A new Saskatchewan Court of Appeal case sheds more light on the law of standing with respect to will challenges. In Adams Estate v. Wilson, the Appellant executor appealed an earlier decision in which it was held that the Respondent, Mr. Wilson, had legal standing to bring an application to have the deceased’s will proved in solemn form. Mr. Wilson purported to be the deceased’s long-time friend and employee, and he submitted that the deceased had promised to leave him her “ranching operation”; despite this claim, the deceased did not name Mr. Wilson in her will. Instead, she imbued her executor with the discretionary power to distribute the estate to deserving parties, including “certain persons who have been trustworthy and loyal”.
The Chambers judge reasoned that since the statute, Rule 16-46, allows an application by a person who “may be interested in the estate”, Mr. Wilson, as potentially both a creditor and beneficiary, may have been an interested party and therefore had standing. Mr. Wilson succeeded in qualifying himself as a potential creditor because of a related action against the estate. His claim to be a potential beneficiary, though murkier, also succeeded; the claim was that since Mr. Wilson had been “trustworthy and loyal”, the executor could choose to give him a part of the estate in adherence with the will – making him a potential beneficiary.
The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, finding that Mr. Wilson was a mere “stranger to the will” and, as such, did not have standing. Rather, only the following classes of persons, with specific financial or legal interests in the estate, have standing to challenge a will: (1) Those named as beneficiaries or otherwise designated in the will or other testamentary documents; (2) those to whom the estate would devolve under an intestacy; and (3) those with claims pursuant to The Dependants’ Relief Act, The Family Property Act, and The Fatal Accidents Act. The Court explained that creditors, as Mr. Wilson claimed to be, do not have standing because they have no gain in “interfering with the devolution of property”.
The Court also found fault with Mr. Wilson’s claim to be a potential beneficiary, which was described as disingenuous, circular, and disconnected:
“He ignores that his purpose in requesting standing is to challenge the validity of the Will and the very bequest upon which he based his claim of standing. This is perverse logic because, if successful, Mr. Wilson will have eliminated any chance that he would take under the Will.”
Mr. Wilson was trying to derive rights from a will he was repudiating and suggesting that he might receive a gift from an executor whose legitimacy he denied and against whom he was litigating. He was attempting to win on a legal technicality – on form in spite of substance. In addition to reiterating the parties who may challenge a will, the Court in Adams Estate v. Wilson has put another brick in the wall between those seeking to exploit legal technicalities and the successful results they seek.
Thank you for reading – have a wonderful day,
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Devin McMurtry.
An important and useful tool in any estate planning toolkit is the ability to transfer title to real property between spouses, which typically occurs for nominal consideration and/or natural love and affection. These types of transfers are recognized at law. In certain circumstances, transfers of this nature may be used by spouses seeking to defeat, hinder, delay, or defraud creditors. The Fraudulent Conveyances Act (“FCA”) provides the legislative authority to set aside transfers of property that are entered into with the intent to defeat the claims of a creditor.
Such was the case in Anisman v Drabinsky, 2020 ONSC 1197. On September 11, 2015, Mr. Drabinsky and his wife, Ms. Winford-Drabinsky, transferred their joint ownership of their home to Ms. Winford-Drabinsky alone (the “Drabinsky Property”). At the time of said transfer, Mr. Drabinsky had several unpaid judgments against him as well as ongoing monthly debt payments that were nearly double his monthly income. One such judgment, dated November 2018, was in favour of the Plaintiff for monies owed by Mr. Drabinsky.
In an effort to recover monies owed to him, the Plaintiff obtained a Certificate of Pending Litigation against the Drabinsky Property. It was not until April 2019 that the Plaintiff testified that he learned of the transfer through a title search conducted on Mr. Drabinsky in preparation for his examination in aid of execution respecting the unpaid judgment. On June 18, 2019, some three years and nine months after the impugned transfer of title, the Plaintiff commenced an action seeking to reverse the transfer of title in the Drabinsky Property.
