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Today on Hull on Estates, Jonathon Kappy and Noah Weisberg discuss the top 5 blogs of 2016.
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Last week, we discussed Cowper-Smith v Morgan, and considered when the presumption of undue influence is rebutted by legal advice. Today, we discuss the availability of the doctrine of proprietary estoppel in the circumstances of this case (the issue which the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) has granted leave to hear on appeal from the British Columbia Court of Appeal (“BCCA”)).
The trial decision found that the son of the deceased, Max, had relied to his detriment on a promise made by his sister Gloria. Gloria had enticed Max to return from England to care for his ailing mother in her home by entering into an agreement to, among other things, sell Max her 1/3 interest in the home that she would inherit on her mother’s death. On the mother’s death, Gloria reneged. The trial judge, on the basis of proprietary estoppel, directed that Max was entitled to buy Gloria’s share of the property.
The BCCA decision (Smith J. dissenting on the proprietary estoppel finding), found that Max had not met the test in order to apply the doctrine. In short, the BCCA found that the remedy of proprietary estoppel could not arise as a result of assurances given by Gloria (a non-owner) with respect to her future intentions.
It is the question of whether the doctrine of proprietary estoppel applies in these circumstances that will be considered by the SCC.
The full facts of the case can be found in last week’s blog.
The Availability of Proprietary Estoppel
The BCCA applied the elements of the modern doctrine of proprietary estoppel as (in para 73 of the decision):
- an assurance or representation by the defendant that leads the claimant to form a mistaken assumption or misapprehension that he or she has an interest in the property at issue;
- a causative connection between the assurance or representation and the claimant’s reliance on the assumption such that the claimant changes his or her course of conduct;
- a detriment suffered by the claimant that flows from his or her reliance on the assumption, which causes the unfairness and underpins the proprietary estoppel; and
- a sufficient property right held by the defendant that could be transferred to satisfy the right claimed by the claimant.
In Ontario, the modern approach was established in the case of Schwark v Cutting, 2010 ONCA 61. Three factors must be present for proprietary estoppel:
- the owner of the land induces, encourages or allows the claimant to believe that he has or will enjoy some right or benefit over the property;
- in reliance upon this belief, the claimant acts to his detriment to the knowledge of the owner; and
- the owner then seeks to take unconscionable advantage of the claimant by denying him the right or benefit which he expected to receive.
The Matter for Debate
The BCCA found, in a 2-1 decision, that the doctrine of proprietary estoppel did not apply. The BCCA found that the trial court unreasonably expanded the scope of the doctrine by finding that Max could rely on Gloria’s assurance that he could buy her 1/3 interest in the property.
The majority found that Gloria’s assurance did not equate to unconscionable conduct: her obligations arose solely based on her mother’s actions and death and, as such, Max never had a proper basis to rely on Gloria’s promise: the property was not hers to give away at the time the assurance was made.
The dissenting opinion of Justice Smith proposed a solution to this dilemma by noting that, because of her cognitive deterioration, there was no possibility that the mother would have changed or rescinded the transactions that conveyed the property to Gloria on her death. As such, “Gloria’s ownership of the Property by the right of survivorship and the Declaration of Trust was therefore certain, despite not actually being owned by Gloria at the time of the promise to Max.”
It will be interesting to see how the SCC approaches this issue.
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A successful application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) is an uncommon occurrence. It is therefore of considerable interest to the estates bar that leave to appeal from a decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal (“BCCA”) has been granted in the case of Cowper-Smith v. Morgan.
The case touches on important aspects of both undue influence and proprietary estoppel. It was in respect of the BCCA’s decision finding against the availability of proprietary estoppel as a remedy that leave was granted and we will all eagerly await the pronouncement of the SCC in due course. While the issue of proprietary estoppel in the case will be the subject of next week’s blog, the analysis of the BCCA as it relates to undue influence makes for interesting reading.
Elizabeth Cowper-Smith had three children, a daughter, Gloria, and two sons, Max and Nathan.
2001 – Upon obtaining legal advice, Elizabeth transferred her home and investments into joint tenancy with Gloria and executed a Declaration of Trust providing for Gloria to receive the assets “absolutely” upon her death. This transfer left her estate devoid of any significant assets.
2002 – Notwithstanding the Declaration of Trust, Elizabeth executed a Will leaving 1/3 of her estate to each of her children.
2007 – Gloria asked Max to return home from England in order to care for Elizabeth. Gloria offered Max the right to purchase a 1/3 interest in the home as an incentive.
Gloria reassured her brothers that the property transfer into joint tenancy with her was done simply to help manage the mother’s affairs. Upon Elizabeth’s death, however, Gloria said the transferred assets were hers.
