Tag: Beneficiary Designations
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice revisits the issue of whether a presumption of resulting trust should be imposed in the case of a beneficiary designation.
As our readers will know, the leading case on presumptions of resulting trust remains Pecore v Pecore, 2007 SCC 17, in which the Supreme Court summarized the state of the law relating to property that had been gratuitously transferred into joint tenancy with a non-dependent adult child: the asset becomes subject to a presumption that it is impressed with a resulting trust in favour of the parent’s estate. The presumption may be rebutted by evidence that it was, in fact, the parent’s intention to gift the jointly-held property to the adult child by right of survivorship.
Last year, we saw a couple of decisions apply the principles of Pecore to novel situations, potentially expanding the applicability of presumptions of resulting trust. For example, in Calmusky v Calmusky, 2020 ONSC 1506, the doctrine of resulting trust was applied to a RIF for which an adult child had been designated as beneficiary.
In Mak Estate v Mak, 2021 ONSC 4415, Justice McKelvey reviewed the issue of whether an asset for which a beneficiary designation was in place should be subject to the presumption of resulting trust. The plaintiff residuary beneficiaries of their mother’s estate sought an order setting aside the 2007 beneficiary designation for the mother’s RRIF, under which the defendant, their brother and another residuary beneficiary of the estate, was named. The evidence suggested that the deceased had relied upon the defendant, who lived with her and drove her to appointments after the death of the parties’ father in 2002.
After addressing the issue of whether a presumption of undue influence applied to the RRIF beneficiary designation (and finding that it did not because a beneficiary designation is not an inter vivos gift), Justice McKelvey turned to the issue of the principle of resulting trust, writing (at paras 44, 46):
In my view…there is good reason to doubt the conclusion that the doctrine of resulting trust applies to a beneficiary designation. First, the presumption in Pecore applies to inter vivos gifts. This was a significant factor for the Court of Appeal in Seguin, and similarly is a significant difference in the context of a resulting trust. Further, the decision of this Court in Calmusky has been the subject of some critical comment. As noted by Demetre Vasilounis in an article entitled ‘A Presumptive Peril: The Law of Beneficiary Designations is Now in Flux’, the decision in Calmusky is, ‘ruffling some features among banks, financial advisors and estate planning lawyers in Ontario’. In his article, the author comments that there is usually no need to determine ‘intent’ behind this designation, as this kind of beneficiary designation is supported by legislation including in Part III of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”). Subsection 51(1) of the SLRA states that an individual may designate a beneficiary of a ‘plan’ (including a RIF, pursuant to subsection 54.1(1) of the SLRA.)
It is also important that the presumption of resulting trust with respect to adult children evolved from the formerly recognized presumption of advancement, a sometimes erroneous assumption for a parent that arranges for joint ownership of an asset with their child is merely ‘advancing’ the asset to such adult child as such adult child will eventually be entitled to such asset upon such parent’s death. The whole point of a beneficiary designation, however, is to specifically state what is to happen to an asset upon death.
As a result, the defendant was entitled to retain the proceeds of his mother’s RRIF, as the plaintiffs unable to establish any intention of their mother to benefit her estate with the asset without the benefit of a presumption of resulting trust.
In light of the conflicting applications of Pecore under the Calmusky and Mak Estate decisions, it will be interesting to see how this issue may be further developed in the case law. For the time being, however, it may be prudent to take care in documenting a client’s wishes to benefit an adult child by way of beneficiary designation in the same manner as we typically would in situations of jointly-held property.
Thank you for reading.
There are relatively few circumstances in which a court will stifle, rather than vindicate, a deceased person’s testamentary intentions. If a testator wished to give all of his or her assets to a charity for cats, but did not leave adequate funds for his or her dependants, the testator’s will may be varied in order to support the dependants. When a deceased person assigned insurance policy proceeds to his spouse, but previously he had promised an ex-spouse that if she paid the insurance premiums, the proceeds would go to her, the courts interceded, in spite of the designation to the spouse, and awarded the proceeds to the ex-spouse on the basis of unjust enrichment.
In this blog we shall discuss Calmusky v. Calmusky, a recent decision which may have added another context in which courts can upset a deceased person’s testamentary intentions.
Gary and Randy were the sons of Henry, the deceased. In Henry’s last will, he left the residue of his estate to one of Randy’s children and his, Henry’s, nephew. Upon Henry’s death, his interests in bank accounts jointly held between he and Gary were transferred to Gary by right of survivorship. He also made Gary a joint holder of his Registered Income Fund (RIF).
