The recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision in F.K. v. E.A. addresses limitation periods and discoverability in the context of setting aside a marriage contract.
By way of background, husband and wife began their relationship in 2000, cohabitating in June of 2004, and marrying on July 20, 2005. Shortly before marriage, on July 14, 2005, the (soon to be) husband and wife entered into a marriage contract. The marriage contract was prepared by the wife who obtained a template off the internet. The husband and wife eventually separated on August 13, 2012. A dispute arose over certain terms of the marriage contract. The husband thereafter brought a claim on August 24, 2017 for spousal support, equalization, as well as setting aside the marriage contract. Two of the issues that the Court addressed included whether (i) the relief sought to set aside the marriage contract is subject to the two year limitation period and, if so, (2) whether the husband brought his claim in time.
Regarding the first issue, the Court found that the husband’s claim to set aside the marriage contract is a claim as defined in section 1 of the Limitations Act and therefore subject to the two year limitation period.
As it relates to the second issue of discoverability, evidence was adduced that the husband met with a lawyer in October 2012 to discuss the dispute with his wife and certain legal issues arising with respect to the marriage contract. Based on this evidence, the Court established that by that date at the latest, he first knew: that the injury, loss or damage had occurred; that the injury, loss or damage was caused by or contributed to by an act or omission; and, that the act or omission was that of the person against whom the claim is made. The Court dismissed the husband’s claim finding that the two years began running the date he met with his lawyer.
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At what point does a settlement become final? Is it when the parties agree on all of the terms of the settlement and sign a written agreement, such as minutes of settlement? Or at an earlier time?
In the recent decision of Cox v Baker, 2019 ONSC 2859, the court was asked to make a determination as to whether a binding settlement had been reached. The litigation involved an inter vivos trust (the “Trust”) settled by a mother for the benefit of her two daughters and subsequent generations. After the death of Donna (the second to die of the two daughters), the three living beneficiaries were Donna’s sons, Brett and Brent, and her niece, Marnie. Brett was the sole trustee after Donna’s death.
Prior to her death, Donna was living at a house that was owned by the Trust (the “Property”), with her husband, John. About a year after Donna’s death, in March 2018, John brought an application against Brett, as trustee of the Trust, and against all three of the beneficiaries, personally, seeking, among other things, an interest in the Property by way of resulting and/or constructive trust.
In May 2018, John and Brett ran into each other at Donna’s gravesite. They discussed John’s application, John advised Brett that he would call his lawyer and withdraw his application, and the two shook hands. Thereafter, a number of emails were exchanged between counsel for John, and counsel for Brett, Brent, and Marnie. It appeared that the parties had reached an agreement that John would withdraw his application, without costs, provided that all parties sign a mutual release. However, John subsequently took the position that there was never a binding settlement agreement, as the parties had not agreed on the specific terms of the mutual release. Brett, Brent, and Marnie brought an application to enforce the settlement.
Ultimately, the court concluded that a binding settlement had been reached. Some of the key factors were, in the court’s finding, that there had been a mutual intention between the parties to create a legally binding contract, and that all essential/material terms had been agreed upon. The court also noted that the agreement had been reduced to writing by way of the email exchanges between counsel.
The court specifically considered whether the fact that the parties had not yet agreed on the specific wording of the mutual release was necessary to create a binding settlement. After reviewing the case law, the court concluded that, unless there is some indication that the settlement was conditional on the parties also agreeing on the language for a release, it is not required that the parties agree on the specific terms of such a release before there will be said to be a binding settlement agreement.
The court also commented on the importance of the principle of finality, which demands that settlements entered into with the assistance of legal counsel be upheld, as it is a matter of good public policy to encourage settlement. Settlements of this kind should be upheld other than in exceptional cases, which the present case was not.
This decision is an important reminder that, if the parties have reached an agreement on all essential terms, even if the more minor details have not been agreed upon, and the minutes of settlement and/or release have not been finalized and executed, a binding settlement may still exist. Parties should be aware that once a binding settlement has been reached (which could happen prior to signing minutes of settlement), they cannot simply change their minds. It is important to keep this in mind at all stages of a negotiation, and to be alert as to when it could be said that all essential terms have been agreed upon.