British Columbia Superior Court Decision (2015 BCSC 1170)
Max and Nathan brought an action against Gloria alleging that Gloria exerted undue influence on Elizabeth. Max also sought a declaration that, on the basis of proprietary estoppel, he was entitled to purchase Gloria’s 1/3 interest in the house. At trial, the judge found that Gloria’s true intentions were located in her 2002 will.
British Columbia Court of Appeal Decision (2016 BCCA 200)
Gloria submitted on appeal that independent legal advice provided to Elizabeth was adequate to rebut the undue influence.
The appeal was allowed in part. The legal advice given to Elizabeth was inadequate to rebut the presumption of undue influence; however, Max did not acquire a right to purchase Gloria’s 1/3 share by promissory estoppel (again, the SCC has granted leave to appeal this latter finding).
Issue 1: Undue Influence
The trial judge, upheld by the BCCA, ruled in favour of Max and Nathan, and set held that the property was impressed with a trust for the benefit of the estate: the presumption of Gloria’s undue influence was not rebutted. This is an interesting finding, as Elizabeth obtained her own legal advice prior to executing the transfers to Gloria. Independent legal advice can be used to rebut presumptions of undue influence, if the independent legal advice qualifies as “informed advice”.
In applying Geffen v Goodman Estate,  2 SCR 353, the trial judge found a potential for domination inherent in the relationship between Gloria and Elizabeth, that gave rise to the presumption of undue influence.
The test for Gloria to rebut the presumption of undue influence was established in Geffen:
- An “examination of the nature of the transaction[s]”;
- A finding of whether the donor entered into the transactions as a result of her “own full free and informed thought”; and
- A “meticulous examination of the facts.”
The BCCA agreed with the trial judge’s conclusion that, based on this test, Gloria was not able to rebut the presumption of undue influence. Despite the fact that Elizabeth went to two lawyers, the court found that Gloria and her husband had advised the lawyers that Max and Nathan were trying to take Elizabeth’s property. Moreover, Gloria was present at some of the meetings with the lawyers. Lastly, the lawyers relied on the false information from Gloria and failed to adequately provide “informed advice” and otherwise probe for the existence of undue influence.
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With the unfortunate increase in fake news stories circulating the internet, one particular fabricated story nonetheless raises important estate planning considerations.
True: Mr. Antonino Fernandez died in August 2016. Mr. Fernandez was the owner of Corona beer, and chairman of Grupo Modelo, which also exports Modelo, and other Mexican beers. Mr. Fernandez was a philanthropist who set up establishments to encourage rural development in his birth area, as well as charitable foundations in both Mexico and Spain to ensure employment opportunities for disabled individuals.
False: In his will, Mr. Fernandez left every resident in his birth village, Cerezales del Condado in Spain, 2.5 million dollars.
A recent news hoax about the late Mr. Fernandez leaving a generous gift to each of the residents in his birth village raises the question whether such a testamentary disposition would have been valid.
Who Would Get a Distribution?
According to the fabricated story, Mr. Fernandez gave each resident of his village 2.5 million dollars upon his death pursuant to a clause in his testamentary document that apparently stated “for the benefit of the village`s inhabitants“. His village had 77 residents.
In Mr. Fernandez’s purported will, he left his fortune to his 13 siblings and extended family. Each villager did not directly get a distribution. If the disposition to the villagers did exist, would the siblings be obligated to distribute the estate based on the foregoing provision?
Would the Will Be Void for Uncertainty?
While each villager would have been informed that they were to receive a distribution from Mr. Fernandez, due to the drafting of the will, it is unclear if they would have received a distribution.
To prevent the villagers from recovering their distribution, the siblings would want to argue that the term in the will benefiting the villagers was void for uncertainty. As such a will would be ambiguous, the parties may need to look to a Judge to help interpret the will.
Pursuant to the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Re Burke  OJ No 706, the judge must study the whole contents of the will, and after full consideration of all the provisions and language used therein, try to find what the intention was in the mind of the testator. When an opinion has been formed as to the intention of the testator, the court should strive to give effect to it.
As established in Montreal Trust Co. v Sinclair (1958 CarswellMan 39) “one of the commonest forms of uncertainty in this respect is where the gift provides for selection from a number of persons or bodies and does not state who is to make the selection or how it is to be made.“ In the false case of Mr. Fernandez, it may be argued that while he left a gift to the inhabitants of his village in his will, he did not specifically state how a villager was to be defined.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Canada in Brewer v McCauley  SCR 645 established that “a testator must, by the terms of his will, himself dispose of the property with which the will proposes to deal. He may not depute that duty to his executors or trustees“ In this case, the siblings of Mr. Fernandez could also attempt to argue that Mr. Fernandez left an unclear condition on the gift to them, and that leaving the distribution of the gift to the villagers to his siblings was an improper delegation of testamentary authority.
