for access to justice and has expressed the following sentiment: “[O]ur freedoms are at best fragile…they depend on the ability of every citizen to assert in a court or tribunal their rights under law as well as receiving sound legal advice as to their obligations. Indeed, our laws and freedoms will only be as strong as the protection that they afford to the most vulnerable members of society.”
Unfortunately, greater numbers of individuals than previously may struggle to access just resolutions of estates and other matters as a result of the recent changes to legal aid funding in Ontario.
Thank you for reading.
I recently had the good fortune of attending a dinner hosted by the Ontario Bar Association along with several members of the Toronto estates list Bench. The judges were kind enough to share a few pearls of wisdom with respect to practice tips and elicit some of the dos and don’ts of appearing before them. A few of the most salient points are highlighted in this blog.
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide that parties to a proceeding are to file a confirmation form with the court no later than 2:00pm three days prior to the hearing in order to ensure that a particular matter is properly scheduled. The form allows sets out several options to be selected by counsel regarding the purpose or anticipated outcome of the attendance.
However, in order to improve judicial efficiency, the Bench has asked that if counsel will be seeking the court’s assistance in resolving certain minor contested issues, a short description of these issues should be attached with the confirmation form. Particularly in the case of short scheduling appointments, which only typically last ten minutes, advising the court of relevant issues ahead of time will ensure a productive use of the attendance.
The Bench has also professed the benefits of scheduling case conferences before a judge with a view to resolving or otherwise narrowing the issues to be tried in a given matter. Case conferences typically follow the format of short scheduling appointments, though with significantly more time allotted to these attendances on the understanding that they are to be used to resolve substantive rather than procedural issues.
Ideally, the bench would like to see counsel attend such conferences prior to scheduling motions or hearings that would be dispositive of a proceeding or of certain issues, such as motions for summary judgment. In most cases, the opportunity for counsel to obtain the advice and direction of a judge while avoiding the significant costs of preparing for a motion can be a helpful step towards resolution.
On the administrative side, the Bench was kind enough to release a list of the most common errors in applications for certificates of appointment as raised by court staff. In no particular order, the court strongly encourages the following practical tips:
- Ensure parties are correctly and consistently identified throughout the application, especially if a party identifies under a different name or a pseudonym.
- Ensure the names of parties and entities are spelled correctly.
- If a particular section of the application does not apply on the facts, do not leave that section blank. Instead, expressly indicate that the section is not applicable.
- Ensure all exhibits included as part of the application, especially the Last Will and Testament that is the subject of the application, are stamped with an exhibit stamp and commissioned.
- Ensure the commissioner includes their full name below their signature.
These are only a few of the many tips shared by the judiciary, but they are as much to the benefit of the court as they are to counsel. Great advocacy is equal parts assisting your client and assisting the court.
Thanks for reading.
Ante-Mortem Probate, or Pre-Death Probate, is a process of probate which validates the Will of a testator during his or her lifetime and may be particularly useful for testators who fear that their Will may be subject to a challenge following their death.
Various models of Ante-Mortem Probate have been explored in the past by American scholars and include the following proposed models:
- The “Contest Model”, reviewed by Professor Howard Fink, is where each of the beneficiaries are identified, including those that would benefit on an intestacy and the testator essentially becomes the moving party in his or her own suit against all possible beneficiaries of his or her Estate. [Antemortem Probate Revisited: Can an Idea Have a Life After Death? (1976) 37 Ohio St LJ 264]
- The “Conservatorship Model”, explored by Professor John H. Langbein, is where the testator is required to apply to the Court in a manner similar to the “Contest Model”, however, instead of each of the specific beneficiaries being involved, a Guardian Ad Litem (Conservator) represents the interest of all potential beneficiaries, including any unborn or unascertained beneficiaries. [Living Probate: the Conservatorship Model (1980)]
- The “Administrative Model”, set out by Professor Gregory S. Alexander and Albert M. Pearson is neither judicial nor adversarial. There is no requirement of notice to the beneficiaries or in fact “interested parties” as one of the significant concerns with the other models of Ante-Mortem Probate is the confidentiality of the testator. [Alternative Models of Antemortem Probate and Procedural Process Limitations on Succession (1979-1980) 78 Mich L Rev 89]
Only certain American States allow Ante-Mortem Probate, whereas Canada does not have any provinces or territories with a similar arrangement.
Given the number of suits that are commenced following the death of testators across Canada, such an arrangement could be beneficial in that at the very least, a testator who expects that there will be a challenge to his or her Estate plan could take an active part in adjudicating whether his or her Will is indeed, valid.
