Something that surely no testator or beneficiary wants to see is the failure of a gift made in a Will. Unfortunately, circumstances can arise where the language of a Will may be ambiguous, or where events occurring during the estate administration expose uncertainty in a term of the Will that wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time of drafting or execution.
In Barsoski v Wesley, 2020 ONSC 7407, the estate trustee sought directions from the court regarding a clause in the deceased’s Will that allowed the deceased’s friend (the “Respondent”) to live in the deceased’s home during his lifetime, or such shorter period as the Respondent desires. Upon the earlier of the Respondent advising that he no longer wished to live in the home, or the Respondent “no longer living” in the home, the house and its contents are to be sold, and the proceeds added to a gift to another beneficiary of the Deceased’s Will, a charity, St. Stephens House of London (“St. Stephens”).
The deceased died in June 2017. Confusion arose when it became apparent that the Respondent was not actually living in the home on a full-time basis. This first came up around December 2017 and continued for a couple of years. The home was in London, but the Respondent continued living and working full-time in Toronto following the deceased’s death, and seemingly up until 2019. He then started a full-time job in Sault Ste. Marie in 2019.
The Respondent’s evidence was that he was using the home as his primary residence in that he spent time at the home on weekends 1-2 times per month, and used it as his address for his driver’s license and for CRA purposes. He stated that he planned to live in the home full-time after he retired around July 2021.
St. Stephens, as the gift-over beneficiary of the home, took the position that the Respondent had not been living in the home, and therefore it should be sold pursuant to the terms of the Will.
The court first considered whether the Will gave the Respondent a life estate or a licence to use the home subject to a condition subsequent, concluding that the proper interpretation was that it was a licence with a condition subsequent. The condition subsequent in question was when the Respondent was “no longer living” in the home. The court outlined that a “condition subsequent is void for uncertainty if the condition is ‘far too indefinite and uncertain to enable the Court to say what it was that the testator meant should be the event on which the estate was to determine’”. Accordingly, the court concluded that it was impossible to define, on the terms of the deceased’s Will, what it meant to “live” in the home.
The question of whether, on the facts, the Respondent’s use of the home constituted him “living” there is an interesting one. However, due to the court’s conclusion that the terms granting the Respondent an interest in the home were void for uncertainty, it was unnecessary for the court to make any findings of fact on this particular question.
The estate trustee, who was also the drafting lawyer, gave evidence (that was ultimately inadmissible) that the deceased had been considering some changes to her Will prior to her death. The changes would put time restrictions on the Respondent’s use of the home, including that he would be required to move into the home within 90 days of her death, and not be absent from it for more than 120 days. These additional terms may have provided sufficient certainty for the beneficiary to know what he had to do in order to maintain his interest in the home, and for the estate trustee to administer the estate. Although this evidence had no impact on the court’s decision, it can serve as an important reminder that if one wants to change their Will, one should do so as soon as possible to ensure the Will reflects their wishes at the time of their death.
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The last will and testament of the gunman responsible for Nova Scotia’s mass shooting in April 2020 was recently made public. The gunman’s will names his common law spouse as the executor of his estate, estimated to be worth around $1.2 million. However, the gunman’s spouse has renounced her right to be executor of his estate and it is now being administered by the Public Trustee. It was also rumoured that the spouse had renounced any interest she may have had in the gunman’s sizable estate.
Whether the gunman’s partner did in fact relinquish any inheritance remains to be confirmed. However, there are a multitude of reasons why someone may choose to waive their right to an inheritance, including:
- Emotional grounds;
- Personal moral or ethical grounds;
- To avoid taking possession of an undesirable or costly asset, such as real property that requires significant repairs or maintenance;
- To avoid subjecting assets to potential creditors if the beneficiary is on the brink of bankruptcy or involved in a lawsuit; or
- To allow the asset to pass to a secondary beneficiary.
For an overview of what is required to properly disclaim an inheritance, you can read Ian Hull’s blog here.
As shown by the above list, even where a beneficiary does not plan to benefit personally from an inheritance they may still be interested in what happens to that inheritance. In such situations, the beneficiary may want to think carefully about whether disclaiming their inheritance is the best option.
It is important to note that a person can only disclaim a gift if they have not yet benefited from the assets and, once disclaimed, that person has no control over the assets. In other words, a beneficiary who renounces a gift should not have anything to do with those assets either before or after they have been disclaimed. This also means that the beneficiary should not have any say in who receives the inheritance.
