A recent decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench highlights the importance of carefully reviewing settlement agreements prior to their execution.
In Anderson Estate (Re), 2020 ABQB 428, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench revisited a settlement that had been negotiated during a judicial mediation.
Mr. Anderson had left a Last Will and Testament executed roughly one month prior to his death that directed that the residue of his estate be distributed to his three children, who were the parties to the litigation. The Will addressed certain advances made to his children during his lifetime, the disposition of real property, and declared the testator’s intent that the parties be treated equally.
One son, who later brought the motion with respect to the interpretation of the agreement, had previously disclaimed real property gifted to him under the Will because the value assigned to the property in the Will itself was significantly higher than the appraised value of the property (with a discrepancy of $2 million), such that he would take a correspondingly lower distribution from the residue of the estate to reflect his acceptance of the gifted property. The judicial mediation process had been initiated with the intention of resolving interpretation issues in respect of the Will arising from the son’s disclaimer of the property. The terms of the Will and the settlement agreement were not straightforward, but the settlement provided in part that the son would receive at a value of $4 million a different property than that bequeathed to him under the Will that he had disclaimed.
Pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement, the matter returned to the case management judge for the determination of its proper interpretation. The son sought an interpretation of the agreement that provided that he had substituted his receipt of one property for the other at a notional cost corresponding to advances tied to the first property.
Justice Jones reviewed the law in general relating to ambiguities appearing in contracts, such as the settlement agreement that the parties had executed (at paragraphs 35 through 40, briefly summarized below):
- true legal ambiguity arises where a phrase is reasonably susceptible on its face to more than one meaning;
- courts can consider surrounding circumstances that include everything that affected the language of the document from the perspective of a reasonable person;
- extrinsic evidence, however, is intended to serve “as an objective interpretative aid to determine the meaning of the words the parties used”, with limitations set out by the Alberta Court of Appeal in Hole v Hole, 2016 ABCA 34;
- the goal of the courts is to give effect to the objective intentions of the parties, rather than to “second-guess the contract”;
- even in the absence of ambiguity, a judge is to consider relevant surrounding circumstances in interpreting the contract.
The judge found that the settlement agreement was not susceptible to more than one meaning, stating as follows (at para 84):
A retrospective determination that one entered into an agreement on terms less commercially favourable that one now thinks should have prevailed does not evidence ambiguity.
This decision may serve as a reminder to take care in ensuring that the meaning of a settlement agreement is properly understood by all parties and clearly set out without room for ambiguity. Remaining silent on certain points that should properly be addressed during the dispute resolution process may limit the rights of the parties to pursue them, even where the settlement agreement will otherwise lead to the distribution of an estate that may be perceived as unfair.
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The last will and testament of the gunman responsible for Nova Scotia’s mass shooting in April 2020 was recently made public. The gunman’s will names his common law spouse as the executor of his estate, estimated to be worth around $1.2 million. However, the gunman’s spouse has renounced her right to be executor of his estate and it is now being administered by the Public Trustee. It was also rumoured that the spouse had renounced any interest she may have had in the gunman’s sizable estate.
Whether the gunman’s partner did in fact relinquish any inheritance remains to be confirmed. However, there are a multitude of reasons why someone may choose to waive their right to an inheritance, including:
- Emotional grounds;
- Personal moral or ethical grounds;
- To avoid taking possession of an undesirable or costly asset, such as real property that requires significant repairs or maintenance;
- To avoid subjecting assets to potential creditors if the beneficiary is on the brink of bankruptcy or involved in a lawsuit; or
- To allow the asset to pass to a secondary beneficiary.
For an overview of what is required to properly disclaim an inheritance, you can read Ian Hull’s blog here.
As shown by the above list, even where a beneficiary does not plan to benefit personally from an inheritance they may still be interested in what happens to that inheritance. In such situations, the beneficiary may want to think carefully about whether disclaiming their inheritance is the best option.
It is important to note that a person can only disclaim a gift if they have not yet benefited from the assets and, once disclaimed, that person has no control over the assets. In other words, a beneficiary who renounces a gift should not have anything to do with those assets either before or after they have been disclaimed. This also means that the beneficiary should not have any say in who receives the inheritance.
If a person wants to disclaim their inheritance in order for it to pass to a secondary beneficiary, they should confirm whether the deceased’s will or intestacy laws, as applicable, provide for that outcome. If it does not, or if the person wishes to direct their inheritance to some other individual or charity, there is another option: they can accept the inheritance and give some or all of the assets to whomever they choose. Depending on the beneficiary’s particular goals and circumstances, accepting an inheritance and distributing the assets as they see fit may be preferable to disclaiming the assets.
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Receiving an inheritance under a will is a gift, and there is no obligation, as a beneficiary, to accept it. It is possible for a beneficiary to waive their right, or “disclaim” their interest, to a gift under a will.
As established in Biderman v Canada, 2000 CanLii 14987 (FCA):
A disclaimer is the act by which a person refuses to accept an estate which has been conveyed or an interest which has been bequeathed to him or her. Such disclaimer can be made at any time before the beneficiary has derived benefits from the assets. It requires no particular form and may even be evidenced by conduct.
Furthermore, Biderman v Canada establishes that “there is no entitlement to an estate until it is opened since a testamentary gift can always be revoked until death. Once made, the disclaimer is retroactive to the date of death of the deceased.”
There is no prescribed form for drafting or implementing a disclaimer of inheritance. Generally, the waiver should be a written agreement, acknowledging the waiver of inheritance (preferably drafted by a lawyer). The disclaiming agreement should be signed by the beneficiary, and witnessed.
It is also important to ensure that the beneficiary waiving their right to inheritance was not improperly or unduly influenced to do.
The disclaimer, once signed, does not need to be filed with the court. It is important that the lawyer who acts for the estate or the estate trustee keeps the waiver.
If an inheritance is disclaimed, the gift will be deemed void and fall into the residue of the estate, which will then be distributed according to the deceased’s will, or pursuant to the intestacy provisions of the Succession Law Reform Act. When disclaiming a gift, the beneficiary does not have any control over who receives their part of the inheritance.
A beneficiary can not disclaim part of a gift; once you disclaim part of your interest in an inheritance, you disclaim all of it. In Re Skinner, 1970 CanLii 360, the Ontario Supreme Court established that “the law is clear that, where there is a single undivided gift, the donee must take the whole or disclaim the whole: he cannot disclaim part.”
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