Considering the complicated familial arrangements that are often present in our society today, perhaps addressing challenges of things like capacity of the testator, undue influence or the presence of suspicious circumstances would make more sense before the testator’s death. This is particularly an issue where a testator’s capacity had been in question for a while and the Will being challenged was executed a decade or more before death.
There are, of course, certain potential negative effects of any Ante-Mortem Probate regime, particularly the possibility that it would encourage litigation that would not otherwise arise, following the death of the testator.
Thanks for reading!
Find this post interesting? Please consider these other related posts:
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered an interesting question of fact and law. Will challenges in Ontario are ordinarily grounded on the basis that a testator lacked testamentary capacity, did not know and approve of the contents, or that the Will was procured by undue influence. In Cavanagh et al v Sutherland et al, however, the applicant sought to challenge the validity of her mother’s will on novel grounds; namely, that it was procured as a result of a mistake of fact.
The testator died in July 2016, leaving a Will benefiting 5 of her 6 daughters. The Will expressly excluded her sixth daughter, Carolynn, from sharing in the Estate. Carolynn objected to the issuance of a certificate of appointment on the basis that her mother lacked capacity or that the Will was procured by undue influence.
The estate trustees brought a motion for summary judgment seeking an order dismissing Carolynn’s objection and a declaration that the Will was their mother’s valid Last Will and Testament. At the hearing of the motion, Carolynn changed her position and chose instead to focus primarily on her belief that her mother had been operating on a set of mistaken facts.
Carolynn referred to a payment of $65,000 made to her by her parents in or about 2011, prior to the execution of an earlier will that also excluded Carolynn. She took the position that this payment was made in satisfaction of a loan to her father years earlier that her mother knew nothing about. Carolynn argued that her mother likely believed this payment was a gift to Carolynn in lieu of her inheritance and, accordingly, left her no benefit under the Will.
The court found that the evidence held otherwise. Notably, the evidence showed that the payment was not made in satisfaction of a loan, but rather as a result of a demand by Carolynn. In 1996, her parents had agreed to place her on title to a property to assist them in obtaining a mortgage. The mortgage was subsequently paid off in 2011, at which point Carolynn’s parents asked that she transfer her interest in the property back to them.
The evidence showed that Carolynn refused, instead asserting that there was always an intention that she remain on title to the property as legal owner. Carolynn’s parents ultimately offered to buy out her interest in the property in exchange for a payment of $65,000. Her mother later advised the lawyer who prepared the Will that this was to constitute Carolynn’s inheritance. It was clear to the court that the testator had considered this payment when the Will was drafted.
In the end, the evidence was such the court did not have to consider the effect of a true mistake of fact on the validity of a Will. However, the question of a mistake of fact would ordinarily tie into knowledge and approval and, specifically, whether the mistake was sufficient to negate the validity of the Will. In this case, it was apparent that the testator had turned her mind to the payment to Carolynn, and there was no question of a lack of knowledge and approval.
Thanks for reading.
Medical records are frequently key evidence in estate disputes. Often, a testamentary document or inter vivos transaction is challenged on the basis that the deceased lacked testamentary capacity or the mental capacity to make a valid gift.
The British Columbia Supreme Court recently reviewed the issue of admissibility of medical records within the context of a will challenge. The parties propounding the last will asserted that the deceased’s medical records were inadmissible on the basis that (1) the parties challenging the will were attempting to admit the records for the truth of their contents, (2) the records included third party statements from family members, which was suggested to constitute double hearsay evidence, and (3) the records were entirely inadmissible because they were not relevant, none of them being within weeks of the date of execution of the challenged will.
In Re Singh Estate, 2019 BCSC 272, the estate trustees named in the deceased’s will executed in 2013 only learned of the existence of a subsequent will executed in 2016 after they provided notice to the beneficiaries of the estate that they intended to apply for probate in respect of the 2013 will. The 2016 will disinherited two of the deceased’s eight children (including one of the two adult children named as estate trustee in the 2013 will) on the basis that they had received “their share” in their mother’s estate from the predeceasing husband’s estate. Between the dates of execution of the 2013 and 2016 wills, the deceased had suffered a bad fall and allegedly experienced delusions and had otherwise become forgetful and confused.
