In Ontario, by reason of s. 17(2) of the Succession Law Reform Act, if a testator’s marriage is terminated by a judgment absolute of divorce or is declared a nullity, any devise or bequest to his or her former spouse, any appointment of his or her former spouse as estate trustee, or any grant of a power of appointment to his or her former spouse is revoked, and the will is to be construed as if the former spouse had predeceased the testator.
This is subject to a contrary intention appearing in the will.
This provision was enacted in 1974. Prior to that, bequests to a former spouse remained valid until the testator made a new will, revoked the will, or remarried. (S. 16 of the SLRA provides that a will is revoked by marriage, subject to certain exceptions.)
In Page Estate v. Sachs (H.C.J.), 1990 CanLII 6903, the court had to grapple with the question of the retrospective application of this section. There, the testator made a will in 1968. The will gave the estate to the testator’s spouse. The testator and his spouse were divorced in 1974. The testator died in 1986. The question for the court was whether s. 17(2) would apply in those circumstances.
The court found that s. 17(2) has retrospective application. The gift to the spouse was revoked. The testator’s estate was distributed as if the former spouse had predeceased.
In the decision, the judge quoted from the “Report On The Impact of Divorce on Existing Wills” by the Ontario Law Reform Commission. It was said that s. 17(2) “represents remedial reform legislation in aid of those former spouses who neglect to alter their wills following a divorce and thereby bestowed upon their former spouse unintended windfall benefits.” The judge went on to observe that the section “simply asserts the finality which a decree absolute renders to the relationship and status of the former spouses and ties up any inadvertent loose ends which could resurrect the spousal status.”
Note that the provision only comes into play where there is a divorce or the marriage is declared a nullity. Separated spouses should “tie up any loose ends” and ensure that they consider revising their will upon separation. My first exposure to estates law involved a matter where a wife moved to divorce her husband. The husband was so irate that he vowed that she would not get anything from him in the divorce, and committed suicide. He did not revise his will. As a divorce had not yet been granted, his entire estate passed to his wife, which was clearly contrary to his intentions.
Don’t leave your ends loose.
When a marriage breaks down, spouses often have an overwhelming amount of issues to consider. For many, all they want to do is figure out how to split up the assets (and kids) and move on with their lives. Sometimes, spouses will separate without formally divorcing. Although life after marriage may be the key consideration for most, separated spouses should also take time to consider what happens on their death and whether or not they want their spouse to share in their estate.
Draft a Will
The most obvious way of ensuring that your separated spouse doesn’t benefit from your death is to draft a Will. By setting out one’s intended disposition of assets, a testator will avoid the provisions of Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, which provides for a share of the Estate to pass to the legally married spouse of a person who dies intestate. But remember, including a provision in the will that the spouse is to be excluded from inheriting is not sufficient to keep a surviving spouse from inheriting on an intestacy (see our recent blog on this topic here).
Of course, if property rights between the spouses have not been settled following separation, the surviving spouse may still be at liberty to elect in favour of equalization of net family property pursuant to the Family Law Act.
Separation Agreements and Release of Intestacy Rights
If the parties have consulted lawyers and formally settled all of the issues surrounding their marriage, they are likely to have entered into a separation agreement. Often, parties to such agreements will walk away thinking that they have fully separated out their lives and settled all issues arising as a result of marriage, cohabitation, or the breakdown of the relationship. However, solicitors drafting such agreements should be careful to properly release each spouse’s interest in the estate of the other, in case of an intestacy. In particular, while no one likes to think of it, cases have occurred where a spouse dies only days after entering into a separation agreement and before they have had the opportunity to draft a Will.
In order to properly release a spouse’s intestate interests in the other spouse’s estate, there must be a specific release of such rights using clear, direct and cogent words (see the leading case in Ontario of Re Winter,  DLR 134 (Ont H Ct)). In Re Winter, the wife released the husband as follows:
The wife of the second part covenants and agrees and does hereby release the husband of the first part from all claims present, past or future against the husband for maintenance, alimony or separation allowance and acknowledges that she has no further claims against the husband nor against the estate of the husband of the first part.
The Court found that although there was a release against the husband’s estate, the release only dealt with claims for “maintenance, alimony or separation allowance” and was not sufficiently clear and cogent for the wife to have released her intestacy rights against the husband’s estate. As a result, the wife inherited on the husband’s intestacy (a result likely to have displeased the other intestate heirs and the husband, had he been alive).
Change Your Beneficiary Designations
Finally, in addition to thinking of the potential intestacy rights of a surviving spouse, don’t forget assets passing outside of the estate. Make sure to have all beneficiary designations on insurance policies, registered accounts (RRSPs and TFSAs), and pensions updated following separation.
