Estate planning clients are often under the misunderstanding that they have the ability to choose a permanent custodian or guardian for their minor children under a Last Will and Testament. However, while parents in Ontario can appoint someone in their wills to assume custody of their minor children upon death, the ultimate determination of custody is reserved for the court. It is important for estate planning lawyers to understand and explain to clients how these testamentary custodial appointments work.
It should also be noted that there is an important distinction between guardianship in terms of custody in relation to children (a form of guardianship of the person) and guardianship of a minor’s property. Where there are two parents with custody of a minor child and one parent dies, the surviving parent will automatically have the legal right to custody of the child. In contrast, a guardian of property refers to the individual appointed to manage a minor child’s assets until he or she reaches the age of majority. Parents do not have the automatic legal right to take guardianship of a child’s assets; rather, they must make a formal application to the court to obtain this authority. Most frequently, appointing a guardian for a minor child in a will refers to naming a custodian suitable to take the parent’s place rather than a guardian of property.
The Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA”) provides parents the right to use a will to appoint someone to assume custody of minor children when they die. If two or more people are entitled to custody of the child and death occurs simultaneously, subsections 61(4)(b) and 61(5) of the CLRA provide that the appointment will only be effective if both parents appointed the same person as custodian. In the event that one parent predeceases the other, the appointment of the first parent to die is typically ineffective. In other words, the appointment under the will of the surviving parent prevails. The designated custodian(s) should also be consulted to ensure that they are comfortable with the proposed appointment when the will is prepared.
Upon the date of death, the parents’ decision with respect to testamentary custody is typically effective for 90 days. A formal application to the court must be made during the 90-day period in order to obtain permanent custody of the child, on notice to the Office of the Children’s Lawyer.
It is not uncommon for family members to dispute the custodian appointment and file a competing application for permanent custody of a child after his or her parents’ deaths. While a testator’s wishes with respect to custody are considered by the court – along with the child’s preference if they are of age to express them – the best interests of the child will always prevail. Courts may be reluctant to ignore the wishes of the parents as expressed in their wills unless evidence is brought forward to demonstrate that the appointed custodian would not be fit for the role and thus it would not be in the child’s best interests.
Section 24 of the CLRA sets out guidelines to determine the best interests of the child, stating that courts “shall give primary consideration to the child’s physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being.” A more extensive list of factors to consider follows this initial preface, including “the child’s needs, given the child’s age and stage of development, such as the child’s need for stability” and “the ability and willingness of each person in respect of whom the order would apply to care for and meet the needs of the child.”
Particularly because of the temporary nature of testamentary custodial appointments, it is important to support one’s decision with a clear rationale. In addition to leaving clear instructions in a will or codicil, estate planning clients may wish to take steps to ensure that family members are aware of their testamentary custody wishes and that any disagreements are brought to light while the parents are able to explain their rationale for custody-related wishes. This may facilitate a transition in custody following the simultaneous death of the parents, for the benefit of the children and their new custodians.
It is also worth noting that, as of March 1, 2021 (and scheduled to be incorporated into the legislation later this month), the term “custody” was changed to “decision-making responsibility” under the Divorce Act. According to information from the Department of Justice, “the Divorce Act now features concepts and words that focus on relationships with children, such as parenting time, decision-making responsibility and contact. The term ‘parenting order’ replaces ‘custody order’ throughout the Act, for instance. Similarly, the term ‘contact order’ describes an order that sets out time for children to spend with important people who are not in a parental role, such as grandparents.”
Although it is unpleasant to consider the prospect of an untimely death which would result in a minor child being left behind, it is important that this scenario, however unlikely, is not only considered but adequately planned for when creating or amending an estate plan where minor children are involved.
Thanks for reading – enjoy the rest of your day!
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Tori Joseph
Recent amendments to Canada’s Divorce Act will come into effect on July 1, 2020. While many of these changes may not be directly relevant to estate law, estate practitioners may nevertheless wish to familiarize themselves with these developments before July.