At trial, medical records are typically admitted under the business records exemption of the Evidence Act (in Ontario, section 35). Justice MacDonald acknowledged this general treatment of medical evidence, citing the Supreme Court of Canada (at para 48):
While clinical records are hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception both at common law and under s. 42 of the Evidence Act. The requirements for the admission of medical records as business records are set out in Ares[ v Venner,  SCR 608]. The Supreme Court of Canada held at 626:
Hospital records, including nurses’ notes, made contemporaneously by someone having a personal knowledge of the matters then being recorded and under a duty to make the entry or record should be received in evidence as prima facie proof of the facts stated therein.
Subsequent case law cited by the Court addressed the second objection of the parties propounding the will, which provided that the observations that a medical practitioner has a duty to record in the ordinary course of business (including those involving third parties) are generally admissible (Cambie Surgeries Corporation v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2016 BCSC 1896). Lastly, the Court considered the issue of relevance of the medical records and found that evidence relating to the mental health before and after the making of a will can be relevant in supporting an inference of capacity at the actual time of execution of the will (Laszlo v Lawton, 2013 BCSC 305).
After finding the medical records to be admissible as evidence of the deceased’s mental capacity (and in consideration of all of the available evidence), the Court declared the 2016 will to be invalid on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.
Thank you for reading.
In the past, in estate litigation matters, it was often the case that some or all of the litigating parties’ costs would be paid out of estate assets. However, in more recent years, the courts have been moving away from this general practice, and increasingly making costs awards providing for the payment of costs by one of the parties, personally. In particular, if the court views a party, including an estate trustee, to have behaved improperly or unreasonably, it may decide that such a party must pay the other party’s costs, personally. We have blogged about instances of such an outcome before.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has reaffirmed this general trend. The decision in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 542, involved a motion to pass over the named estate trustee, and appoint the two sole beneficiaries of the estate in question, as estate trustees. Although the named estate trustee and the beneficiaries were initially on good terms, within several months of the testator’s passing, the relationships began to break down, with the estate trustee beginning to make accusations towards the beneficiaries, in relation to the testator. The court found that it was “not a case of mere friction—this is a case of outright hostility from [the estate trustee] to the beneficiaries”, also commenting that it was difficult to fathom why the estate trustee acted as she did, and that her accusations were unwarranted. Ultimately, the court made an order passing over the estate trustee.
After the parties were unable to reach an agreement as to costs, the court made an endorsement in this regard in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 1297. After a discussion of the costs principles applicable to estate litigation, the court stated as follows:
“I am mindful that an estate trustee should be fully compensated for any reasonable costs incurred in the administration of the estate. However, the actions of the [estate trustee] are far from reasonable. I was not provided any rationale as to why her animus became necessary in the administration of her good friend’s estate.”
Ultimately, the court made a costs award in favour of the beneficiaries, payable by the estate trustee, personally.
This costs decision serves as an important reminder that parties entering into estate litigation proceedings should not count on their costs being paid out of the estate. Additionally, even though the estate trustee’s conduct in this case appears to be extreme, litigants should still keep in mind the importance of acting reasonably.
Thanks for reading,
Other blog posts that you may enjoy:
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently released a decision that provides a helpful and comprehensive overview of the case law regarding solicitor’s negligence claims brought by non-clients.
Within the estate litigation context, this issue sometimes arises where a claim is brought by a disappointed beneficiary as against the drafting solicitor of a testator’s will. The generally accepted origin and definition of a “disappointed beneficiary” is White v Jones,  1 AII E.R. 691, which sets out that those who may bring a claim against a lawyer as a “disappointed beneficiary” are those individuals whom the deceased had intended to include as a beneficiary in their Last Will and Testament, but, as a result of an error or negligence on part of the drafting lawyer, such a bequest was not carried out.
The “disappointed beneficiary” is therefore an exception to the general rule that the only individual a lawyer owes a duty of care to in a retainer is the client. However, the extension of a duty of care to a “disappointed beneficiary” applies solely as it relates to those beneficiaries that a solicitor can reasonably foresee that as a result of their negligence, the beneficiary may be deprived of his or her intended legacy, and where the testator nor the estate would have a remedy against the solicitor.
The Alberta Court of Appeal has held that a drafting solicitor does not owe a duty of care to beneficiaries named under a prior will, as to do so would create inevitable conflicts of interest for the solicitor. Furthermore, the court held that beneficiaries named under prior wills have other options available to them, such as challenging the validity of the will.