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Kanye West’s 2005 smash-hit, Gold Digger, includes lyrics that, “if you ain’t no punk; holla, ‘we want prenup! We want prenup!’; It’s somethin’ that you need to have”. Certainly, an individual entering into marriage with prior wealth, should consider a prenuptial agreement. What should spouses do though who do not have a prenuptial agreement and receive wealth after marriage?
Unlike a prenuptial agreement, a post-nuptial agreement, as its name suggests, is entered into after marriage. Post-nuptial agreements are gaining in popularity amongst spouses who inherit property as a beneficiary of an estate or are pulled into the family business on the death of the parent.
Post-nuptial agreements are also being utilized as an estate planning protective measure.
Like a prenuptial agreement, a post-nuptial sets out how the assets of a married couple are to be distributed in the event of death or divorce, and can be as detailed as including the jurisdiction of the divorce and social media rules.
Entering into a post-nuptial agreement shouldn’t necessarily be viewed in a negative light. The process of going through a post-nuptial agreement can be a cathartic experience for couples – it is an opportunity to look at assets and debts, air grievances, and discuss important parameters in a marriage such as payments to children from a prior marriage.
Given that marriage brings about special legal rights and obligations, those considering a post-nuptial agreement should consider speaking with a professional.
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Back in February 2017 I blogged about how, as a result of a recent change in the definition of “spouse” within the confines of Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”), divorced spouses could arguably no longer qualify as a “spouse” of the deceased individual for the purposes of dependant’s support. As a divorced spouse would be unlikely to be included amongst any other class of individual who could qualify as a “dependant” of the deceased, the effect of such a change was to potentially deprive divorced spouses from the ability to seek support from their deceased ex-spouse’s estate following death.
The issue centered on the removal of language from the definition of “spouse” within Part V of the SLRA. The definition of spouse previously included language which provided that a “spouse” included two people who “were married to each other by a marriage that was terminated or declared a nullity”. The revised definition provided that “spouse” under Part V of the SLRA had the same meaning as section 29 of the Family Law Act. As section 29 of the Family Law Act did not include similar language to the definition of spouse including two people who “were married to each other by a marriage that was terminated or declared a nullity”, but rather simply provided that “spouse” was defined as including two people who were married to each other or who are not married to each other but cohabitated continuously for a period of not less than three years (i.e. common law spouses), the argument was that divorced spouses could no longer be “spouses” for the purposes of Part V of the SLRA.
Much debate ensued in the profession following such a change in definition about what impact, if any, it would have upon a divorced spouse’s ability to seek support after death. Such debate now appears to be moot, as the Ontario legislature appears to have acknowledged the confusion caused by the change in definition, and has again changed the definition of “spouse” within the confines of Part V of the SLRA with the passage of the Stronger, Healthier Ontario Act (Budget Measures), 2017, S.O. 2017, C.8 (the “Stronger, Healthier Ontario Act”).
In accordance with “Schedule 29” of the Stronger, Healthier Ontario Act, the definition of “spouse” as contained in Part V of the SLRA now reads as follows:
“Spouse” has the same meaning as in section 29 of the Family Law Act and in addition includes either of two persons who were married to each other by a marriage that was terminated by divorce.” [emphasis added]
The revised definition of “spouse” leaves no doubt that divorced spouses can qualify as a dependant of their deceased ex-spouse within the meaning of Part V of the SLRA. Interestingly, while the revised definition of “spouse” clearly includes divorced spouses, it does not contain a reference to those individuals whose marriage was “declared a nullity” as the previous definition of spouse contained. As a result, it is still questionable whether those individuals whose marriage was declared a nullity could be considered a “spouse” within the confines of Part V of the SLRA, and whether they could bring an Application for support as a dependant of their ex-spouse’s estate following death.
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Today I wanted to discuss a basic, but important concept when it comes to Wills: revocation. There are a number of ways in which a Will can be revoked, and it is crucial that everyone with a Will, or who will make a Will in the future, understands what those methods are, and the requirements that must be met in order to successfully revoke a Will. An incomplete understanding of revocation can lead to unintended consequences if a testator mistakenly believes either that a prior Will has been revoked, or that a prior Will that he or she believed to have been revoked, remained valid and operative.
According to section 15 of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26,
15 A will or part of a will is revoked only by,
(a) marriage, subject to section 16;
(b) another will made in accordance with the provisions of this Part;
(c) a writing,
(i) declaring an intention to revoke, and
(ii) made in accordance with the provisions of this Part governing making of a will; or
(d) burning, tearing or otherwise destroying it by the testator or by some person in his or her presence and by his or her direction with the intention of revoking it.
Ontario has a strict compliance regime, meaning that the statutory requirements for actions such as executing and revoking a Will must be followed carefully, and that the courts do not have the discretion to declare a document valid that does not do so. Accordingly, if an attempted revocation of a Will does not strictly comply with the statute, it may not be valid.