Part of the court’s decision was conventional: since the account transfers were gratuitous transfers between a parent and an adult child, according to Pecore, there is a presumption of resulting trust (with the transferee, Gary, holding the accounts in trust for Henry’s estate) that must be rebutted, with evidence of a donative intent on behalf of the parent, before the transferee can retain the assets. Since Gary could not show donative intent, the bank account funds were to revert to Henry’s estate. And then came the unconventional: the court determined that the rule in Pecore applied to the RIF:
“I see no principled basis for applying the presumption of resulting trust to the gratuitous transfer of bank accounts into joint names but not applying the same presumption to the RIF beneficiary designation.”
By stretching the rule in Pecore to this new context, the court may have burst open floodgates which protect beneficiaries of RIFs, pension plans, life insurance policies, and more. And as was observed in our recent blog on Calmusky, there is “legislation that uniquely applies to beneficiary designations (e.g. the Income Tax Act, the Succession Law Reform Act or the Insurance Act)” that appears to conflict with the decision.
And then there is the policy dilemma arising from Calmusky: if the designation is not good enough, what is? Should an affidavit be executed to corroborate the designation, or should a testator put a provision in his or her will that crystallizes existing beneficiary designations? The trouble with the latter option, which ostensibly seems to be the surest option, is that the subject matter of the beneficiary designation may, since it is mentioned in the will, have to be listed in the probate application and the Estate Information Return – leading to heightened expenses.
The last time that estate solicitors were put in such a dubious position, arguably, was when the court in Re Milne ruled that a will is a trust, thereby rendering “basket clauses”, a common estate solicitor’s tool, precarious or even invalid. Now, while Calmusky stands, there is no clear best practice with respect to bullet-proofing beneficiary designations. And sadly, Gary, who prior to Calmusky would have received the RIF funds, is left disinherited; and Henry, who prior to Calmusky would have had reason to trust in the RIF beneficiary designation, may have had his testamentary intentions frustrated.
Thanks for reading – have a great day,
Ian Hull and Devin McMurtry
I recently had a chance to attend a very interesting continuing legal education program organized by the Ontario Bar Association called: “Rights and Limitations on an Attorney under a Power of Attorney”.
The program was chaired by Natalia Angelini of our office and Kimberly A. Whaley of WEL Partners. Professor Albert Oosterhoff, Professor David Freedman, Thomas Grozinger and John Poyser presented their views on various questions surrounding beneficiary designations.
An interesting debate took place at the end of the program on the question of whether beneficiary designations are testamentary instruments.
Professor Oosterhoff presented his view that, beneficiary designations are not in fact testamentary acts and should therefore be considered inter vivos acts. One of the reasons cited by Professor Oosterhoff in this regard that I found compelling is the fact that a beneficiary designation does not have to comply with the formalities required of a Will. The fact is that a beneficiary designation is often executed in passing and the same considerations do not apply to such a decision as typically would apply to the making of a Will.
Then again, a testator can make a handwritten Will in passing which will be just as valid as if made in accordance with the formal requirements. However, the fact that it is made quickly and in passing does not necessarily mean that it is not a valid Will.
Another reason cited by Professor Oosterhoff in support of his position was that, in his opinion, beneficiary designations take effect when they are signed. By way of a further explanation, Professor Oosterhoff clarified that a beneficiary designation is not dependent upon the designator’s death for its “vigour and effect”, despite the fact that performance does not actually take place until the designator’s death.
This opinion was not universally shared by the panel and some of the attendees of the program. One significant issue that was raised was that if beneficiary designations are indeed not testamentary acts, there could be potential tax consequences necessitating legislative reform.
It will certainly be interesting to see whether a new case or legislative reform will shed some light on this question. I can certainly see the appeal and the logic behind Professor Oosterhoff’s view.
Thanks for reading.
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Earlier this year, we argued the appeal in Moore v Sweet before the Supreme Court of Canada. On Friday, the Court released its decision, which has provided what, in our view, was necessary clarification of the juristic reason component of the test for unjust enrichment. The Supreme Court has also confirmed the circumstances in which a constructive trust remedy is appropriate within the context of unjust enrichment. Our firm was pleased to argue the appeal at the Supreme Court in February 2018 and to learn on Friday of our client’s success in the reversal of the split decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal.
