People can become upset when they find out that they have been written out of a Will. This frustration can often become multiplied when the individual in question received a significant bequest under a prior Will, believing the that the prior Will in which they received a more significant interest should govern the administration of the estate. In looking for recourse or answers, the “disappointed beneficiary” can often lash out against the drafting lawyer who was retained to prepare the new Will, believing that it was somehow improper or negligent for them to have prepared the Will, and that they have suffered damages in the form of the lost bequest. Some “disappointed beneficiaries” will even go as far as to commence a claim against the drafting lawyer for having seen to drafting the new Will. But can such claims be successful?
In order for the “disappointed beneficiary” to successfully have a claim against the drafting lawyer, the court must find that the drafting lawyer owed a “duty of care” to the beneficiaries under the prior Will. Generally speaking, the only individual to whom a drafting lawyer owes a duty of care when seeing to the preparation of a Will is the testator (and the beneficiaries listed in the new Will by extension). Although the court will sometimes in limited circumstances extend a duty of care to “disappointed beneficiaries”, such circumstances typically exist when the testator advised the drafting lawyer of an intention to benefit a certain individual, however as a result of the actions of the drafting lawyer such an individual did not end up receiving the intended bequest (see White v. Jones and Hall v. Bennett Estate). Such circumstances appear notably distinct from bequests to beneficiaries under a prior Will, for by creating a new Will the testator is in effect communicating to the drafting lawyer an intention to no longer benefit the individuals under the prior Will.
The Alberta Court of Appeal in Graham v. Bonnycastle succinctly summarizes why the court is typically not willing to extend a duty of care from the drafting lawyer to the beneficiaries listed in a prior Will, stating:
“There are strong public policy reasons why the solicitors’ duty should not be extended. The imposition of a duty to beneficiaries under a previous will would create inevitable conflicts of interest. A solicitor cannot have a duty to follow the instructions of his client to prepare a new will and, at the same time, have a duty to beneficiaries under previous wills whose interests are likely to be affected by the new will. The interests of a beneficiary under a previous will are inevitably in conflict with the interests of the testator who wishes to change the will by revoking or reducing a bequest to that beneficiary…” [emphasis added]
In noting that there are other avenues available to such “disappointed beneficiaries”, including challenging the validity of the new Will, the court in Graham v. Bonnycastle goes on to state:
“As noted above, several decisions have recognized the untenable situation that would be created by extending solicitors’ duty of care to include beneficiaries under a former will. Beneficiaries under a former will have other remedies available to them, and may block probate of the will where testamentary capacity is not established. The estate also has a remedy available where it suffers a loss as a result of solicitor negligence. There is no justification for imposing a duty on solicitors taking instruction from a testator for a new will to protect the interests of beneficiaries under a former will. There is not a sufficient relationship of proximity and there are strong policy reasons for refusing to recognize the existence of a duty. It is not fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty.” [emphasis added]
As cases such as Graham v. Bonnycastle suggest, the court appears unwilling to extend a duty of care from the drafting lawyer to a beneficiary listed under a prior Will. If no duty of care exists, no claim may now be advanced by the disappointed beneficiary against the drafting lawyer for any perceived “damages” they may have suffered on account of the new Will having been drafted. This appears true even if it is ultimately found that the testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time the new Will was signed.
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The common law in Ontario now appears to clearly provide for claims by “disappointed beneficiaries” against drafting solicitors where a bequest to a beneficiary fails as a result of the negligence of the solicitor. (See Harrison v. Fallis, 2006 CanLII 19457 (ON S.C.))
A decision out of the Saskatchewan Court of Queens Bench appears to open the window to this type of claim even wider. Disappointed beneficiaries may also have a cause of action as against financial institutions and others that provide estate planning advice.
In Mayer v. Nordstrom, 2003 SKQB 397 (CanLII), the deceased consulted with a financial adviser with respect to his estate plan. The deceased owned a mutual fund plan, and designated his son as the beneficiary. However, the plan was not registered, and the designation was therefore void. The fund fell into the deceased’s estate, and the son received only half of the value of the fund as a beneficiary of the estate. The disappointed son sued the financial planner for negligence.
The financial planner resisted the claim, taking the position that he did not owe a duty of care to the son.
The Court disagreed. The Court held that the “disappointed beneficiary” principles articulated in solicitors’ negligence cases such as Earl v. Wilhelm (2000), 183 D.L.R. (4th) 45 (Sask. C.A.) and White v. Jones,  1 All E.R. 691 (H.L.) applied equally to other professions. The “disappointed beneficiary” principle “is not a function merely of the defendant’s occupation”. The planner was a professional who held himself out as possessing special skill, judgment and knowledge in financial planning, which included estate planning tools. The planner ought to have known that carelessness on his part would cause harm to a third party.
The duty of care to potential beneficiaries, opened in the White v. Jones decision, continues to expand.
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