Tag: capacity assessment
Something that no one ever wants to deal with, but which is sometimes an unfortunate reality, is the incapacity of a loved one. You may notice that your spouse or parent is not themselves, or has acted in a way that causes you some concern.
If the person has a power of attorney for property and a power of attorney for personal care, the attorney(s) named in those powers of attorney may need to step in and begin to manage the person’s finances and care. The terms of the power of attorney may set out when the attorney can begin acting. For instance, some powers of attorney for property are effective immediately upon execution by the grantor, and continue to be in effect in the event of any subsequent incapacity.
The power of attorney may also outline what kind of confirmation of the grantor’s incapacity is necessary before the attorney may begin acting on the grantor’s behalf. If the grantor is willing to cooperate in whatever capacity assessment is required, this step may be simple and straightforward to complete. However, as is often the case, the person may resist acknowledging any decline in their capacity or cognition, and may not wish to have their capacity assessed.
Pursuant to s. 78(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (the “SDA”), a person must consent to having their capacity assessed. If they refuse to be assessed, the assessor is precluded from performing an assessment.
If a person refuses to be assessed, it is possible to seek a court order for an assessment, pursuant to s. 79(1) of the SDA. In order to do so, the following will be required:
a) the person’s capacity must be in issue in a proceeding under the SDA; and
b) the court must be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person is incapable.
As a capacity assessment can be an intrusive process, the court takes requests to order them very seriously, and will often not be quick to order one. As discussed in Abrams v Abrams,  O.J. No. 5207, some of the factors that the court will consider in making a determination in this regard include the following:
i) the purpose of the SDA, being to protect the vulnerable;
ii) the nature and circumstances of the proceedings in which the issue is raised;
iii) the nature and quality of the evidence before the court as to the person’s capacity and vulnerability to exploitation;
iv) whether the assessment will be necessary in order to decide the issue before the court;
v) whether any harm will be done if an assessment does not take place; and
vi) the wishes of the person sought to be examined, taking into account his or her capacity.
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Guardianship litigation can be messy and upsetting to those involved in such proceedings, particularly when there are multiple family members fighting over who should act as guardian.
It is also possible for a guardianship application to be brought on an uncontested basis, meaning that no one is opposing the appointment of the proposed guardian. That being said, given that the appointment of a guardian is a serious restriction on a person’s liberty, the courts do not take guardianship appointments lightly, and still have strict requirements for evidence, even in uncontested guardianships.
Pursuant to s. 22(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (the “SDA”), and s. 55(1) of the SDA, the court may appoint a guardian of property and/or personal care for a person who is incapable of managing property and/or personal care if, as a result of that incapacity it is necessary for decisions to be made on his or her behalf by a person authorized to do so.
Least Restrictive Course of Action
Sections 22(3) and 55(2) of the SDA provide an important restriction on the court’s ability to appoint a guardian, requiring that a court not appoint a guardian if it is satisfied that the need for decisions to be made will be met by an alternative course of action that is less restrictive of the person’s decision-making rights than the appointment of a guardian.
In particular, if a person has made a power of attorney for property or personal care naming the individual(s) who they wish to make decisions on their behalf in the event of their incapacity, the court may be reluctant to appoint a guardian and override the person’s own choice of a substitute decision-maker. Accordingly, a guardianship application should include evidence as to whether the alleged incapable person has executed powers of attorney, and what efforts the applicant has made to determine whether powers of attorney exist.
It is also important to remember that even if a person is incapable of managing their property or personal care, he or she may still be capable of making a power of attorney in this regard. Allowing a person to name their own substitute decision maker will of course be less restrictive of his or her decision-making rights than the court imposing a guardian on him or her. Accordingly, a person’s capacity to make powers of attorney should always be considered in the context of a guardianship application, and evidence in this regard should be provided to the court.
Furthermore, if a person is capable of naming his or her own attorney by executing powers of attorney, it may be possible to avoid the costs of a guardianship application, which can be significant.
A Finding of Incapacity is Required
There is also a statutory requirement in s. 58(1) of the SDA that the court make a finding of incapacity in order to appoint a guardian. The court will require evidence in support of a finding of incapacity. Most frequently, this will take the form of a capacity assessment by a trained capacity assessor.