In his defence, Mr. Drabinsky argued that the transfer itself was not fraudulent, but that in any event, the Plaintiff’s claim was statute barred given that the 2-year limitation period provided for in the Limitations Act, 2002, SO 2002, c. 24 (“Limitations Act”) had expired.
In considering the validity of Mr. Drabinsky’s limitation defence, the court considered two key principles regarding limitation periods: discoverability of claims and the applicable statutory authority. With respect to the latter, the court considered whether it was the 2-year limitation period pursuant to the Limitations Act, or the 10-year limitation period in the Real Property Limitations Act (“RPLA”), that applied. The RPLA applies to actions to “recover” land. The question then became, does an action to set aside a conveyance of real property fall within the category of claims to “recover land”?
The court ultimately found that it was the 10-year limitation period in the RPLA that applied to the present action. In reaching its decision, the court relied on the case of Conde v Ripley, 2015 ONSC 3342, which found that claims made to set aside a conveyance of real property under the FCA are on their face, a claim to recover land. The court went further to say, “the Legislature has seen fit to… differentiate between actions involving recovery of land and other types of actions” given that the Limitations Act addresses claims in contract or tort, while the FCA addresses the recovery of real property.
However, as identified in this article, this line of reasoning contradicts earlier decisions that differentiated between the recovery of land itself and the recovery of debts connected to that land (see Wilfert v McCallum, 2017 ONSC 3853 and the Ontario Court of Appeal case of Zabanah v Capital Direct Lending Corp, 2014 ONCA 872), leaving the law in a state of uncertainty.
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Administration of an insolvent estate raises a number of unique challenges that the estate trustee must maneuver. One particularly unique challenge is the determination of whether or not it would be beneficial to petition the estate into formal bankruptcy or to administer the estate as an insolvent testamentary estate.
Commonly, an estate that does not have sufficient assets to pay its liabilities is referred to as “insolvent” or “bankrupt” interchangeably. However, these two concepts are distinctly different. An estate that is bankrupt is one that has been assigned and declared formally bankrupt. An insolvent estate, on the other hand, is one that simply does not have enough funds, liquid or otherwise, to pay all of its debts.
When an estate trustee is confronted with the task of administering an insolvent estate, there are a number of matters that ought to be considered and explored, including exposure to personal liability, the priority of payment of creditors and level of desired control over the estate in question.
First and foremost, an estate trustee must consider the level of exposure to personal liability that he or she is willing to accept. As a fiduciary, an estate trustee is obligated to pay the estate debts and may attract personal liability if they fail to appropriately apportion available funds among the deceased’s creditors. If an estate trustee makes a petition to have the estate declared bankrupt, then he or she will not only relinquish complete control of the estate to the appointed trustee in bankruptcy, but may also avoid personal liability if the estate assets are not appropriately proportioned among its creditors.
An estate trustee must avoid giving preferential treatment to creditors of the estate. This principle is codified in s. 50 of the Trustee Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. T. 23, and s. 5 of the Estate Administration Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.22. However, the priority of which estate debts ought to be paid differ depending on whether the estate is administered as an insolvent testamentary estate or a bankrupt estate. For instance, when in bankruptcy the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, provides that payment of support arrears will take priority over the payment of federal income taxes, while in the case of an insolvent estate, federal income taxes take priority.
Finally, an estate trustee must understand that it is not possible to retain any level of control over the administration of an estate once it has gone into formal bankruptcy proceedings. Accordingly, it would be prudent to first obtain advice in relation to the most effective and appropriate manner to move forward with the administration of an insolvent estate.
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When someone passes away, their executor is responsible for paying out of the estate any debts and liabilities for which the deceased was responsible. However, when there is debt for which two or more people are jointly liable, who becomes responsible when one of the joint debtors dies?
In the case of a joint debt, presumably all joint debtors will have taken responsibility and signed for that debt. Accordingly, when one joint debtor dies, the other joint debtors will be responsible for the full amount of the debt.
