It was 35 years ago today that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred and since then “Chernobyl” has become a metaphor for catastrophic disaster. Similar consequences can also result after family battles involving divorce proceedings or inheritance. Some useful considerations for lawyers involved in acrimonious litigation are found in Alsawwah v. Afifi, 2020 ONSC 2883. The comments of Justice Kurz have been edited below for brevity:
“Having been required by the exigencies of this motion to closely and frequently review the materials filed in this motion, I feel constrained to offer a few words of caution to the parties, their counsel and to the profession as a whole.”
“Litigants feel that they can leave no pejorative stone of personal attack untilled when it comes to their once loved one. Many lawyers, feeling dutybound to fearlessly advocate for their clients, end up abetting them in raising their discord to Chernobyl levels of conflict.”
“In the hopes of lowering the rhetorical temperature of the future materials of these parties and perhaps those of others who will come before the court, I repeat these essential facts, often stated by my colleagues at all levels of court, but which bear constant repetition:
- Evidence regarding ….moral failings is rarely relevant to the issues before the court.
- Nor are we swayed by rhetoric against the other party that verges on agitprop.
- Exaggeration is the enemy of credibility.
- Affidavits that read as argument rather than a recitation of facts are not persuasive.
- Hearsay allegations ….are generally ignored, whether judges feel it necessary to explicitly say so or not.
- A lawyer’s letter, whatever it says, unless it contains an admission, is not evidence of anything except the fact that it was sent.
- Facts win cases. A pebble of proof is worth a mountain of innuendo or bald allegation.
- One key to success in family law as in other areas of law is the race to the moral high ground. Courts appreciate those parties and counsel who demonstrate their commitment to that high ground in both the framing and presentation of their case.”
Justice Kurz offers a great deal of useful advice which reaffirms that the use of “Chernobyl” excess in litigation should be avoided at all times.
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In a Notice to the Profession and the Public updated April 20, 2021, Chief Justice Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court gave notice that until May 7, 2021, the Court will be deferring as many matters as possible. This restriction is in light of the recent critical situation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in light of the recent heightened province-wide Stay-at Home order effective April 17, 2021.
The Notice reads as follows:
In view of the strengthened stay-at-home order and the critical situation with the pandemic, over the next several weeks until May 7, to reduce the number of court staff, counsel or parties required to leave their homes to participate in court proceedings, the Court will defer as many matters as possible. This includes virtual hearings.
The Court will focus on hearing
- the most serious child protection matters
- urgent family matters
- critical criminal matters, and
- urgent commercial or economic matters where there are employment or economic impacts.
Subject to the discretion of the trial judge, matters that are in-progress can continue. The positions of the parties and staff should be strongly considered and alternate arrangements should be made for those who do not wish to attend in-person.
The Court is seeking the cooperation of counsel to defer as much as possible.
However, matters WILL be proceeding as scheduled on the Toronto Estates List. In a message sent out by Justice McEwen, he stated that unless you are advised to the contrary, you should assume that any matters currently scheduled on the Commercial List or Estates List are proceeding as scheduled. This is because all matters on the Lists are proceeding virtually, and most are proceeding without the need for court staff to be physically present in the Court. The message was distributed to members of the Estates List Users Committee for dissemination. If you would like to receive a copy, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a great weekend.
Pursuant to section 3 of the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (the “SDA”), if there is a proceeding under the SDA where a person’s capacity is in issue, but they do not have legal representation, the court may direct that the Public Guardian and Trustee (the “PGT”) arrange for legal representation for the person. The person will be deemed to have capacity to instruct counsel. This legal representation is often referred to as “section 3 counsel”.
We have previously blogged about the role of section 3 counsel (for instance, here and here). Section 3 counsel has been described as a safeguard that protects the dignity, privacy, and legal rights of a person who is alleged to be incapable.
Section 3 counsel plays a very important role in proceedings dealing with a person’s capacity, as they allow the person whose capacity, and possibly their rights and liberties, are at issue, to have a voice before the court.
In Singh v Tolton, 2021 ONSC 2528, there was a proceeding relating to the validity of powers of attorney executed by Rajinder Kaur Singh. The PGT proposed that the court consider appointing section 3 counsel for Rajinder. One of Rajinder’s children also requested that section 3 counsel be appointed. One of her other children, Anney, took the position that section 3 counsel was not necessary and raised a concern with the expense of appointing counsel, which cost would be borne by Rajinder.
The court concluded that this was an appropriate situation for the appointment of section 3 counsel. In coming to this conclusion, the court considered the purpose of the SDA, which is to protect the vulnerable. As noted by Justice Strathy, as he then was, in Abrams v Abrams,  O.J. No. 5207, proceedings under the SDA do not seek to balance the interests of the litigants, “but the interests of the person alleged to be incapable as against the interest and duty of the state to protect the vulnerable.” Section 3 is just one of the provisions of the SDA that demonstrate the care that must be taken to protect the dignity, privacy, and legal rights of the individual.