The facts of the case were relatively straightforward: The appellant had previously been married to the deceased. Around the time of their separation, the appellant and the deceased entered into an oral agreement whereby the appellant would remain the designated beneficiary for the life insurance policy on the deceased’s life on the basis that she would continue to pay the related premiums. The appellant paid the premiums on the life insurance policy until the deceased’s death approximately 13 years later, while, unbeknownst to the appellant, the deceased named his new common law spouse (the respondent), as irrevocable beneficiary of the policy soon after the oral agreement was made. At the time of his death, the deceased’s estate was insolvent.
At the application hearing, Justice Wilton-Siegel awarded the appellant the proceeds of the life insurance policy on the basis of unjust enrichment. The respondent was successful in arguing before the Ontario Court of Appeal that the designation of an irrevocable beneficiary under the Insurance Act was a “juristic reason” that permitted what was otherwise considered the unjust enrichment of the respondent at the appellant’s expense. The appellant was subsequently granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Justice Coté, writing for the Majority, agreed that the test for unjust enrichment was flexible and permits courts to use it in the promotion of justice and fairness where required by good conscience. The Court clarified that the juristic reason permitting an unjust enrichment needs to justify not only the enrichment of one party but also the corresponding deprivation of the other party. While the irrevocable beneficiary designation may have required the payment of proceeds for the policy to the respondent, it could not be considered as also requiring the appellant’s deprivation of the proceeds to which she was entitled under the oral agreement. The Court found that a designation of an irrevocable beneficiary under the Insurance Act precludes claims by creditors of an estate, but it does not state “with irresistible clearness” that it also precludes a claim in unjust enrichment by a party who has a contractual or equitable interest in the proceeds.
While reaching the opposite result, the dissent acknowledged that this was a difficult appeal, in which both parties were innocent and had strong moral claims to the proceeds of the life insurance policy.
We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to argue this case before the Supreme Court of Canada earlier this year and look forward to following the role of this decision in further developments in the Canadian law of unjust enrichment.
Thank you for reading.
An insured may designate a beneficiary of the proceeds of a policy of insurance. This can be done by a beneficiary designation that is signed by the insured. No other formality is required.
An insured may also designate a beneficiary of a policy of insurance in a will.
What happens, however, if the will is found to be invalid?
Section 192(1) of the Insurance Act provides that a designation in an instrument purporting to be a will is not ineffective by reason only of the fact that the instrument is invalid as a will.
This may be due to the different procedural requirements of due execution of a will, versus the minimal procedural requirements of the execution of a beneficiary designation. Thus, a document signed by the testator/insured but not witnessed by two witnesses may be ineffective as a will, but may be effective as a beneficiary designation.
Different considerations may apply where the will is found to be invalid on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity. If the testator/insured is found to be incapable of executing a will, it may follow that he/she is incapable of executing a beneficiary designation. However, the applicable burden of proof may lead to a finding that one is incapable of signing a will, but capable of signing a beneficiary designation. In Fawson Estate v. Deveau, 2016 NSCA 39 (CanLII), the Court of Appeal was faced with a case where a will executed on April 23, 2004 was found to be invalid. The estate trustee then moved for summary judgment in a separate proceeding brought to declare beneficiary designations executed shortly before and after the execution of the Will invalid. The motion for summary judgment was dismissed, as the judge found that there was a genuine issue for trial. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal agreed.
In dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal referred to the different burdens of proof. In the will challenge, the burden was on the will challenger to show suspicious circumstances. The burden then shifted to the propounder to show that the testator had testamentary capacity. In the challenge to the beneficiary designations, the burden was said to be on the challenger, throughout, to show that the insured did not have capacity to execute the beneficiary designations.
In a case of undue influence, a will found to be invalid due to undue influence may not necessarily mean that the insurance beneficiary designations were the result of undue influence: a separate analysis is required.
In conclusion, when considering rights and remedies in the face of a potentially invalid will, do not immediately assume that an invalid will means that insurance beneficiary designations contained in the will are invalid as well. A deeper analysis of the reason for the invalidity is necessary.
Thank you for reading.
Today on Hull on Estates, Natalia Angelini and Rebecca Rauws discuss the decision in Sun Life v Nelson Estate, 2017 ONCA 4987, and beneficiary designations for insurance policies.
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