If a person wants to disclaim their inheritance in order for it to pass to a secondary beneficiary, they should confirm whether the deceased’s will or intestacy laws, as applicable, provide for that outcome. If it does not, or if the person wishes to direct their inheritance to some other individual or charity, there is another option: they can accept the inheritance and give some or all of the assets to whomever they choose. Depending on the beneficiary’s particular goals and circumstances, accepting an inheritance and distributing the assets as they see fit may be preferable to disclaiming the assets.
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A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Noah Weisberg and I did a podcast about the recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision Re Vaudrey, 2019 ONSC 7551. But for those who prefer to read rather than listen, I thought I would provide a brief summary on the blog as well.
The testator in Re Vaudrey died in September 2018. Prior to his death, he had been married to Ethel Vaudrey. The testator and Ethel had been separated for a number of years, but had not divorced. Ethel predeceased the testator, passing away in 2007.
The testator and Ethel had two daughters, Sheila and Kristin. Sheila also predeceased the testator in 2013. She had never married and had no children. After the testator and Ethel separated, Kristin became estranged from the testator. The decision notes that Kristin described the testator as emotionally and verbally abusive.
Kristin was the only surviving family member of the testator.
The testator left a Will executed in 2005. The court was of the view that, based on its format and content, the Will did not appear to have been prepared by a lawyer.
The Will provided that Sheila was to be appointed as estate trustee, and inherit the residue of the testator’s estate, provided that she survived the testator by 30 days. If Sheila did not survive the testator for 30 days, the Will provided that Ethel was to be appointed as estate trustee, and inherit the residue. Again, however, this was conditional on Ethel surviving the testator by 30 days. As mentioned above, both Sheila and Ethel predeceased the testator.
The Will was witnessed by Sheila and another witness.
Lastly, the Will also specifically stated that “under no circumstances is any part of [the testator’s] estate to be transferred to [his] estranged daughter, Kristin P. Vaudrey, or to any of her descendants.”
Unfortunately for the testator, he had not set out in his Will how the residue of his estate was to be distributed in the event that both Sheila and Ethel predeceased him, as they did. The court found that the residue of the estate was to be distributed pursuant to the intestacy rules set out in s. 47 of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 (the “SLRA”). On this basis, Kristin was determined to be the sole heir-at-law of the residue. Accordingly, despite the testator’s wish that Kristin not inherit any part of his estate, his failure to include a gift-over clause with respect to the residue resulted in her inheriting the entire residue.
It is also interesting that Sheila was a witness to the Will. Pursuant to s. 12 of the SLRA, where a beneficiary witnesses the execution of a Will, the bequest to that beneficiary will be void. Even if Sheila had survived the testator, the gift of the residue to her would have been void in any event.
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In contentious litigation, it is quite rare for a court to award complete indemnity costs to one of the parties. The decision to award costs, and the amount of such costs, is within the court’s discretion. There are a number of factors for the court to consider in exercising its discretion, as set out in Rule 57.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, including factors relating to the conduct of a party.
Where a party has made an offer to settle pursuant to Rule 49 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, there are certain costs consequences if that party is successful, including the scale of costs to which they are entitled. Rule 49 specifically sets out when a party is entitled to partial or substantial indemnity costs. But in what circumstances will the Court increase the scale of costs to complete indemnity?
The recent decision of Churchill v Churchill, 2019 ONSC 5137 considered this issue. There had been a dispute between children over their mother’s estate. The plaintiffs were virtually entirely successful at trial as against the respondent, their brother, and had made several offers to settle that were more favourable to the brother than the results at trial. The court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to substantial indemnity costs from the date of the offers made, but raised the additional question of whether the scale of costs should be increased to complete indemnity, in view of the brother’s conduct throughout the proceedings. Citing the Ontario Court of Appeal, the court stated that, in order to increase the scale “the conduct of the losing party would have to be based on their serious misbehaviour so, as to fall within the category of ‘reprehensible’ behaviour”.
The court considered the brother’s behaviour, including his misappropriation of estate assets, failure to comply with court orders, and perseverance with meritless claims despite a number of court hearing with rulings adverse to the brother and two adverse costs awards. Although the brother was self-represented, that did not justify his conduct.
The plaintiffs’ complete indemnity costs were approximately $77,000.00. Ultimately, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to more than substantial indemnity costs, and awarded them costs in the amount of $75,000.00.
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We often encounter situations where the administration of an estate is complicated by the fact that the deceased was married multiple times, and there is a clash between children from a prior relationship and a subsequent spouse (and/or his or her children). Sometimes, a couple will be closer with one set of children, which may lead to disputes following both of their deaths. Estate of Ronald Alfred Craymer v Hayward et al, 2019 ONSC 4600, was one such case, in which Joan and Ronald had been closer for much of their 32-year marriage with Joan’s children from a prior marriage. After Joan and Ronald died in 2016 and 2017, respectively, a dispute arose between their adult children.