The court in Singh v Tolton also noted that the material before it disclosed a family at odds regarding Rajinder’s personal care. In a situation such as this, there may be a concern that the wishes or best interests of the person whose capacity is in issue will be lost amidst the fighting family members. Section 3 counsel can serve a crucial function in these types of circumstances, by sharing the person’s wishes and instructions with the court.
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The great thing about having a Last Will and Testament is that it clearly spells out what happens to your estate upon your passing. Conversely, the terrible thing about not having this document in place when you die is that you have no control over how your assets are distributed, which may cause anguish and hardship to loved ones you would have otherwise chosen as beneficiaries.
When you die without a will, or intestate, Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”) sets out how your estate is distributed. It provides that unless someone who is financially dependent on the deceased person makes a claim, the first $350,000 is given to the deceased person’s spouse.
A problem that immediately arises is defining the meaning of spouse. For the purposes of intestacy, the SLRA adopts the definition of spouse found in section 1 of the Family Law Act, which reads: “‘spouse’ means either of two persons who: (a) are married to each other, or (b) have together entered into a marriage that is voidable or void, in good faith on the part of a person relying on this clause to assert any right.”
As such, only married spouses are entitled to benefit under the intestacy regime. You may have had a long and loving common-law relationship with a person you regarded as a spouse, but if there is no formal wedding declaration, they could be denied the inheritance you wanted them to receive. A common-law spouse may potentially seek redress by making a dependant’s support claim against your estate, though it is an effort and expense that could have been avoided with a proper will.
If you have no spouse, your children will inherit the estate. Sounds simple enough, but again there may be an issue with the way in which the SLRA defines child, as it only accepts biological offspring or those who were adopted as children. With blended families, many people have developed loving and long-lasting relationships with their step-children. In the eyes of the SLRA, however, they are not given the same inheritance rights as biological and adopted children.
Things get a bit complicated from here. Allow me to summarize:
- If any children have died, that child’s children will inherit their share.
- If there is no spouse or children or grandchildren, the deceased person’s parents inherit the estate equally.
- If there are no surviving parents, the deceased person’s brothers and sisters inherit the estate.
- If any of the brothers and sisters have died, their children (the deceased person’s nieces and nephews) inherit their share.
- If there are no surviving brothers and sisters, the deceased person’s nieces and nephews inherit the estate equally. (If a niece or nephew has died, their share does not pass to their children.)
- When only more distant relatives survive (cousins, great-nieces or nephews, great aunts and uncles), the rules are complex and a lawyer’s advice is a good idea.
There are many other problems that arise with those who die intestate, such as deciding who will be executor and oversee the estate distribution. The closest relative is usually chosen by the courts for the position, which may mean that your children are in charge and not your common-law spouse, which could create tension and expensive legal battles.
If you have minor-age children and there is no other legal parent alive, the appointment of the guardian will be out of your control.
Perhaps you have promised your grandson that he will inherit your valued coin collection when you die. That probably won’t happen, since all assets of the estate will be valued and divided up under the SLRA rules. However, in a will you can leave specific instructions, directing who receives what items you are leaving behind.
You may feel indebted to a charity, church, or hospital for their work while you were alive, and you want to leave that institution some money. Again, that can’t happen without a will.
The final point to consider is that if you have no next-of-kin and you die without a will, your entire estate goes to the Ontario government, with the Office of the Public Guardian & Trustee stepping in to administer your estate and seize your assets.
Drawing up a Last Will and Testament is a simple way to avoid all these issues, saving anguish and needless paperwork when the time comes.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!
This week on Hull on Estates, Stuart Clark and Kira Domratchev discuss the recent decision of Grove v Simon Dirk Kenworthy-Groen as executor of the estate of William Grove  WASC 70, pertaining to production of preceding Wills and a drafting solicitor’s records.
Should you have any questions, please email us at email@example.com or leave a comment on our blog.
When a parent transfers assets to an adult child, the rebuttable presumption of resulting trust will apply to that transfer. Unless the child can rebut the presumption, it will be presumed that the child was holding the transferred assets in trust for the parent.
But what kind of evidence will be needed to rebut the presumption? Ideally there would be some kind of documentation made contemporaneously with the transfer to support the parent’s intention. If the documentation is lacking, there may be evidentiary issues where the parent has passed away or is incapable, and is not able to give evidence as to his or her intention at the time of the transfer.