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An estate trustee must ensure that the deceased’s debts have been discharged prior to making any distributions. This is usually done by advertising for creditors in a newspaper. With today’s emphasis on technology, however, is advertising in a newspaper still the most efficient way to reach potential creditors?
The Standard Practice
An estate trustee will usually not be personally responsible for paying the deceased’s debts, as debts are paid from estate assets. The estate trustee may be found personally responsible for debts, however, if they begin to distribute the estate prior to paying the deceased’s debts.
An estate trustee may avoid personal liability for failing to pay a debt of the estate if they advertise for creditors. Section 53(1) of the Trustee Act provides personal protection for an estate trustee who advertises for creditors prior to distributing the estate assets.
The standard practice for advertising for creditors is to advertise in a newspaper three consecutive weeks in a location where the deceased lived and worked, and then wait at least one month from when the advertisement was first published to begin administration of the estate. The newspaper publisher will then usually send an Affidavit certifying that the estate trustee has properly provided notice to creditors. The Affidavit can be filed with the court as proof that the estate trustee has taken the proper precautions to advertise for creditors.
Does the Standard Practice Need an Update?
While the newspaper may be the most common means of advertising for creditors, is it the most efficient way to reach a creditor?
It is worth considering advertising for creditors online. Advertising through an online service may be more cost effective than in a newspaper. We have previously blogged on a service that provides online advertisements for creditors, and provides affidavits in support of the estate trustee’s advertisement. Using a service to publish notice to creditors has the potential to reach a larger majority of individuals, in a more cost-effective manner. Furthermore, the internet has the ability to provide information to creditors that may be located outside of the deceased’s jurisdiction, allowing for the advertisement to reach more individuals as compared to a newspaper advertisement that is generally confined to one jurisdiction.
As the Trustee Act does not specify the proper form of advertising for creditors, there is the potential for online services or cellphone applications to provide advertisements for creditors in a more efficient and effective way.
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Dividing one’s personal property upon death can be a contentious matter. If an item of personal property is not specifically gifted to an individual, there is a chance that the beneficiaries may find themselves litigating.
A specific bequest can provide clarity. Pursuant to Black’s Law Dictionary, a specific bequest is “a legacy of a specified property or chattel to a particular person that is detailed in a will.” We have previously blogged on the use of specific bequests.
Another way to give personal property is through the use of a memorandum attached to the will. This memorandum may be updated to list all of the personal property being gifted, and can either be binding (assuming certain requirements are met) or precatory. We have previously blogged on the use of a memorandum to give personal property.
The use of a specific bequest or a memorandum may help to avoid battles over personal property. If personal property is not given to an individual through a specific bequest, an individual may receive items through a percentage division of either such property (e.g. “to be equally split between my two sons”), or the residue.
One possible issue with giving a percentage division of property or leaving residue to the beneficiaries, is that they may fight over specific items. This is what is happening with the Estate of Audrey Hepburn. In Audrey Hepburn’s will, she left a storage locker as part of the inheritance for her two sons. The locker was filled with various items including fashion accessories, posters, awards, scripts, and pictures, and was to be shared equally. Her two sons are now in dispute over who gets to keep what items in the locker. If Hepburn were to have specified the items to be given, it is possible that this inheritance dispute could have been avoided.
While specific bequests and memoranda are helpful in certain circumstances, it is important to consider the potential value of the bequest before gifting it. Valuations are important in order to ensure that the property being gifted is truly representative of the testator’s intention in leaving the property. For example, an individual may decide to leave each of her sons a separate painting. Without a valuation, this seems like an equitable arrangement. With a valuation, however, it may be that one painting is worth $300.00, and the other is worth $3,000.00. Equalizing the value of personal property may be an important consideration in making a specific bequest in order to avoid potential litigation.
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This week on Hull on Estates, David Smith and Doreen So discuss legal reform in family and estates law and the contributions of our senior counsel, Roy McMurtry.
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Given the intrigue and extensive coverage that the current US election has had north of the border, it is only fitting that we dedicate today’s Hull & Hull Blog to reviewing the position taken by Clinton and Trump with respect to changes to estate tax.
A recent article in Forbes explains that current US laws exempt estates worth $5.45 million or less from paying estate tax. Estates valued higher pay 40% tax.
Hillary Clinton seeks to increase the taxes owing by the wealthiest from 45% to 65% based on the value of the estate, apparently the highest it’s been since 1981. Specifically, estates over $10 million would be taxed at 50%, those over $50 million at 55%, and those exceeding $500 million (for a single person) at 65% As well, Clinton also seeks to lower the exemption for estates valued at $5.45 million to $3.5 million.
