The recent decision of Muth Estate, 2019 ABQB 922, a decision of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, is a cautionary tale (and a scary one, at that) for estate trustees when distributing an estate.
There, the estate trustee distributed the estate to herself and other beneficiaries of an estate, subject to a holdback. The holdback was insufficient to satisfy amounts owing to CRA. The estate trustee then brought an application for an order requiring that the beneficiaries indemnify her for the amounts owing to CRA.
The estate trustee moved for summary judgment. Summary judgment was denied. The court found that the respondent beneficiaries had no obligation to indemnify the estate trustee.
As background, the estate trustee retained an accountant to prepare estate tax returns. The accountant advised that a holdback of $25,000 was sufficient. The estate trustee therefore held back $25,000, and distributed the balance of the estate. Unfortunately, that accountant did not file the required returns. A second accountant then completed the returns. The tax owing and the second accountant’s invoice totalled $60,772.19. The estate trustee paid this amount, and sought indemnification from the beneficiaries for their share of this amount.
(Query: Whether the estate trustee would have a claim against the first accountant?)
Of note, when making the distributions, the estate trustee could have but did not ask the beneficiaries to provide an indemnity.
The court held that the Income Tax Act imposed personal liability on the estate trustee for unpaid taxes where a clearance certificate is not obtained.
The court went on to find that one of the duties of an estate trustee is to file tax returns and pay taxes owing. As the estate trustee breached her duties, she was not entitled to an indemnity. Relief may have been available if it was the beneficiaries who instigated or requested the breach. However, this was not the case.
The natural corollary of that principle [breach of trust at instigation of beneficiaries] is that if the beneficiaries did not instigate or request the breach, they cannot be obligated to indemnify the trustee. In a fiduciary relationship such as that between a trustee and a beneficiary, the logic of that corollary is that as between the two parties, one who had the obligation to perform the duty and failed and one who had neither the obligation nor the means to satisfy it, it is the former who should bear the consequences of the action or inaction.
Interestingly, the judge dismissed the estate trustee’s motion for summary judgment, but, notwithstanding the finding that the beneficiaries were under no obligation to indemnify the estate trustee, did not dismiss the proceeding. The beneficiaries did not ask for this relief. The matter was therefore allowed to proceed. However, the estate trustee was warned that “if she continues with the lawsuit, she may face a significant costs award if another judge comes to the same conclusion at the end of the suit.”
Thank you for reading.
My father used to have a saying: “Whatever drags gets dirty.” He would trot it out whenever one of us waited too long to do something and as a result, doing that thing became messy, complicated or impossible. For example: I was supposed to mail a letter. I didn’t mail the letter. Now I can’t find the letter. “Whatever drags gets dirty!”. Thanks, Dad.
Growing up, I thought that this was a widespread adage. Apparently, it isn’t. I searched it up on the internet and most of the results referred to Rupaul’s “Drag Race”.
The adage may fittingly sum up the lesson contained in the decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Probate in Kelly Estate, 2019 NSPB 1 (CanLII).
There, the deceased’s daughter and estate trustee, Carrie, brought an application for the possession of an urn containing the cremated remains of the deceased. The deceased died 13½ years before the application. Probate was granted 8 years before the application.
In the deceased’s will, cremation was requested, and Carrie was expressly given “the powers to decide what will happen with the said ashes.” This was consistent with the court’s observation that “Disposition of the deceased is one of the most fundamental tasks an executor/rix can undertake on behalf of the deceased.”
However, after the deceased’s death, the ashes were taken by Carrie’s sister, Cheryl. They remained at Cheryl’s home, apparently with the acquiescence of Carrie. The court noted that there was no evidence to suggest that there were prior attempts by Carrie to regain custody and control of the ashes over the 13½ years since death.
The court cited the BC decision of Re Popp Estate, 2001 BCSC 183 (CanLII) where the deceased’s husband, as estate trustee, was said to be entitled to control the disposition of the deceased’s remains, provided he did not act capriciously. As the husband was acting capriciously, he lost the right to deal with his spouse’s remains.
The court went on to find that by allowing the urn to remain in Cheryl’s possession for 13½ years, Carrie as estate trustee had in fact determined the disposition and final resting place of the urn: with Cheryl. A change of Carrie’s decision this late in the game “seems capricious at best or malicious at worst”, and the court was not prepared to order a transfer of the urn from Cheryl to Carrie.
When administering an estate, as in life in general, don’t let things drag.
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Acting as an estate trustee can be complicated. Complications are multiplied where the estate includes property that is or has been used in a manner contrary to the Cannabis Control Act.
Under the Cannabis Control Act, S.O. 2017, Chapter 26, as amended, various offences are created involving the production, sale or other distribution of cannabis. Vis-à-vis landlords, section 13 of the Act makes it an offence to “knowingly permit a premise of which he or she is a landlord to be used in relation to activity prohibited by section 6”. Section 6 provides that no person shall sell cannabis, other than an authorized cannabis retailer.