The amendments introduced under Bill C-78 serve a number of objectives, including the advancement of the best interests of the child and increased access to justice. They can be briefly summarized as follows:
- New criteria, independent of the Children’s Law Reform Act, in respect of the best interests of the child, taking into account the child’s views and preferences;
- Updates to terminology designed to enhance access to justice and focus on the responsibilities of parents owed to their children: for example, custody orders will soon be referred to as “parenting orders”, and access will instead be known as “contact”;
- The removal of presumptions as to equal parenting time and maximum contact being in the best interests of the child.
The new Divorce Act also imposes a duty upon counsel to encourage family dispute resolution unless clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, in a manner consistent with Rule 3.2-4 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Some provinces are expected as a result to introduce legislation providing judges with the discretion to direct parties to family mediation and/or parenting coordination (as has already happened in British Columbia).
Bill C-78 has also resulted in updates to the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act. This act, which already facilitates access to information held by financial institutions with respect to the assets of debtors, will soon permit access to income information from Canada Revenue Agency for the purposes of recalculating support. The enhanced act is expected to reduce costs to parties and to courts of obtaining necessary disclosure.
Thank you for reading.
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I am not sure why, but whenever I talk to my friends about the benefits of having a Will, they seem to dismiss the advice, thinking that Wills are only meant for old people. I was thus delighted to come across this article which highlights millennial-centric reasons for having a Will, some of which are as follows:
Digital Assets – while many millennials attest to not being flush with cash, many are flush with digital assets. I have previously written about my digital presence, admitting that I have two personal e-mail addresses, four social media accounts, and so many points through reward programs such as Aeroplan, Indigo, Greenhouse Juice – the list goes on and on. These assets carry both a financial and personal value. Millennials preparing a Will should think about how they wish to transfer these assets.
Young Children – if a child is a minor, under the Children’s Law Reform Act, it is possible for a testator to appoint one or more persons to have custody of that child in a Will. It is also possible to set up a trust in the Will to ensure that the child’s inheritance is spent responsibly. I often tell people that in making a Will, do not think of it as being done to benefit oneself (i.e. the testator), but to benefit and help your loved ones. Being able to take care of minor children is a great example of this.
Pets Pets Pets – without engaging in the dog vs cat debate, it is suffice to say that many millennials have pets. In fact, millennials these days are opting for pets over parenthood – just walk through Trinity Belwoods Park on a Saturday afternoon. In Ontario, pets are considered property, and thus require specific estate planning. Some options include leaving a cash legacy to a pet guardian or setting up a trust for a pet guardian, both of which can be accomplished in a Will.
Hoping that my millennial friends now agree that Wills aren’t just for old people!
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The sudden death of Michael Jackson has sent a shock-wave of sadness across the globe. I expect it will be some time before you can tune in to various media without seeing coverage on it.
I find myself drawn in to the discussion, which one of my colleagues also blogged on last week. His commentary focused on the expected complex administration of Jackson’s estate, given both his sizeable assets and debts. This blog focuses on one aspect of the human element of the tragedy, sparked by Jackson’s Will.
As noted in a recent New York Times Article, in his Will Diana Ross is appointed as the guardian for Jackson’s children if his mother is no longer willing or able to fulfill that role.
In Ontario, a custody or guardianship appointment by Will is not determinative of the issue. It only has a temporary effect, in that any appointment for custody or guardianship expires ninety-days after such appointment becomes effective (i.e. ninety-days from the date of death in this case) (see section 61(7) of the Children’s Law Reform Act).
However, if the appointee applies to the court for custody or guardianship within the ninety-day period, the appointment expires when the application is disposed of. While each case is usually fact-specific, I would expect that a testator’s wishes set out in his/her Will is a factor a court would give significant weight to when considering such an application.
In Jackson’s case this issue is already a live one, with potentially several people vying for custody and/or guardianship. It will be interesting to see who ends up being the primary caregiver(s) of his young children.
Have a great day,
Listen to becoming an executor after death.
This week on Hull on Estates, Ian Hull and Suzana Popovic-Montag, discuss becoming an executor after death and three issues that must be addressed immediately.
Listen to The Surviving Spouse
This week on Hull on Estate and Succession Planning, Ian talks about an interview he did this week for a new website called Law is Cool and why he podcasts.
Ian and Suzana discuss the importance of preparing for the death of a spouse or for the welfare of your spouse upon your death. This preparation includes having a good idea of the assets you share and the importance of appointing a guardian for your children.