In the recent decision of Pandke Estate v Lauzon, 2021 ONSC 123, the court considered two cheques paid by a mother, Carol, to her adult son and daughter-in-law, Steven and Marnee, in the amounts of $35,000.00 and $90,000.00, respectively, shortly before her death. The court reviewed the evidence in determining whether the presumption of resulting trust was rebutted, or whether Carol had intended the cheques to be gifts.
Carol was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2017, and died about a month following her diagnosis. At the time that she was diagnosed, she lived with her husband, William, to whom she had been married since 1992. Following her diagnosis, it was decided that Carol would move in with Steven and Marnee, as William was not physically capable of providing her the care that she would require. Shortly after moving in with Steven and Marnee, Carol provided a cheque in the amount of $35,000.00, payable to Marnee, with a note on the cheque stating that it was “For Rent”. Four days later Carol provided another cheque payable to Steven, in the amount of $90,000.00, with the note on the cheque stating “Medical Expenses”. The total value of the two cheques constituted the majority of Carol’s liquid assets. William, who was the sole beneficiary of Carol’s estate, challenged these payments following Carol’s death.
The court found that the $35,000.00 payment was intended to be a gift by Carol to Steven and Marnee. Part of the evidence on which the court’s conclusion in this regard was based was Marnee’s hearsay evidence of what Carol had told her about why she was making the payment, being that Steven had left his job to care for Carol and she did not want him to suffer financially as a result. The court found that Marnee’s hearsay evidence could be admitted, notwithstanding that it was hearsay, on the basis that it fell within a traditional exception to the hearsay rule (that the statement is adduced to demonstrate the intentions or state of mind of the declarant at the time the statement was made) and under the principled approach to hearsay evidence as it met the necessity and reliability requirements. The court also found that Marnee’s evidence was corroborated by independent evidence.
However, with respect to the $90,000.00 payment, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of resulting trust. Although the court admitted Steven’s evidence of statements made by Carol to him as to her state of mind at the time the cheque was signed, the court also raised other concerns with Steven’s evidence. For instance, the reference to “Medical Expenses” noted on the cheque was concerning, as there were no medical expenses, and the court wondered why Carol would not have simply indicated that it was a gift if that is what she intended it to be. The court was also not convinced by a statement that Steven said was made by Carol that she was making the payment because she did not want Steven to suffer financially because he had left work to care for her, given that only a few days before Carol had made the $35,000.00 payment, which paid off Steven’s truck loan, line of credit, and left around $15,000.00 cash to spare. There was also no corroborating evidence of Carol’s intention to gift the $90,000.00 amount to Steven. As a result, Steven held the $90,000.00 in trust for Carol’s estate.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that payments to adult children are challenged after the parent has died. Unless the parent has taken special care to document his or her intention in making the payment, the intention can be difficult to determine with any degree of certainty. Accordingly, a parent making a gift to an adult child should consider seeking legal advice as to the best way to document such a transfer in order to ensure that their intentions will be upheld. From the opposite perspective, if a parent wants to make a transfer on the basis that their adult child will hold the asset in trust for him or her, or his or her estate, the parent should also consider seeking legal advice to ensure that this is properly documented in order to reduce the chance of issues arising in this regard after his or her death.
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Mentoring plays a vital role in the development of competent practitioners. The need for mentorship has never been greater, especially now, as the practice of law evolves with the pandemic.
Come join Hull & Hull LLP’s Suzana Popovic-Montag, who will be presenting at the upcoming ADR Mentorship Circle program on April 22nd at 5:30 PM. As one of the country’s premier estate litigators with almost 25 years of litigation experience, she has successfully represented clients at every level of court, including the Supreme Court of Canada. Suzana will bring her extensive experience in Estate Law to students and members of the OBA.
Registration via the Ontario Bar Association can be found here.
Registrants are invited to select their top two practice areas of interest. Please email Janet Green at firstname.lastname@example.org to indicate your top two practice areas of interest.
Best efforts will be made to accommodate each registrant’s first choice.
Just over a week ago I had the privilege to attend the OBA’s annual evening with the judges of the Toronto Estates List. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the event was held virtually this year, but it was nonetheless very interesting and informative and I’m sure everyone appreciated the judges sharing their time. I take this opportunity to mention a few of the topics discussed.
- New Technology Implemented by the Court
The Estates List judges shared with event attendees that the new technology that has recently been adopted by the Court is here to stay. It was suggested that counsel invest the time to learn how the CaseLines system works and get comfortable with it, as it is intended that CaseLines will be in use going forward. The use of sync.com is already being phased out, and mainly CaseLines will be used in the future. This is expected to be the case even when we are able to return to in-person hearings.
- New Model Orders
We have previously blogged about the model orders that have recently been added to the Estates List Practice Direction. At the event, the judges emphasized that the model orders are an excellent resource and should be used going forward.