The Act provides for penalties for landlords of at least $10,000 and not more than $250,000 or imprisonment for a term of not more than two years less a day, or both. Fines are subject to an additional 25% Victim Fine Surcharge.
Additionally, the court may, upon conviction, order that a premise be closed to any use for a period not exceeding two years. Prior to conviction, the police may cause the premises to be closed immediately. The premises are to be closed until the final disposition of the charge, subject to an order of the court lifting the closure.
A defense to a charge against a landlord under the Act is the fact that the landlord took reasonable measures to prevent the prohibited activity.
Additionally, forfeiture could be sought by the Crown under the Civil Remedies Act.
An estate trustee holding real property should take steps to ensure that he or she knows what is happening at the property, and to ensure that the property is not being used for illegal activity. In addition, the estate trustee should document the steps that are taken to prevent illegal activity. Leases should be reviewed in order to ensure that they prohibit illegal activity.
For further information, see “The Ontario Cannabis Control Act and Implications for Commercial Landlords” by David Reiter and Brian Chung.
For a blog on Cannabis and Estate Law, see my prior blog, here.
Have a great weekend.
Lewis v. Lewis is a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in which the Appellants challenged the dismissal of their Application from the Superior Court of Justice. At issue was whether the Appellants’ mother, Marie Lewis, had the requisite capacity to execute new powers of attorney for property and personal care. The Appellants sought to invalidate the new powers of attorney and bring back into effect prior powers of attorney which Mrs. Lewis executed in 1995.
The Appellants raised several issues on appeal. In essence, they took issue with the application judge’s assessment of the evidence and exercise of his case management discretion.
In dismissing the appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal emphasized the following principles regarding capacity:
- Since capacity is presumed, those objecting to the document(s) have the onus to rebut that presumption, with clear evidence, on a balance of probabilities.
- Similarly, those raising the issue of suspicious circumstances and undue influence bear the onus of establishing it, on a balance of probabilities.
- The fact that someone had various chronic medical conditions throughout their life does not automatically mean that they lacked capacity. It is open to the application judge to consider the evidence. In doing so, the application judge may reject any evidence that they find to be unreliable.
- Without evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable for an application judge to take “solace” from the fact that the individual executed their new powers of attorney before their solicitor of many years.
- It is reasonable for an application judge to refer to the statements of section 3 counsel, appointed by the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, concerning an individual’s expressed wishes.
Good things to keep in mind when dealing with capacity issues.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag and Celine Dookie
Some basic questions to get you thinking about starting a will with a surviving spouse scenario:
- Everything to spouse Absolute (no strings attached)?
- Some or all assets held in a Spousal Trust (some conditions will apply) ?
- An amount immediately to children with the balance to the spouse Absolute?
For lawyers – the Hull e-State Planner is a tool for making wills and has been called “the future of will planning”. To book your free demo today email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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The book “The Beautiful Ones” was released last week in Canada. Part memoir (until his teenage years) and part biography, the book provides some insights into the life of one of the most influential musicians of our time. “Prince” Rogers Nelson, a multi-talented singer-songwriter died on April 21, 2016 at the age of 57 from an accidental fentanyl overdose at his estate outside Minneapolis. He died without a will.
The Minnesota Star Tribune reported about two weeks later, on May 8, 2016 that: “Suddenly, wills and estates are a topic everyone wants to learn about.” And “They are talking about it at the family barbecue, the Rotary Club, and the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce”.
According to several surveys, approximately 65% of Canadians do not have an “up to date” will. “Make a Will Month” encourages Canadians to make or update their wills. Doing so can save a lot of expense, delay, and conflict in the future. A proper will and estate plan means reducing or eliminating problems that arise when a person dies intestate (without a valid will). It has been reported that three years after his death Prince’s estate is still not distributed. Lawyers for his sister and half-siblings are squabbling. Claims by some alleged descendants have been dismissed. According to some estimates the estate is worth more than $300 million USD.
All kinds of people, including famous musicians, die without having made a valid will. Some who did not get around to making a will include: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, Duke Ellington, Barry White, George Gershwin, and Amy Winehouse.
Why wait? It is Make a Will Month! Please consider making a will. Thanks!
“Your Will is a Sacred Trust. It should be made when you are in the prime of life and better able to give it the consideration it deserves.”
From an advertisement in the National Post, Toronto Newspaper, by the Mercantile Trust Company on November 8, 1919.
