Right from the start, 2021 is starting to look like it will be another extraordinary year of historic significance. In the world of estates, trusts, and capacity litigation, there was a decision released on January 5th where serious breaches of fiduciary duty by an attorney for property were found and the PGT was ordered to take over. The facts in Public Guardian and Trustee v. Cherneyko et al, 2021 ONSC 107, read like a law school case study and the reasons are worth noting.
Jean Cherneyko is a 90 year old woman. Jean did not have any children of her own. Her closest known relative was a niece in the US. By the time of the PGT application, Jean was in a long term care home. Prior to that, Jean lived alone in the same home that she had lived in since 1969. Jean had a friend named Tina who she had known for about five years. On August 15, 2019, Jean and Tina went to a lawyer’s office. Jean named Tina as her attorney for property and personal care. Jean also made a new Will which named Tina as the estate trustee and sole beneficiary of her estate. A week or so later on August 27th, Jean and Tina went to Jean’s bank where $250,000.00 was transferred to Tina, and $195,329.50 was transferred to Jean’s niece. Days later on August 31st, Jean was hospitalized for acute delirium and progressive cognitive decline. During Jean’s admission, Tina noted that Jean had become increasingly confused over the prior few months and that Jean exhibited lethargic behaviour and complained of bodily soreness. On September 1, 2019, Jean was diagnosed as being cognitively impaired. Thereafter, Jean was transferred to long term care on October 1st based on Tina’s authorization as Jean’s attorney for property. Short time after that, Tina’s son moved into Jean’s home and the PGT started to investigate in March, 2020 when the bank froze Jean’s accounts.
As a result of their investigation, the PGT brought an application to remove and replace Tina as Jean’s attorney for property. The PGT also sought to set aside the $250,000.00 transfer to Tina and the return of various other sums that were received by Tina, which totalled approximately $350,000.00.
First, the Court found that the transfer of $250,000.00 to Tina was not a gift. Tina failed to rebut the presumption of resulting trust for the gratuitous transfer. Tina put forth evidence that there was a bank manager who spoke to Jean at the time of the transfer, and that the banker told Jean that she would have still have enough money to live after the transfers to Tina and the her niece. This evidence was tendered through Tina’s affidavit without any direct evidence from the banker. The Court disregarded Tina’s reliance on the banker’s involvement because Tina herself had deposed that Jean was having “moments of delirium and irrationality, her condition fluctuated between lucidity and confusion” in late August, 2019 (para. 31) and there was no evidence that the banker was informed.
The Court also seriously questioned whether any of the payments to Tina were truly what “Jean wanted” because Jean’s power of attorney for property clearly stated that there was to be no compensation. The Court agreed with the PGT’s contention that Tina should not have paid herself $2,000.00 per month in compensation and on how that sum was unreasonably high given that Jean’s long term care costs were only $2,701.61 per month.
The value of the transfers, which was about a quarter of Jean’s net worth at the time, when considered in the context of Jean’s September 1st diagnosis also led the Court to find that Jean lacked capacity to gift Tina such a substantial sum.
The Court’s focus on context, timing, and proportionality as benchmarks in its analysis are very important for litigators and advisors to keep in mind.
Stayed tuned this week for Part 2 on Cherneyko: the breaches of fiduciary duty.
Thanks for reading,