While digital assets constitute “property” in the sense appearing within provincial legislation, the rights of fiduciaries in respect of these assets are less clear than those relating to tangible assets. For example, in Ontario, the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, and Estates Administration Act provide that attorneys or guardians of property and estate trustees, respectively, are authorized to manage the property of an incapable person or estate, but these pieces of legislation do not explicitly refer to digital assets.
As we have previously reported, although the Uniform Law Conference of Canada introduced the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act in August 2016, the uniform legislation has yet to be adopted by the provinces of Canada. However, recent legislative amendment in one of Ontario’s neighbours to the west has recently enhanced the ability of estate trustees to access and administer digital assets.
In Alberta, legislation has been updated to clarify that the authority of an estate trustee extends to digital assets. Alberta’s Estate Administration Act makes specific reference to “online accounts” within the context of an estate trustee’s duty to identify estate assets and liabilities, providing clarification that digital assets are intended to be included within the scope of estate assets that a trustee is authorized to administer.
In other Canadian provinces, fiduciaries continue to face barriers in attempting to access digital assets. Until the law is updated to reflect the prevalence of technology and value, whether financial or sentimental, of information stored electronically, it may be prudent for drafting solicitors whose clients possess such assets to include specific provisions within Powers of Attorney for Property and Wills to clarify the authority of fiduciaries to deal with digital assets.
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Other blog posts that may be of interest:
Canada’s model legislation regarding digital assets, the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act (the “Canadian Model Act”), was introduced in August 2016, and borrows heavily from its American predecessor, the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “American Model Act”).
The Canadian Model Act defines a “digital asset” as “a record that is created, recorded, transmitted or stored in digital or other intangible form by electronic, magnetic or optical means or by any other similar means.” As with the definition appearing within the American Model Act, this definition does not include title to an underlying asset, such as securities as digital assets. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not define the terms “information” or “record.”
In the Canadian Model Act, the term “fiduciary” is also defined similarly as in the American Model Act, restricting the application of both pieces of model legislation to four kinds of fiduciary: personal representatives, guardians, attorneys appointed under a Power of Attorney for Property, and trustees appointed to hold a digital asset in trust.
One challenge that both pieces of model legislation attempt to address is the delicate balance between the competing rights to access and privacy. The American Model Act is somewhat longer in this regard, as it addresses provisions of American privacy legislation to which there is no equivalent in Canada. Canadian law does not treat fiduciary access to digital assets as a “disclosure” of personal information. Accordingly, under Canadian law, the impact on privacy legislation by fiduciary access to digital assets is relatively limited.
The Canadian Model Act provides a more robust right of access to fiduciaries. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not authorize custodians of digital assets to choose the fiduciary’s level of access to the digital asset. Section 3 of the Canadian Model Act states that a fiduciary’s right of access is subject instead to the terms of the instrument appointing the fiduciary, being the Power of Attorney for Property, Last Will and Testament, or Court Order.
Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian equivalent has a “last-in-time” priority system. The most recent instruction concerning the fiduciary’s right to access a digital asset takes priority over any earlier instrument. For example, an account holder with a pre-existing Last Will and Testament, who chooses to appoint a Facebook legacy contact is restricting their executor’s right to access their Facebook account after death pursuant to the Will.
Despite their differences, both pieces of model legislation serve the same purpose of facilitating access by attorneys for or guardians of property and estate trustees to digital assets and information held by individuals who are incapable or deceased and represent steps in the right direction in terms of updating estate and incapacity law to reflect the prevalence of digital assets in the modern world.
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Accessing a Testator’s digital assets can be fraught with difficulty. Part of this difficulty involves the service agreements between the Testator and the service provider. These agreements often prevent the service provider from disclosing the Testator’s personal information.
Recently, Florida, following a trend in the United States, passed Bill SB 494, now known as the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the ‘Act’). The legislation defines a digital asset as “……an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest. The term does not include an underlying asset or liability unless the asset or liability is itself an electronic record.” It also provides of a definition of a fiduciary, which means “an original, additional, or successor personal representative, guardian, agent, or trustee.”
The Act appears to have two main purposes. It confers authority upon appointed fiduciaries to access and manage both digital assets and electronic records. The legislation also allows custodians of this information to disclose it to appointed fiduciaries where the procedural requirements have been met.
The Act includes a priority system for an individual to control the disclosure or non-disclosure of any or all of their digital assets or electronic communications. Depending on the circumstances, a direction for disclosure given through the use of an online tool may override a direction embodied in a Testator’s estate planning documents.
This Act incorporates model legislation drafted by the Uniform Law Commission. The draft legislation is currently being considered by a number of other state legislatures. The Act is effective in Florida as of July 1, 2016 and may apply retroactively to some individuals in certain capacities.
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"Some day, a wise person in a position of authority will realize that a court of law is not the best forum for deciding custody and access disputes, where principles of common sense masquerade as principles of law." – Mr. Justice Joseph Quinn as quoted in the Globe and Mail.
Until that day, the fighting parents who appeared before Mr. Justice Quinn have been barred from court unless they obtain special leave. Looking at the context, it’s hard to argue they did not earn it: 25 court orders from 12 different judges over 7 years, three contempt motions, one suspended sentence, 12 different lawyers, 2000 pages of court filings.
An apparent lack of respect for the rulings of the Court by both litigants was a factor in this extraordinary Order. As Mr. Justice Quinn is quoted, "[b]oth sides have shown an inability to abide by court orders such that their access to this court should be restricted by the requirement to obtain leave."
Mr. Justice Quinn is further quoted as saying "[t]he parties have gorged on court resources as if the legal system were their private banquet table. It must not happen again,". It is easy to forget that courts are very expensive operations: rent, upkeep and salaries. An hour before a judge in court is not cheap for society, whether or not the litigants are represented by lawyers. As a purely editorial comment, it is heartening to see principled recognition of this fact.
The father, perhaps unsurprisingly given the reported facts, is apparently considering an appeal.
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In Re Cogan, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice addressed the issue of contingency legal fees. The lawsuit involved the claim of a minor suffering from cerebral palsy, with the plaintiffs alleging that the obstetrician and nurses attending at the child’s birth were negligent.
The case settled for the sum of $12,543,750. The lawyers for the plaintiffs wanted to be paid $4,174,928.45, or roughly 33.33%, on the basis of a contingency fee agreement between them and the minor’s litigation guardian. A contingency fee agreement is an arrangement whereby a lawyer agrees to be paid a percentage of recovery in the lawsuit. Where there is no recovery, the lawyer works for free. Where there is a substantial recovery, the lawyer benefits accordingly.
The Court was asked to rule on whether the contingency fee agreement should be allowed. In its lengthy weighing of both sides, the Court found, among other things, that: The agreement was obtained in a fair way; 2. The agreement was reasonable; 3. The risk to the lawyer of not getting paid and not getting reimbursed for disbursements was high; 4. The case was complex and required significant time commitment and delayed payment; and 5. The result achieved by the lawyer was exceptional.
The Court also commented on the importance of access to justice for vulnerable plaintiffs like the minor and the role contingency agreements can play in fostering that goal.
Therefore, the Court upheld the agreement.
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listen to The Ontario Civil Justice Reform Project
This week on Hull on Estates, Chris and Justin discuss the Ontario Civil Justice Reform Project and the steps being taken by Mr. Justice Colter Osbourne and Attorney General Michael Bryant.