Sometimes applicants are hesitant to obtain a capacity assessment of an alleged incapable person, either due to the cost of the assessment, fear of upsetting the person, or some other reason. While these concerns are understandable, it is important that the court be provided with evidence sufficient to allow it to make the finding of incapacity. Otherwise, it will not be able to appoint a guardian. The cost of the capacity assessment will almost certainly be less than the cost of bringing a guardianship application, only to be unsuccessful when the court is unwilling to appoint a guardian without adequate evidence to satisfy it as to incapacity.
A capacity assessment is also useful as it may reveal that an alleged incapable person does have some level of capacity. As noted above, a person may be capable of executing a power of attorney, even if he or she is incapable of managing his or her own property or personal care. In that case, a guardianship application may be able to be avoided altogether.
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As we age, many of us begin to experience the normal consequences of aging, including some memory loss. Unfortunately, many of us may end up suffering from Alzheimer’s and related dementias. As a result, capacity has become a bigger problem among seniors.
There are ways to manage decision-making for a senior who has lost capacity to make his or her own decisions about care or property. If the person executed a power of attorney, their attorney can step in. If there is no power of attorney, a guardian can be appointed by the court. However, the imposition of a substitute decision maker can be a significant restriction on an older adult’s liberty, and some seniors may resist that imposition.
An article in The Walrus earlier this year considered this issue, and the impact a finding of incapacity can have on a senior’s autonomy in Canada.
One of the concerns discussed in the article is that “some seniors find that, once declared incapable, they are unable to challenge the decision.” In Ontario, we have the Consent and Capacity Board, which is an independent tribunal that, among other things, reviews various determinations regarding an individual’s capacity. However, this is apparently a rarity in Canada. The only other similar body is located in the Yukon.
Another issue raised by the Walrus article is with the lack of a standardized system for assessing capacity. The person doing the assessment can vary (doctor, nurse, social worker, etc.), as well as the tests conducted. This is made even more complicated by the fact that there are differing levels of capacity for different tasks (e.g. making a Will, managing property, getting married, granting a power of attorney for personal care).
Unfortunately, the lack of attention paid to the issue of aging and capacity appears to be systemic. As cynically, but perhaps also realistically stated in the Walrus article: “It can seem like a great deal of attention is paid to other institutions that house vulnerable segments of the population, such as children in daycares. But there’s no future in aging; there is next to no potential that a senior might one day cure cancer or be the next prime minister. Reform in elder care may be desperately needed, but it hasn’t been forthcoming.”
There is a fine balance to be struck between restricting seniors’ autonomy, and protecting vulnerable people. A collaborative “supported decision-making model”, as discussed in the article may be one way of doing this. I hope that as more attention is drawn to these issues, there will be greater awareness, and increased progress and reform for our seniors.
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The Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently made an important ruling on a voir dire in respect of Dr. Kenneth Shulman’s proposed expert testimony.
This ruling will be of particular interest to estate litigators as it addresses the inherent admissibility of retrospective capacity assessments, amongst other things.
The Court in this instance implemented a form of blended voir dire, wherein Dr. Shulman’s evidence would be received in its entirety and submissions would be made on the issue of admissibility of the expert testimony. In the event that the Court ruled that Dr. Shulman’s evidence was admissible, the evidence obtained during the voir dire would be incorporated as part of the trial record.
The Defendant, amongst other objections, took issue with Dr. Shulman’s testimony on the basis that his testimony was based on a retrospective capacity assessment which was problematic for the following reasons:
- The proposed opinion was based on hearsay evidence and must therefore be excluded; and
- Expert opinion evidence on retrospective testamentary capacity assessments constitutes novel or contested science and is therefore not reliable.
The Court did not accept that Dr. Shulman’s use of certain evidence that has not been proven, and has not been relied upon him for the truth of its contents, prevents the Court from admitting his expert opinion evidence at the threshold admissibility stage. In other words, any such issues could be addressed in reference to the weight of the proposed evidence.
Most interestingly, however, the Court noted that many of the types of medical and psychiatric opinions offered at trial are retrospective in nature and did not agree that retrospective capacity assessments are novel in Ontario courts. The Court specifically noted that the Defendant was unable to identify a single case, since retrospective testamentary capacity assessments were first considered by the courts, in which psychiatric expert opinion of retrospective testamentary capacity assessment has been ruled inadmissible.