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Estate litigation can be costly both financially and emotionally. As a result, there is often a strong incentive for parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Although entering into a settlement which resolves the estate litigation may appear straightforward from the outside, it may become more complicated if all potential financially interested parties are not signatories to the settlement. It is not uncommon in estate litigation for all beneficiaries of the estate to not actively participate in the litigation, leaving it to people such as the Estate Trustee or the other beneficiaries to defend a claim. As a settlement is in effect a contract between parties, if a settlement is reached which affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?
I have previously blogged about section 48(2) of the Trustee Act, and an Estate Trustee’s ability to settle claims on behalf of the estate which can bind the interests of the beneficiaries. While section 48(2) would allow the Estate Trustee to bind the interests of all beneficiaries to the settlement, the Estate Trustee does so at their own potential liability, as it is possible that one or more of the beneficiaries may later challenge the decision of the Estate Trustee to enter into the settlement, potentially seeking damages against the Estate Trustee if they are of the position that the settlement was not reasonable or in the best interest of the estate. As a result of such a risk, it is not uncommon for an Estate Trustee to be hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of the estate in contentious situations, not wanting to potentially expose themselves to personal liability if one or more of the beneficiaries should later object to the terms of the settlement. If an Estate Trustee is hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of all beneficiaries, but all actively participating parties are otherwise in agreement with the settlement, is there a way to bind the interests of non-participating parties to the settlement?
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide the court with the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of parties who are not signatories under certain limited circumstances. This is done in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows the court to approve a settlement on behalf of a party who themselves cannot consent to the settlement on account of being under a legal disability (i.e. a minor). Perhaps importantly however, the court only has the authority under rule 7.08 to “approve” a settlement on behalf of a party under a legal disability, and rule 7.08 is not available in circumstances where the non-signatory is fully capable.
The Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise appear to provide any mechanism by which a settlement can be approved on behalf of a party who is not under a legal disability. As a result, if the non-signatory who you are you attempting to bind to the settlement is not under a legal disability, the court likely does not have the authority to “approve” the settlement on their behalf under the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Although the court likely does not have the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of an individual who is not under a legal disability in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure, this does not necessarily mean that there are no other ways to potentially bind the individual to a settlement. One potential solution may be to seek an Order “in accordance” with the terms of the settlement on notice to all interested parties. Should the court issue such an Order, which in effect repeats the terms of the settlement but as an Order of the court, the non-signatories would arguably then be bound to the terms of the settlement as it would now be in the form of an Order of the court.
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The recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision of Zecha v Zecha Estate, 2017 ONSC 1972, 2017 CarswellOnt 4882, raises the issue of how separation agreements ought to be interpreted in circumstances where one party to the contract has predeceased the other.
In this case, a separation agreement was entered into by the plaintiff and her husband, who had since died. With respect to the sale of the couple’s matrimonial home, the separation agreement, dated May 31, 2012, stipulated as follows:
- The plaintiff and the deceased would advise one another of all offers to purchase the matrimonial property;
- If the plaintiff received an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00, the deceased could require that the plaintiff accept the offer, but, upon compelling her to do so, would be responsible for paying any shortfall between the sale amount and $1,500,000.00;
- If the property had not been sold within 18 months of the date of the agreement (and the plaintiff had not declined an unconditional offer to purchase the property for a price higher than $1,500,000.00):
- The deceased would assume carriage of the sale;
- The plaintiff would cooperate with the sale process and sign any documents to give effect to the sale; and
- If the property sold for less than $1,500,000.00, the deceased would be responsible for any shortfall between the purchase price and $1,500,000.00.
The plaintiff listed the matrimonial property for sale on October 29, 2012. On April 30, 2014 (23 months after the execution of the separation agreement), the plaintiff entered into an agreement of purchase and sale, and sold the property for $1,180,000.00. There was no evidence before the Court that the plaintiff had advised the deceased that she had received or accepted an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00. The deceased died on November 28, 2014, and the plaintiff commenced proceedings against the deceased’s estate for the difference between the sale price of $1,180,000.00 and $1,500,000.00, relying upon the terms of the separation agreement.