While Ronald’s will named his own children as beneficiaries of his estate, his Continuing Power of Attorney or Property (like Joan’s), named Joan’s daughter as alternate attorney for property, should his spouse be unable to act. Joan had acted as Ronald’s attorney for property from 2006, during which he had suffered a stroke, until her death. In 2011, Joan had transferred the couple’s matrimonial home, previously held jointly, to herself alone. During this period, however, there had been no request by Ronald’s children for an accounting. Joan’s daughter had subsequently acted as Ronald’s attorney for property and as estate trustee for Joan’s estate over the period of approximately eight months between the deaths of Joan and Ronald.
Ronald’s children sought a passing of accounts with respect to the management of their father’s property by Jane and her daughter and, specifically, challenged the change in title to the matrimonial home. The Court referred to Wall v Shaw, 2018 ONCA 929, in stating that there is no limitation period to compel an accounting. Accordingly, it considered the only bar to this relief to be laches and acquiescence. Justice C.F. de Sa commented that the there was nothing improper in the manner in which the plaintiff had sought the accounting and, furthermore, that the delay was not unreasonable in the circumstances. The Court permitted the claim regarding the matrimonial home to continue, but nevertheless declined to order a passing of accounts:
…[O]rdering the passing of accounts is discretionary. And in my view, to require an accounting at this point would result in a clear injustice as between the parties.
[Joan’s daughter,] Linda, as Estate Trustee, is hardly in a position to account for Joan’s spending while she was alive. Yet, to require a passing of accounts at this point would subject every line of Joan’s spending (as Attorney for Property) to the court’s scrutiny. Moreover, as the Estate Trustee, the Defendant would be liable to account for any unexplained expenditures.
Indeed, it is unclear that the spending was spurious given the nature of the relationship between Joan and Ronald. Joan would have been spending the money as his wife as much as his Attorney for Property. The failure to keep detailed accounts is hardly suspicious given the circumstances here.
…In the circumstances, I will not order a passing of accounts.
This decision is interesting in that it clearly considers the practicality of a passing of accounts and the inability of the deceased attorney’s estate trustee to properly account in the absence of relevant records in determining that it would be unjust to order a passing of accounts, despite there being no other apparent legal reason not to do so.
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In today’s podcast, Noah Weisberg and Sayuri Kagami discuss the problems caused by a beneficiary under a Will witnessing its execution in the context of the recent Saskatchewan decision of Mahin v Kolosnjaji, 2019 SKQB 32.
Should you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our blog.
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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In the past, in estate litigation matters, it was often the case that some or all of the litigating parties’ costs would be paid out of estate assets. However, in more recent years, the courts have been moving away from this general practice, and increasingly making costs awards providing for the payment of costs by one of the parties, personally. In particular, if the court views a party, including an estate trustee, to have behaved improperly or unreasonably, it may decide that such a party must pay the other party’s costs, personally. We have blogged about instances of such an outcome before.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has reaffirmed this general trend. The decision in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 542, involved a motion to pass over the named estate trustee, and appoint the two sole beneficiaries of the estate in question, as estate trustees. Although the named estate trustee and the beneficiaries were initially on good terms, within several months of the testator’s passing, the relationships began to break down, with the estate trustee beginning to make accusations towards the beneficiaries, in relation to the testator. The court found that it was “not a case of mere friction—this is a case of outright hostility from [the estate trustee] to the beneficiaries”, also commenting that it was difficult to fathom why the estate trustee acted as she did, and that her accusations were unwarranted. Ultimately, the court made an order passing over the estate trustee.
After the parties were unable to reach an agreement as to costs, the court made an endorsement in this regard in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 1297. After a discussion of the costs principles applicable to estate litigation, the court stated as follows:
“I am mindful that an estate trustee should be fully compensated for any reasonable costs incurred in the administration of the estate. However, the actions of the [estate trustee] are far from reasonable. I was not provided any rationale as to why her animus became necessary in the administration of her good friend’s estate.”
Ultimately, the court made a costs award in favour of the beneficiaries, payable by the estate trustee, personally.
This costs decision serves as an important reminder that parties entering into estate litigation proceedings should not count on their costs being paid out of the estate. Additionally, even though the estate trustee’s conduct in this case appears to be extreme, litigants should still keep in mind the importance of acting reasonably.
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I recently blogged about the growing use of home DNA tests and what impact an unexpected result could have upon your rights as a beneficiary of an estate. While such a blog was from the perspective of an individual who discovered through a home DNA test that their biological father was not in fact the individual they previously believed it to be, and the potential impact such a finding could have upon their status as a beneficiary of their “father’s” estate if their interest was based on their status as a “child”, questions would also emerge in such a scenario if you were the Estate Trustee of such an estate regarding what you should do.