- Availability of Case Conferences
The Estates List judges clarified that case conferences continue to be available. It was suggested that before parties take steps to gear up for a contested motion, if they are not able to solve the matter on their own, they should consider scheduling a 30 minute case conference, and try to work it out with the assistance of one of the members of the Estates List Bench. This may allow matters to be resolved more quickly, thus freeing up court resources for other matters, and in a way that is more cost-effective for the parties.
- The Court’s Workload
Between January and March of this year, the Estates List heard between 400-500 matters, which is close to the number of matters that would be heard in a regular year. The number of matters being heard in writing has almost doubled from the norm, with the Estates list having heard almost 900 matters in writing so far this year, compared with around 1500 in a whole year in normal times. It is clear that the Estates List continues to operate effectively notwithstanding the lack of in-person attendances.
I understand that the event was recorded and will be available for later viewing. I encourage anyone who missed the event to check out the recording and take advantage of the advice and tips from the Bench.
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We have blogged previously on whether a suicide note could be found to be a valid holograph will. See Suzana Popovic-Montag’s blog “Testamentary Capacity and Suicide”. Also see my paper on the subject, “Suicide, Suicide Notes and Testamentary Capacity”.
The courts have held that a suicide note can be considered to be a valid holograph will. However, the usual tests of establishing that the note demonstrates sufficient testamentary intent, and the requirement that the propounder establishes capacity remain. The fact that there was a suicide is a consideration but is not conclusive evidence of incapacity.
The court recently considered whether a suicide note was a will in McGrath v. Joy, 2020 ONSC 7454 (CanLII). There, the deceased took his own life after writing a note that purported to void any bequests to his spouse as contained in a prior will.
In considering whether the note was a valid holograph will, the court noted that a suicide note is a “special circumstance” that requires close scrutiny. In light of evidence relating to the deceased’s alcohol and drug use on the day in question, the court found that there were “suspicious circumstances” that “spent” the presumption of capacity and reshifted the legal burden of establishing testamentary back onto the propounder.
The court considered extensive evidence from the deceased’s family and friends about the deceased’s alcohol and drug use, including evidence about his condition on the day of his suicide. The propounder relied on an expert opinion. However, the opinion was inconclusive. The court also looked at the content of the note itself. It was sloppily written. It was a significant departure from formal wills previously made by the deceased.
The court concluded that the propounder had not met the burden of establishing on a balance of probabilities that the deceased had testamentary capacity.
In the costs decision, the judge cited the “modern costs rules with respect to estates” and the general proposition that the “loser pays” that applies to estate litigation. The court held that the propounder “acted unreasonably in attempting to have this suicide note admitted into probate as a holograph will” for a number of reasons, including the fact that he was not acting as an estate trustee seeking the guidance of the court but, rather, was pursuing his self-interest in an attempt to oust the legacies to others, and the fact that his own expert was not able to opine on the deceased’s testamentary capacity. However, the estate also bore some responsibility for costs due to the deceased’s own actions in preparing the note. A blended costs award was made whereby the propounder bore some of the costs and the estate bore the rest.
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Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hosting the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario’s webinar on “Special Considerations When Valuing a Family-Owned Business” featuring Tom Strezos, Adam Guyatt, and Claudio Martellacci of Grewal Guyatt LLP. A link to their article on this topic is available here.
In the estates context, we often encounter situations where a family business needs to be valued after death. While we will often defer to experts for assistance in this regard, it can be helpful to keep in mind some considerations unique to family businesses that might affect valuation. These may include the following:
- Payroll considerations: including whether any family members are on the business payroll and paid compensation greater or less than standard market rates;
- Related party transactions: for example, whether a family member owns a supply company and that relationship may increase or decrease business expenses and impact its value upon any change in that relationship;
- Non-operating assets or liabilities: whether there are investments in assets that do not impact cash flow directly or liabilities payable to family members;
- Internal controls and governance: such as whether additional staffing costs would need to be considered as part of the valuation to reflect the situation if certain family members were no longer involved in the operations of the business;
- Transferability of goodwill and discounts for reliance on certain individuals: some family businesses may have limited assets beyond goodwill and it can be worthwhile to consider how a departing family members (such as a divorced spouse or incapable or deceased family member) may impact value going forward.
These considerations may be relevant to probate applications, estate administration, and certainly where there are claims against an estate or specifically against a family business.
Also discussed during yesterday’s webinar was the idea of business valuation expert hot-tubbing, whether formally at trial or otherwise working together in a similar manner to try and determine a reasonable value of a company for the purposes of settlement discussions. This is an Interesting concept that may work well for some estate matters where valuation issues are at play.
A recording of this week’s FDRIO webinar is available to FDRIO members free of charge and will be replayed at a fee for non-members later this month. More information is available at fdrio.ca.
Thank you for reading.