At trial, the plaintiff submitted that, pursuant to the terms of the separation agreement, she was entitled to $320,000.00, representing the difference between the sale price of the property and $1,500,000.00, because the property had been sold more than 18 months from the date of the separation agreement. The deceased’s estate asserted that the plaintiff could not enforce the terms of the separation agreement, as she had not complied with its terms as to which party would control the sale of the property if it took place more than 18 months after execution of the separation agreement. Pursuant to the separation agreement, the deceased was only responsible for paying the shortfall if (a) he had compelled the plaintiff to accept an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00 within 18 months of the date of the separation agreement, or (b) he had assumed control of the sale of the property 18 months after the date of the separation agreement and accepted an offer to purchase the property for less than $150,000.00.
The Court found that the separation agreement was a properly executed contract and should be interpreted as a whole, giving meaning to all of its terms and avoiding an alternative interpretation that would render a term ineffective (in a manner consistent with commercial law principles). Accordingly, the Court dismissed the action, declining to order payment of the $320,000.00 shortfall by the estate to the plaintiff. The Court stated that the plaintiff had interpreted the terms of the contract too narrowly, in an attempt to obtain a greater payout from the proceeds of sale of the matrimonial property. The Court found that, pursuant to the separation agreement, the deceased had a clear right to decide if an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00 would be accepted at the time of its sale, being more than 18 months after the execution of the separation agreement, and the plaintiff could not rely upon the corresponding provisions of the separation agreement.
Circumstances like these, in which one party to a separation agreement has died and the assistance of the Court is required in interpreting the contract for the purposes of considering a claim made (or if an entitlement is apparently limited) under the contract, are not uncommon. It can be important for estate lawyers who may encounter this issue to understand how separation agreements are most likely to be interpreted by the courts.
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On August 15, 2011, I blogged on the decision of Hennessy J. in Makarchuk v. Makarchuk, 2011 ONSC 4633 (CanLII). There, the court found that a separation agreement did not preclude the surviving spouse from benefitting under the deceased’s will.
On Monday this week, the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, and upheld the decision of the lower court. In a brief endorsement, the Court of Appeal stated “We have not been persuaded that the application judge erred in her interpretation of the Separation Agreement. Since the deceased never revoked his will, the gift in the will to the respondent stands.”
The Court of Appeal also dismissed a motion to admit fresh evidence. No particulars of this motion were given.
As I stated in my prior blog, separated spouses must consider their estate plan, including terms of their wills and beneficiary designations to ensure that their intentions are properly reflected. In the case of Makarchuk, it is not clear whether the husband intended to benefit his separated spouse. However, as the lower court noted, had he wished to not do so, there were a number of means available to him to effectively revoke the gift he had made to his spouse prior to their separation.
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Paul E. Trudelle – Click here for more information on Paul Trudelle.
The effect that separation agreements may have on the entitlements of spouses upon the death of one of the parties has fuelled a great deal of litigation.
One of the issues that can arise is the effect that the separation agreement has on the last will and testament of the deceased spouse. While the Succession Law Reform Act provides that a bequest in a will to a former spouse is revoked upon the termination of a marriage by judgment absolute of divorce, that is not the case where there is only a separation.
In Makarchuk v. Makarchuk, 2011 ONSC 4633 (CanLII), the parties separated, and entered into a separation agreement. The separation agreement provided that, subject to any additional gifts made in any will validly made after the date of the agreement, the parties released all rights that they may acquire under the laws of any jurisdiction in the estate of the other.
The husband died, without making a new will, and without revoking a prior will which provided that his entire estate was to pass to his now separated spouse.
The court was asked to interpret and apply the separation agreement so as to exclude any benefit to the surviving spouse. The court refused to do so. The court held, applying Eccleston Estate v. Eccleston, 3 R.F.L. (5th) 54, that the language of the separation agreement was not broad enough to apply to rights acquired under the will. The release in the separation agreement applied only to statutory rights. The release did not “trump” the will.
It is important for separating spouses to consider bequests made in prior wills, and consider revising their estate plan.
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Paul E. Trudelle – Click here for more information on Paul Trudelle.
Yesterday, I set out the fact situation in Turner v. DiDonato (2009), 95 O.R. (3d) 147 (Ont. C.A.).