If you are the Estate Trustee of an estate in which a bequest is based on parentage (i.e. an intestacy or a bequest to a testator’s “issue” or “children”), and you discover that one of the beneficiaries has voluntarily taken a home DNA test which revealed that they were not in fact related to the deceased, could you still make a distribution to such a beneficiary? If you have already made a distribution to such a beneficiary, is there a risk that the other beneficiaries could now make a claim against you as Estate Trustee, alleging that you distributed the estate to the incorrect individuals and that they have suffered damages as a result?
In response to whether an Estate Trustee could potentially be liable to the other beneficiaries for historically paying out amounts to a beneficiary who it is later discovered was not actually related to the deceased, it would appear that the Estate Trustee likely would not be liable under such a scenario. In my previous blog I discussed the provisions of the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“) which establish a person’s legal parentage in Ontario, and the various presumptions establishing an individual’s father. While sections 13(1) and 14(1) of the CLRA allow the court to make a subsequent different declaration as to a person’s parentage, section 14(2) of the CLRA provides that such an Order “does not affect rights and duties that were exercised or performed, or interests in property that were distributed, before the order was set aside“. As a result, it would appear, arguably, that if an Estate Trustee historically made a payment to an individual based off of parentage, and a subsequent declaration is made by the court that the individual in question was not actually the parent of the beneficiary, the historic payment to the beneficiary could not be put in issue or reclaimed provided that at the time the payment was made the beneficiary was still presumed and/or declared to be the child of the deceased.
The issue of what an Estate Trustee is to do if a payment has not yet been made and they discover that an individual who they previously believed to be a beneficiary is not in fact related to the deceased could be more complicated. In the event that the other beneficiaries who could be affected by the distribution do not unanimously consent to continue to allow the distribution to the individual notwithstanding the results of the DNA test, it is possible that one or all of the other beneficiaries may later bring a claim against the Estate Trustee for negligence, alleging that the Estate Trustee knew about the results of the DNA test before making the distribution and that they have suffered damages as a result of the distribution. To offset such a risk, it may be wise for the Estate Trustee in such a scenario to bring an Application for the opinion, advice and direction of the court pursuant to section 60(1) of the Trustee Act and/or rule 14.05, asking the court to determine whether the distribution may still be made to the potential beneficiary in light of the results of the home DNA test.
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It is not uncommon for a trust or a Will to provide a trustee with broad and unfettered discretion in the administration of the trust or estate. We have previously blogged about the powers and duties of estate trustees, stating that it can be difficult to determine how such discretion should be exercised. Often, a trustee is given broad discretion to encroach on the capital of a trust or estate, for the benefit of a beneficiary. The issue then is: what factors can a trustee consider in determining whether to exercise their discretion to make a capital encroachment?
Broadly speaking, if a trustee is given unfettered discretion by a settlor or testator, the court will only intervene in the trustee’s decision-making if the trustee has exercised his or her discretion on the basis of mala fides, or bad faith. While there are a number of specific factors that a trustee may properly consider, for the purpose of this blog I will focus on one, namely the extent to which a trustee can consider a beneficiary’s income and/or assets.
Where a trustee is being asked to encroach on capital for the benefit of an income beneficiary, the trustee must consider the application of the even hand rule (briefly discussed in this blog). In doing so, a trustee may be tempted to consider the income beneficiary’s financial circumstances, as this information could illuminate how the trustee’s decision may affect the income beneficiary as compared to the capital beneficiary. However, the case law seems to indicate that this would not be a proper consideration.
In Re: Luke,  O.W.N. 25, the court considered whether the income beneficiary, who was also the trustee, should first look to her own financial resources before exercising her power to encroach on capital for her own benefit. The court determined that she did not have to first exhaust her own resources, as the testator had not expressed an intention in his Will that she do so. Similarly, in Hinton v. Canada Permanent Trust Company, (1979), 5 E.T.R. 117 (H.C.), a corporate trustee requested information from an income beneficiary as to the beneficiary’s own financial resources in the context of the trustee exercising its discretion to encroach on capital. Again, the court found that the testator had not indicated an intention in his Will that the income beneficiary’s income should be a factor in determining whether to encroach on capital, and the income beneficiary’s resources were, accordingly, not relevant.
The foregoing principle has been followed in a number of other decisions over the years, thus appearing to support the impropriety of considering a beneficiary’s personal financial resources as a factor in making capital encroachments, absent an intention by the testator in this regard.
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