General Principles Applying to Solicitor’s Negligence Claims
In the ONSC’s recent decision, 2116656 Ontario Inc. v Grant and LLF Lawyers LLP, 2016 ONSC 114, the particular claim arose in the context of mortgage fraud, however, the general principles that are confirmed by the court are applicable generally to solicitor’s negligence claims. Some of the salient points discussed by the court are summarized below:
- In order for a solicitor to be liable to a non-client, the solicitor must know – from placing him or herself in a position of sufficient proximity with the non-client third party – that the particular non-client is relying on his or her skill. Therefore actual knowledge is a prerequisite for a finding of care, such that it is not sufficient that the solicitor “ought to have known” of the reliance;
- The non-client third party’s reliance must have been reasonable;
- The existence of “red flags” or “warnings” alone will not be sufficient to give rise to a duty of care on the solicitor’s part, unless a duty of care is first established under the ordinary principles;
- The imposition of a duty of care on a solicitor to a third party non-client raises numerous concerns, including:
- it makes a solicitor responsible to someone who has not retained and does not pay him or her;
- It is illogical to impose such a duty on a solicitor where the solicitor’s client themselves do not owe a duty to the third-party;
- It is usually not possible to disclaim or limit liability to such a non-client third party; and
- Making a solicitor assume such a duty to a non-client third party may place the solicitor in a conflict with the interests of the solicitor’s own client;
- The court held that due to the above concerns, it will “only be under “narrow”, “exceptional”, “very limited” and “well defined circumstances” that a lawyer can be held to owe a duty of care to a non-client third party to protect his, her or its economic interests”; and
- The court outlined the various indicia of a solicitor-client relationship, including, inter alia, a contract, retainer agreement or letter of engagement, an open file, the giving and taking of instructions, the creation of legal documents, and the rendering of bills.
This decision provides a comprehensive summary of the existing jurisprudence and reiterates the principle that: but for exceptional and rare circumstances, a solicitor will only owe a duty of care to his or her client. This may be “disappointing” news to non-client, third party claimants.
Thanks for reading!
Please feel free to check out the below related blog:
Another will challenge was before the Court of Appeal this month on February 5, 2019. Reasons for the panel, comprised of Pepall, Trotter, and Harvison Young JJ.A., were released in writing on February 13th. Quaggiotto v. Quaggiotto, 2019 ONCA 107, can be found here.
The issue of validity was solely focused on a codicil that was executed by Maria Quaggiotto when she was 87 years old. The codicil left the residue of her estate to one son, Livio, while her will had previously left an equal division of the residue to both of her sons, Livio and Franco.
After a 10 day trial, Justice Rogin found that the codicil was valid.
On appeal, the challenger Franco sought to overturn various findings of fact and findings of mixed fact and law.
Ultimately, the panel upheld the decision of Justice Rogin.
The panel reaffirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Orfus Estate with respect to the notion that testators are not required to have “an encyclopedic knowledge” of their assets in order to satisfy the test for testamentary capacity.
Interestingly enough, the Court of Appeal found that the trial judge was sufficiently alive to corroboration requirements of section 13 of the Ontario Evidence Act even though Justice Rogin’s decision would appear to have erroneously cited section 13 of the Ontario Estates Act for this important statutory requirement. The adage “form over substance” did not hold water in this appeal given that the actual legal requirement was adequately considered by Justice Rogin.
Thanks for reading!
In the last couple of decades we have seen a rise in estate, capacity and trust litigation due in large part to the aging demographic. One would think that elder law disputes – disputes involving retirement residences, nursing homes and/or long-term care facilities – would similarly be on the rise. What was highlighted for the attendees at a recent Personal Injury and Elder Law CLE presentation, however, is that there is limited case law in the elder law area. Although the knee-jerk reaction may be to see few cases litigated through to a final hearing as a positive state of affairs, that is not so. Rather, it seems that there are an insufficient number of claims being made, and an even fewer number that are pursued all the way to trial.
The panel sees ageism as contributing to this set of circumstances. Damage awards are typically lower for the elderly, the rationale seemingly that they have already lived most of their lives and are going to die anyway. The converse “Golden Years Doctrine” was cited as a means to argue for the better protection of elderly plaintiffs, grounded in the argument that the elderly suffer more and are more severely impacted from an injury than their younger counterparts.
Taking such cases to trial and increasing awareness (e.g. media coverage) is a way to create progress and change in this area of the law. The panel advocated for this approach, as well as stressed the importance of electing to have such cases heard in front of a jury, who may be more willing to award larger sums to litigants.
If this advice is followed, we can hope to see more decisions that can build upon the few noted cases in the area (this article references some of them), and more just outcomes for the elderly, their families and/or their estates.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,