In applying the admissibility test established in R v Abbey 2017 ONCA 640, the Court held that Dr. Shulman’s expert opinion satisfied the threshold requirement in the first step. In weighing the cost versus benefit of admitting Dr. Shulman’s report, the Court found that the evidence favoured the admission of Dr. Shulman’s evidence.
The Court made a ruling admitting Dr. Shulman as an expert geriatric psychiatrist to provide expert opinion evidence in the areas of geriatric psychiatry and retrospective testamentary capacity assessment.
This is an important ruling in the context of estate litigation given that in most instances, the capacity assessments that are usually relied on in the course of litigation are of a retrospective nature, since the subject of the assessment is most often deceased.
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The court has the authority under the Substitute Decisions Act to appoint a guardian for property. However, does the court have the authority to appoint a temporary guardian for property? According to the decision in Ballinger v. Marshall, 2018 ONSC 3020, the answer is Yes.
In Ballinger, Ms. Marshall’s son applied for a declaration that Ms. Marshall was incapable of managing property and personal care, and for an order appointing himself as her guardian for property and personal care.
In an interim order, the court ordered that Ms. Marshall be assessed. The court also ordered that counsel be appointed by the Public Guardian and Trustee to represent Ms. Marshall (“s. 3 counsel”).
Ms. Marshall refused to be assessed. A further motion was brought to compel Ms. Marshall to be assessed, which order was granted. Still, Ms. Marshall still refused to be assessed.
The court considered s. 25 of the Substitute Decisions Act, which sets out what may be contained in an order appointing a guardian. Section 25 provides that an order appointing a guardian for a person must include a finding that the person is incapable of managing property. Further, the court may make the appointment for a limited period as the court considers appropriate, and impose such conditions as the court considers appropriate.
The court held that this gives the court jurisdiction to make a temporary order. Support for this was found in the Divisional Court decision of Bennett v. Gotlibowicz, 2009 CanLII 33031 (ON SCDC).
In Bennett, a court-ordered assessment concluded that the person was incapable. In Marshall, there was no such assessment evidence: due to Ms. Marshall’s refusal to undergo an assessment. The court was, however, able to rely on the son’s observations with respect to his mother’s behavior to come to a conclusion that, on a balance of probabilities, Ms. Marshall did not have capacity to manage her property.
The son was appointed as guardian. However, the guardianship was only a temporary one, until:
- Ms. Marshall participates in a capacity assessment and the capacity assessment is returned to the court for consideration;
- the matter is returned to the court for further directions; or
- November 15, 2018.
The court also gave specific direction with respect to what the guardian could do with Ms. Marshall’ property. He was to sell her house, and pay her debts. The proceeds of the sale, after the payment of debts, was to be held in a law firm’s trust account pending the further order of the court. The son had proposed that an affordable condominium be purchased for Ms. Marshal as alternative accommodation. However, the court did not allow for this, stating that “I believe that it is best that this process proceed slowly”.
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Capacity is a fundamental consideration in many aspects of estate, trust, and attorneyship litigation. The capacity of an individual to take a particular legal step, for example, to effect a distribution of property or to make a valid testamentary document, will often form the basis of a claim or court application. However, as set out in today’s blog, capacity is specific as to task, time, and situation. Context is a key factor in assessing capacity or lack thereof.
Whether an individual will be found to be capable of taking a particular legal step depends on the nature of the step being taken and when this step was taken. By way of example, the threshold for the capacity required by a testator to execute a valid Last Will and Testament differs from, and is considerably higher than, the threshold of an individual seeking to grant a power of attorney for property or personal care.
The capacity to make a valid will requires an individual to have a clear understanding of the nature and extent of their assets, and to understand the effects of the dispositions being made including any claims that might arise as a result. The capacity to grant a power of attorney for property, while similar to testamentary capacity, is a lower threshold. An individual will be capable of granting a power of attorney for property provided that,
- they have a general understanding of the nature and value of their property;
- are aware of the obligations owed to any of their dependants; and
- understand the nature of the rights being given to the attorney as well as the rights that they retain as the grantor of the power of attorney, for example, the right to revoke the power of attorney if capable.