Trump, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the estate tax altogether.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Republicans see the tax as “a patently unfair confiscation of wealth that punishes family-owned business”, while the Democrats view it as “a levelling tool necessary to combat concentration of wealth”.
In Ontario, while there is no inheritance tax, estate administration tax is charged on the total value of a deceased’s estate. Subject to certain exceptions, this includes the following assets: real estate; bank accounts; investments; vehicles and vessels; all property held in another person’s name; and, all other property, wherever situated, including goods, intangible property, business interests, and insurance proceeds.
As discussed in prior Hull & Hull LLP blogs, new provisions came into force on January 1, 2015, which requires payment of $5.00 for each $1,000, or part thereof, for the first $50,000 and $15 for each $1,000, or part thereof, of the value of the estate exceeding $50,000. There is no estate administration tax payable if the value of the estate is $1,000 or less.
An in terrorem condition attached to a testamentary gift keeps a beneficiary “in fear” of losing entitlement to the gift, if they partake in certain actions that are noted by the testator.
We have previously blogged about the use of in terrorem conditions, and specifically when the conditions will be upheld, or struck down. Kent v McKay (1982 Carswell BC 187) is authority for the test of striking down an in terrorem condition.
There are two general types of in terrorem conditions.
The first type of condition, and the most common, forbids the beneficiary from contesting the validity of the will. We have previously blogged on this type of in terrorem condition.
The second condition is partial restraint on marriage, which is usually a condition that requires the beneficiary to obtain consent to marry. This condition may only apply if it is clear from the outset that the condition in the will is not a total restraint on marriage. Total restraints on marriage will be void from the outset. A partial restraint on marriage may act to limit a person from marrying a particular individual, or members of a particular class. It is likely, however, that any restraint on marriage will be found void for public policy reasons. The recent Court of Appeal decision in Spence v BMO Trust Company, 2015 ONSC 615, is relevant to the issue of restraint on marriage and public policy. A previous blog on this case can be found here.
Pursuant to the decision of Re Dickson’s Trust (1850) 61 ER 909, in order to validate an in terrorem condition, the testator must show that the condition would be given effect if the testator demonstrated their intention by way of a gift over.
As explained in The Law Relating to Wills: “a condition in restraint o[n] marriage or a condition not to dispute a will, may be annexed to a testamentary gift, but where the subject of gift is personalty, such a condition… must, as a general rule, be accompanied by a gift over, otherwise the condition will be treated as merely in terrorem and therefore, void.” The case of Ketchum v Walton, 2012 BCSC 175, suggests that in terrorem conditions in general have been held to be void, if not accompanied by a gift over.
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On September 25, 2016, 60 Minutes highlighted an interesting estate planning issue involving Pablo Picasso and inter vivos gifts. An inter vivos gift is a transfer of property from a donor to a donee, during the donor’s lifetime.
This story involved the family’s long-time electrician of 15 years and family friend, Pierre Le Guennec, who claimed he was gifted a briefcase filled with the artist’s work. The briefcase contained 271 works and 2 full sketch pads, all unsigned, that dated from 1900-1932. Many years later, Le Guennec contacted the Picasso Administration in order to get the pieces valued for his own succession planning purposes, and to have the pieces authenticated. Picasso’s son, Claude, a representative from the Picasso Administration, met Le Guennec and his wife and assumed that the pieces were stolen due to inconsistencies in the story about how the pieces came into Le Guennec’s possession. The pieces were valued at around $100 million.
In February 2015, after authorities had the artwork seized and Le Guennec and his wife had been put in custody, Le Guennec went on trial. The authorities could not prove the theft but convicted Le Guennec of possessing stolen property. He was given a two year suspended sentence, along with his wife, and is appealing.
The aformentioned raises the question of how to prove an inter vivos gift. In order to perfect a gift, and to have a valid gift, there are three necessary elements:
- intention to donate;
- acceptance by the done; and
- sufficient act of delivery and transfer
As per Johnstone v Johnstone,  OJ No 58, the onus of proving that a gift is valid is on the recipient of the gift. The recipient must show a clear and unmistakable intention by the donor to have given the gift, and that the gift was given voluntarily by the donor.
In order to challenge an inter vivos gifts, the challenger must prove undue influence, fraud, coercion, mistake, or lack of capacity. We have previously blogged, and uploaded a podcast, on undue influence.
In order to properly document an inter vivos gift, it is best for the donor to show evidence of intention. Intention is the most difficult aspect of the test to prove, and without intention, the gift cannot be perfected. It is best to have witnesses who have seen the giving of the gift, or professionals such as solicitors who may have been aware of the gift. If intention is not proven, it will be assumed that the “gift” was instead a resulting trust. If an individual can show intention of both legal and beneficial title, the exchange will be seen as a gift.
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