This obligation to pay the full amount of a joint debt is between the debtor(s) and the creditor. The creditor can thus seek repayment from either joint debt holder, or, after the death of one joint debtor, from the surviving debtors. As between the debtors themselves, however, there may be remedies for a situation in which one joint debtor is made to pay the full debt, without contribution from the other joint debtor. This may arise upon the death of one of the joint debtors if the Estate refuses to pay back any of the debt.
The courts have held that if liability for joint debt is shared, but only one debtor is ultimately made to pay the full amount of the debt, there may be an equitable remedy available. In Parrott-Ericson v Stockwell, 2006 BCSC 1409, the court stated that, even if there is no specific arrangement between the estate and the survivor who becomes responsible for a joint debt, “equity will impose that obligation in order to avoid unjust enrichment. That is the usual rule, because ordinarily there is unjust enrichment if the liability is not shared.”
In that particular case, unjust enrichment was not found. The joint debt in question was a line of credit secured against two properties owned jointly by the Deceased and his surviving spouse. The line of credit had been used to acquire the properties. Upon the death of the Deceased, the spouse took sole title to the properties by right of survivorship, and she also became liable for the balance of the line of credit. The court held that, although normally the estate would be unjustly enriched in this situation, as the spouse was receiving the entire benefit of the properties, it was not unjust that she be responsible for the full amount of the loan relating to that property.
Ultimately, the answer to this question may not be completely straightforward. Ensure that responsibility for joint debt is clear as between any joint debtors to ensure that you are not liable to pay the full amount of a joint debt after someone’s death, and that you have recourse to claim contribution from the deceased’s estate if necessary.
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Sometimes it is the most simple questions that are the most difficult. The Estates Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.21 provides that a person “having or pretending to have an interest in the property affected by the will” must be served with an Objection but not much more. Rule 75.01 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure provides that an “estate trustee or any person appearing to have a financial interest in an estate may make an application under rule 75.06 to have a testamentary instrument that is being put forward as the last will of the deceased proved in such manner as the court directs.” Is a creditor a person with such an interest?
In Belz v. Mernick Estate (2000), 31 E.T.R. (2d) 27 (Ont. S.C.J.), Hailey J. held that the sort of “financial interest” that Rule 75 contemplates is a “beneficial interest”. There the context was an application for an Order Giving Directions. Belz v. Mernick Estate has been followed in a number of cases, mostly recently in Salzman v. Salzman, 2012 ONSC 1733 (Ont. S.C.J.).
The reason I raise the point is that I recently came across an interesting English judgment on point. Randall v Randall  EWHC 3134 (Ch.) featured a separation agreement whereby the husband was entitled to part of his former wife’s future inheritance from her mother that was over and above £100,000. The cynical amongst us might not be surprised to learn that the mother gave her daughter exactly £100,000 in the Will. A Motion was brought to determine a number of preliminary issues including whether the ex-husband could challenge the Will. The Court held he could not and traced the rule back to an old case, Menzies v Pulbrook and Kerr  2 Curt 846 (Prerogative Court), and through a series of cases up to the present day. The explanation was of course the same as Justice Hailey’s – an “interest in an estate is not the same as being interested in the estate, or having an interest that is connected to the estate” in the words of the judge. A creditor has an interest in getting paid, not establishing proper rights in the assets of the Estate by law and must confine himself accordingly.
Why should we have an interest in “interests”? We practice in a very old and well litigated field. “Pragmatic” solutions have always been sought by judges and the old cases feature a lot of learning. Given that just about everything is available on the Internet now, I suggest we go a step farther than being archivists. It is a salutary exercise to actually read these old cases and not dismiss them as so many people do as “old authority”. Do we really need to re-invent the wheel on a continuing basis?
Listen to Accounting Under the Powers of Attorney
This week on Hull on Estates, Diane and Paul discuss accounting under the powers or attorney, the duty to account after the guarantor has passed away and the De Zorzi Estate v. Read case (2008, O.J. No. 944).