People change their mind all of the time. When someone changes their mind about the terms of their Will however, things can become more complicated. Going to a lawyer to formally make a change to the Will may seem daunting. If the change to the Will is relatively minor, an individual may be tempted to forgo meeting with a lawyer to draw up a new Will or Codicil, and simply make the change to the Will themselves by crossing out or inserting new language by hand on the face of the old Will. But would such handwritten changes be valid?
Although the advice to any individual thinking of changing their Will would always be to speak with a lawyer about the matter, people do not always adhere to such advice. If someone has made handwritten changes to their Will after the document was originally signed, such changes can under certain circumstances alter the terms of the Will.
Section 18(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“) provides that unless any alteration to a Will is made in accordance with the requirements of section 18(2) of the SLRA, such alterations have no effect upon the provisions of the Will itself unless such an alteration has had the effect that you can no longer read the original wording of the Will. Section 18(2) of the SLRA further provides:
“An alteration that is made in a will after the will has been made is validly made when the signature of the testator and subscription of witnesses to the signature of the testator to the alteration, or, in the case of a will that was made under section 5 or 6, the signature of the testator, are or is made,
(a) in the margin or in some other part of the will opposite or near to the alteration; or
(b) at the end of or opposite to a memorandum referring to the alteration and written in some part of the will.”
As a result of section 18(1) and 18(2) of the SLRA, any handwritten change to a Will does not validly alter the terms of the Will unless the testator and two witnesses sign in the margins of the Will near the alteration (subject to certain exceptions listed). If the handwritten change is not accompanied by such signatures it is not a valid alteration and has no impact upon the original terms of the Will, unless the handwritten change has had the effect of “obliterating” the original language of the Will by making it no longer readable.
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It is not uncommon for a testator to want to make amendments to his or her Will once it has been executed. Typically, the safest way to make changes to a Will is to have a solicitor draw up a Codicil to be added to the executed Will or to make a new Will all together. However, what happens when a testator makes handwritten changes to their original executed Will?
Section 18 of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”) governs the validity of alterations made after a Will has been executed. To be valid, the alterations must be accompanied by not only the signature of the testator but also the subscription of at least two witnesses. Alternatively, a testator may make valid alterations to his or her Will if the Will meets the formalities of a holographic Will i.e. it is made wholly in the testator’s own handwriting and is signed by the testator. The statutory requirements for a valid alteration must be strictly adhered to.
In addition to compliance with the SLRA, there are common law requirements with respect to the manner in which the original wording must be deleted. Therefore, it is not advisable for a testator to attempt to make handwritten alterations to their executed Will, without first receiving advice from a solicitor.
While the execution of a new Will or Codicil is the surest way of ensuring that any desired amendments will be honoured upon the testator’s death, it may not always be practical. Accordingly, practitioners may want to review with the testator the appropriate requirements for altering their already executed Will. It is important to remember, however, that issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence are separate issues that ought to be considered as well.
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The Honourable Susan E. Greer has been involved in the world of estate law for many years, as both a lawyer and as a recently retired Superior Court Justice. During that time, and particularly during her 23 years as a Superior Court Justice, she has observed a number of changes as she observes in this article for Advocate Daily.
Some of the changes discussed by The Honourable Ms. Greer are relevant to the practice of law generally. In particular, she mentions civility, and the fact that counsel have become less courteous over time, including in interactions with court staff, each other, and witnesses. She also refers to the increasing use of emails as exhibits to affidavits. In this regard, of note is the concern that many emails are “sent in haste, without careful consideration as to how they read or how they could be misinterpreted” as opposed to the thought that usually goes into the drafting of letters. These comments are applicable to lawyers generally, not solely the estates bar, and are important points to consider.
Specifically with respect to estate law, The Honourable Ms. Greer notes that there have been changes in several areas, including sibling rivalry increasingly being brought to the courts, and increasingly heavy scrutiny of jointly held assets. One particularly interesting development discussed in the article is the increase in will challenges commenced by children prior to the death of their parent. As noted by The Honourable Ms. Greer, this is not an issue unique to Ontario or Canada, citing a French case in which the daughter of Liliane Bettencourt, heir to the L’Oreal cosmetics company, successfully challenged the validity of her mother’s will, while her mother was still alive.
Relevant to many of the changes that have been seen in estates, according to The Honourable Ms. Greer, is the issue that the “greed factor has become more pronounced, causing bitter divisions in families that seem impossible to heal.” That being said, given that courts have moved away from awarding all costs of litigation to be paid from the estate, the possibility of being responsible for one’s own costs, as well as the costs of other parties, may serve as a disincentive for potential litigants with more frivolous claims that may be driven by greed.
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The Ontario Bar Association (“OBA”) has once again designated November as “Make a Will Month”. Approximately 56% of Canadians do not have a will. This issue first arose in a 2012 LawPRO survey and has been confirmed as an ongoing concern according to a CIBC survey in August 2015.
Furthermore, according to this article in the Law Times, the percentage of lawyers who do not yet have wills is about the same as in the general population. According to Jordan Atin, many of the factors that might discourage someone from taking the time to make a will, apply equally to lawyers. Among the various factors, the most obvious is the perception that making a will is a long, complicated process and that having that conversation is not an easy thing to do.
However, the estate planning process does not have to be something awful. Mr. Atin’s experience is that clients almost always feel relieved after they finally make their will. Despite the time and potential stress involved in the will-making process, the peace of mind that will come afterward should serve as a motivating factor.
This year’s “Make a Will Month” may be even more important than it has been in the past. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone should have a will regardless of the month, as of January 1, 2016, there will be some changes to the rules governing testamentary trusts, as has been discussed on this blog before . Going forward, tax treatment of testamentary trusts will be much different than in the past. Graduated Rate Estates (GREs) will no longer be available for testamentary trusts that continue past the first three years following a testator’s death. There will also be a shift in responsibility for income tax to a surviving spouse’s estate rather than a deceased spouse’s estate.
If you have not already made your will, consider participating in the OBA’s “Make a Will Month”, as well as seeking advice with respect to the upcoming changes to the rules.
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The formalities in the Succession Law Reform Act are strict and unforgiving. Case law suggests that Ontario courts have no discretion to depart from compliance with the SLRA’s requirements in determining the due execution and formal validity of a Will and its provisions.
Handwritten alterations made subsequent to the formal execution of a Will are valid in only two situations:
1. If the alterations are signed by testator in the presence of two subscribing witnesses who also sign near the changes or sign at the end of a memorandum elsewhere in the Will that refers to the changes (s. 18(2) SLRA); OR
2. If the alterations constitute a valid Holograph Will or Codicil i.e. they must be wholly in the testator’s handwriting and must be signed by the Testator (s. 6 SLRA).
In order to be a valid Holograph Codicil the markings on the Will must:
• Be capable of standing on their own without reference to the printed text around them; AND
• Indicate a firm testamentary intent.
Any changes that completely obliterate portions of the Will, such that the provisions cannot be discerned from an inspection on the face of the document without resort to artificial means or extrinsic evidence, will be effective to remove said portions from the Will.
Sharon Davis – Click here for more information on Sharon Davis.