One hundred years have passed since that advertisement and there have been many changes in the law since then, changes in the use of technology in making wills and changes in society. But, it does not appear that the advertising and marketing of wills has evolved much over the last hundred years. There is little advertising visible today and it does not appear to be effective. Recent surveys have shown that approximately half of all Canadians do not have a will. An Angus Reid Institute report indicates that the majority of Canadians today do not have a will, and only 35% say they have a will that is “up to date”. The main reason cited for not having a will was 25% who said, “Too young to worry about it”. Interestingly, only 18% responded that they thought “It’s too expensive to get a will written” – with this number being only 6% among people with a household income of more than $100K.
In a time when individuals are often spending what appears to be incredible sums of money on material things, and on sports events, concerts, stage productions, and other entertainment, one has to wonder if marketing of the legal service of “getting a will written” has somehow missed the mark when 65% of Canadians say they do not have a will that is up to date.
November is Make a Will Month, which is an opportunity for Ontario Bar Association members to help the public understand the importance of having a will and having it done by a lawyer. Please consider making a will in “Make a Will Month” and instead of putting it off – why not “do it now”. Make a Will Month will see many free legal information sessions presented by volunteers at places like libraries and community centers across Ontario throughout November. For more information, you can contact a lawyer or visit the Ontario Bar Association website.
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We all know how long an Estate Trustee typically has to wait for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee With or Without a Will, if filed in Toronto. Sometimes a Certificate of Appointment is not granted for six to eight months from the filing date.
The Court recently expressed its frustration with the frequency of motions being commenced by Estate Trustees seeking to expedite the granting of the Certificate of Appointment. The option of obtaining the Certificate of Appointment on a more urgent basis appears to no longer be available as a result. Apparently, it was not unusual for Estate Trustees to seek to expedite the process when real property of an Estate needed to be sold. The Court does not always agree that the sale of real property cannot wait until the Certificate of Appointment is granted.
Despite the Court’s stance on expediting the granting of Certificates of Appointment, there are special circumstances that would arguably warrant the Court’s intervention. What if an Estate Trustee’s authority is required to manage a certain asset of an Estate such that, if it is not obtained within a reasonable amount of time, the Estate could suffer significant expense?
An option that is available which should be carefully considered (particularly given the Court’s position on expediting the process overall) is seeking a limited grant from the Court for a particular purpose. Historically, this was known as a grant ad colligenda bona, and was limited to particular purposes as well as limited until such time as a general grant could be made (see Charles H. Widdifield, Surrogate Court Practice and Procedure, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 1930) at 190).
Today, where the conditions for an appointment of an Estate Trustee During Litigation are not met, and there is a delay in the appointment of an Estate Trustee, a limited grant for the purpose of gathering in and protecting the assets may be sought by way of a motion or application for directions under Rule 75.06 of the Rules of Civil Procedure (see Ian M. Hull & Suzana Popovic-Montag, Macdonell, Sheard and Hull on Probate Practice, 5th ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2016) at 384).
This option should be carefully considered where the circumstances are truly special such that the Court’s intervention is required on an urgent basis and the Estate Trustee cannot wait until the Certificate of Appointment is granted.
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Judges are sworn to decipher, apply, and uphold the law, an exercise that takes great care and sense considering the ambiguity of statute, the discordant doctrines of interpretation, and the prevalence of emotional tinderboxes in litigation. Perhaps more challenging, however, is the judge’s task of navigating through brambles of facts.
In the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court decision of O’Dea Estate (Re),  N.L.S.C. 178, Orsborn J. was imposed with the burden of sorting out a conflict between Michael and Shannon, who were named co-executors and whose acrimonious sibling relations are reminiscent of a previous blog. Contrary to the testator father’s wishes, in the two-and-a-half years since his death, neither sibling was appointed executor; instead, litigation between the two raged, with each accusing the other of fraudulent behaviour. In competing applications, Michael sought the appointment of the Public Trustee, whereas Shannon applied to have herself appointed sole executrix.
Justice Orsborn decided as follows: “By asking to have the Public Trustee appointed, Michael has effectively renounced his appointment pursuant to the will.”
A mere proposed solution was construed as a renunciation. Michael’s position was undermined by his willingness to see the estate depleted (by hiring the Public Trustee, a pricy endeavour) combined with his disinclination to assume the role of co-executor.
Other factors were present in this decision. Orsborn J. was reluctant to accede to Michael’s request for financial reasons, for the estate was not large and the Public Trustee could be expected to take a significant chunk out of what remained. It also mattered to him that the testator’s intention to have Michael and Shannon administer the estate be at least half-honoured. Additionally, the judge ascribed significance to the fact that the other estate beneficiaries, who were also children of the deceased testator, preferred Shannon’s claim.
O’Dea Estate is another case in which the court has emphasized its commitment to limiting costs with small estates, but more importantly, it suggests the court will draw an adverse inference when litigants seek to hand off their responsibilities to third parties.
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David Morgan Smith and Devin McMurtry
This week on Hull on Estates, Jonathon Kappy and Nick Esterbauer discuss the recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Rubner v Bistricer, and the law regarding informal trust arrangements.
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