While the capacity to grant a power of attorney for property only requires the grantor to have a general understanding of their property or their obligations, testamentary capacity requires specific knowledge and appreciation of potential legal ramifications. Accordingly, an assessment of an individual’s capacity in each respect will impart different requirements.
Capacity is also specific as to time, particularly as an individual’s capacity may fluctuate depending on illness or circumstance. While somewhat uncommon in practice, an individual who was previously assessed as incapable may subsequently regain the capacity to take a particular legal step. Accordingly, when acting on behalf of an individual challenging the validity of a testamentary document or disposition of property, it is important to consider not only the grantor’s historical capacity or lack thereof, but also whether capacity may have been regained at some point prior to the disposition being challenged.
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On a recent trip to Rochester, New York, my fiancée and I had the pleasure of touring the George Eastman Museum and came across an interesting piece of estates lore.
George Eastman, the founder of Kodak and a pioneer of bringing photography to the mainstream, died leaving a Will drawn in 1925. As his wife had predeceased him and they had no children, Mr. Eastman devised all of his real property and left a substantial cash legacy to his closest family member, his niece, Ellen Dryden. Mr. Eastman’s estate held significant assets, and the value of liquid assets alone was estimated as exceeding the equivalent of USD$35 million today.
However, on March 9, 1932, only five days before his death, Mr. Eastman had a change of heart with respect to the distribution of his estate. Rather than leave the bulk of his estate to an individual, Mr. Eastman wished to ensure that his legacy would be one of service to the community that had fostered his photography empire. True to form as a philanthropist and benefactor of local enterprise, Mr. Eastman executed a Codicil to his Will, changing the primary beneficiary of his estate from his niece to the University of Rochester.
The testamentary dispositions under the Codicil represented a significant deviation from those under his Will. Typically, where a testator’s dispositions vary substantially from one instrument to another, concerns may arise with respect to the their testamentary capacity or the presence of undue influence.
A shrewd entrepreneur in his own right, Mr. Eastman recognized the risk that the Codicil might later be the subject of scrutiny or litigation. On the date the Codicil was to be executed, Mr. Eastman hosted a gathering at his residence and invited many guests and acquaintances. He devoted time to speaking to each individual guest about topical, personal subjects so that they could attest to Mr. Eastman’s soundness of mind in the event that a certain disgruntled niece chose to commence a Will challenge.
In a way, Mr. Eastman’s goal is not too dissimilar from some of the criteria that are relied on even today to assess a testator’s capacity. Third-party evidence that a testator appeared to be of sound mind immediately prior to the execution of a testamentary document may help a trier of fact draw a favourable conclusion with respect to capacity. While the formal criteria to assess capacity primarily consider a testator’s appreciation and understanding of his or her assets, Mr. Eastman’s clever scheme demonstrates that he turned his mind to questions about his own capacity and took steps to mitigate the risks.
Mr. Eastman’s Codicil was not later subject to any litigation, and the University of Rochester received a handsome distribution out of his estate.
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Many estate solicitors are retained to draft Wills for elderly clients. Concerns over capacity are normal. As such, I am frequently asked how thoroughly a drafting solicitor should enquire into capacity.
Although there is no universal answer, the decision in Wiseman v Perrey, provides helpful insight. Referring to an earlier decision from the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, the Court set out the basic rules dealing with testamentary capacity where a professional, such as a drafting solicitor, is involved:
(a) neither the superficial appearance of lucidity nor the ability to answer simple questions in an apparently rational way are sufficient evidence of capacity;
(b) the duty upon a solicitor taking instructions for a will is always a heavy one. When the client is weak and ill and, particularly when the solicitor knows that he is revoking an existing will, the responsibility will be particularly onerous; and
(c) a solicitor cannot discharge his duty by asking perfunctory questions, getting apparently rational answers and then simply recording in legal form the words expressed by the client. He must first satisfy himself by a personal inquiry that true testamentary capacity exists, that the instructions are freely given, and that the effect of the will is understood.
There are a variety of tools a solicitor should employ, including having the testator take a Mini-Mental State Examination.
Depending on the severity of the solicitor’s concern, the use of a capacity assessor who specializes in assessing testamentary capacity should be considered. The assessor should be specifically instructed to assess whether a testator has the capacity to make a new Will. Although not an easy topic to broach with a client, these types of assessments can assist in ensuring the testator’s last ‘capable’ wishes are followed.
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