The trial judge decided that Dilia was entitled to the difference between the insurance proceeds that she received and the $100,000 insurance policy that was supposed to be in place. The trial decision was upheld on appeal.
The trial judge held that there was a clear breach of the Separation Agreement, and that the remedy was appropriate in order to put Dilia in the position that she would have been in had the contract been performed.
The Court of Appeal did not agree that the trial judge did not give properly interpret the Separation Agreement. In particular, it did not agree that the clause allowing Dilia to have a first charge against the estate for in the event that Albert died without insurance provided Dilia with the appropriate remedy. This clause, the Court of Appeal held, did not apply because Albert did, in fact, have insurance – it was simply insufficient.
The Court of Appeal also dismissed the suggestion that the insurance policy was simply security for the support payments. Firstly, the Separation Agreement did not express that it was security. Secondly, the Separation Agreement did not allow Albert to reduce the amount of insurance as the support obligations diminished. Thirdly, it was held that allowing Dilia less under the Separation Agreement as a result of its breach by Albert than Dilia would have received but for the breach was “counterintuitive”. Fourthly, the estate’s suggestion that it would have a claim against Dilia for any insurance proceeds in excess of the support obligations was “at odds” with the stated intention of the parties in the Separation Agreement to fully settle their rights and obligations.
The Court of Appeal agreed that Dilia’s admission that her understanding was that the insurance policy was security for the support payments was not relevant. The Separation Agreement was unambiguous, and contained an “entire agreement” clause, and extrinsic evidence was irrelevant. Further, as such, corroboration under s. 13 of the Evidence Act was not required, as the decision was based on the interpretation of the agreement, and not the evidence of Dilia. Finally, the Court of Appeal dismissed the suggestion that Dilia received a windfall: it held that Dilia received simply what she was to receive under the Separation Agreement.
Did you concur or are you in dissent?
Today I will set out a fact situation and let you determine the outcome. Tomorrow I will let you know how the trial judge and Court of Appeal decided the matter.
(As observed by a judge in Newmarket recently, being appointed a judge is like going to heaven – all lawyers want to go there, but just not yet.)
Albert and Dilia separated. They entered into a Separation Agreement whereby Albert was to pay spousal support to Dilia until she turned 65. He was also required to maintain a policy of life insurance benefitting Dilia in the amount of $100,000 until Dilia turned 65. The policy also provided that in the event that Albert died without insurance in effect, then his support obligations would be a first charge on the estate.
Albert died before Dilia turned 65. At the time of his death, he didn’t have the required life insurance. Dilia only received insurance proceeds of $43,507.15. She then sued Albert’s estate and his second wife, claiming the difference between the $100,000 that she was to receive under the Separation Agreement, and the amount that she in fact received.
Albert’s estate and second spouse argued that the policy of insurance was only security for the spousal support that Dilia was to receive, and that the insurance proceeds that Dilia received were in excess of her support entitlement. (It was an agreed fact that the support obligations until the age of 65 were less than the insurance proceeds received.) They argued that an award of $100,000 would be a windfall to Dilia.
What did the Court (and Court of Appeal) do? Tune in tomorrow.
(For those who can’t wait, see Turner v. DiDonato (2009), 95 O.R. (3d) 147 (Ont. C.A.).)
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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If an offer is negotiated and later accepted, how is a court to resolve a later dispute over the form of the release? The Court in Glaspell v. Glaspell Estate, (2008) 36 E.T.R. (3d) 315 held that a release that does not commit a signatory to taking any steps other than those contemplated by the settlement agreement will suffice, even if overly wordy. The parties had reached a settlement agreement: the evidence disclosed mutual intention to create a legally binding contract between the parties and an eventual agreement containing all of the essential terms agreed upon.
Unfortunately, the settlement agreement did not specify the form of release. When it came time to dismiss the action, the plaintiff refused the defendant’s form of release. So the defendant brought a motion to enforce the apparent settlement. The judge allowed the motion and denied the plaintiff’s cross-motion to amend the settlement terms, dismissing the action.
An implied aspect of this decision is that mere form of release is not necessarily an essential or fundamental term of an agreement so long as the essential terms themselves are not altered. The decision does not preclude the possibility in other situations though.
Enjoy your weekend.