For instance, one method of revoking a Will is by a writing declaring an intention to revoke and made in accordance with the requirements of the making of a Will. This means that, even if the document revoking the prior Will is not itself a Will, it must nonetheless comply with those requirements, whether it be a formal Will witnessed by two people, or a holograph Will. A testator who does not seek legal advice on revoking his or her Will may mistakenly believe that, for example, a typewritten signed statement would validly revoke a Will, when, in fact, it would not.
Destroying a Will, another method of revocation, must also be done in a particular way to satisfy the requirements of the Succession Law Reform Act. As discussed in Probate Practice (5th ed.), the two elements of destruction and intention to revoke must both be present. The destruction itself must also be done either by the testator personally, or by someone else in the testator’s presence and by his or her direction. Therefore, even if the testator directs another person to destroy his or her Will, if the testator is not present at the time of such destruction, it will be insufficient to revoke the Will in question.
Additionally, the requisite capacity to revoke a Will is the same as that required to execute a Will in the first place.
While this blog only briefly touches upon a few specific issues that may arise in relation to revoking Wills, it is clear that without a proper understanding of how to validly revoke a Will, a testator can easily stray offside of the statute, resulting in a potentially invalid revocation. As with the execution of a Will, revocation can also have significant effects on a testator’s testamentary dispositions, and it is important to seek advice from a trusted legal professional prior to taking any steps that may lead to unintended, and unfortunate, consequences.
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It is commonly understood that an Attorney for Property can do anything that the grantor of the Power of Attorney could do other than make a Will. Indeed, s. 7(2) of the Substitute Decisions Act provides: “The continuing power of attorney may authorize the person named as attorney to do on the grantor’s behalf anything in respect of the property that the grantor could do if capable, except make a will.”
In practice, “will” has been expanded to mean testamentary dispositions. Accordingly, as an example, beneficiary designations under RRSPs and life insurance policies cannot be changed by an attorney on behalf of the incapable grantor.
The unpredictable onset of incapacity can make for some unintended consequences. And the choice of attorney can create situations of inevitable conflict of interest that challenge the limitations of the statute.
An example would be a situation in which a separated but not divorced spouse is appointed under a Power of Attorney for Property. What if an application for divorce was jointly initiated by the grantor and his spouse and the grantor then becomes incapable before the divorce is finalized and before the Power of Attorney is revoked?
In such a situation, the Attorney for Property/separated spouse is in a curious predicament: on the one hand, the grantor would presumably (but not as a certainty) have wanted to complete the steps required to conclude the divorce. On the other hand, the separated spouse clearly has a competing interest: he or she would presumably financially benefit from the divorce not being finalized. To complicate matters further, if the grantor/incapable spouse chose to maintain his separated spouse as his attorney for property, he or she may been seen as wanting to trust that person to act in his or her best interests despite the conflict.
The reality is that there can be no certainty that the grantor would have as a matter of indisputable fact performed the additional steps required to conclude a divorce. While the surviving spouse in this scenario would have a conflict of interest which raises a question of whether there would be a motive to avoid concluding the divorce, it would seen that, in addition to not being able to make a Will, an Attorney for Property, could not necessarily conclude a divorce on behalf of an incapable Grantor.
There are surprisingly few cases on point. One such case is O.(M.K.) (Litigation Guardian of) v. C.(M.E.) in which the British Columbia Supreme Court decided against allowing a Divorce to proceed at the behest of a Committee for an incapable husband where the Court found, on a balance of probabilities, that no intention to divorce had been demonstrated before the incapacity.
Of course, it is a nice question as to whether intent to separate is the same as intent to divorce….
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Divorces can change many things in relation to rights between two people, but it may not change everything you want it to.
Life insurance is a case in point. For example, let’s say Doug marries Jane and names her as the beneficiary of his $2,000,000 life insurance policy. After five years of marriage, Doug and Jane divorce and each “waives all rights to the other’s property except as set forth in this agreement”. The marital settlement agreement/property distribution divides assets between Doug and Jane.
Post-divorce, Doug never removes Jane’s name as the designated beneficiary on the insurance policy. Doug later remarries Susan, and stays married to her for 20 years until his death. As soon as Doug remarried 20 years previously, his existing will was considered revoked automatically, so it’s clear that Jane isn’t entitled to anything under the will. But Jane is still listed as the beneficiary on the life insurance policy. Who is entitled to the $2,000,000 – ex-spouse Jane or surviving-spouse Susan?
Based on Ontario court rulings, ex-spouse Jane may actually be entitled to the life insurance proceeds, despite the divorce settlement language. You can read about a similar case here: https://www.osler.com/en/blogs/pensions/october-2009/beneficiary-designation-in-favour-of-former-wife-t
Cases like this reinforce the need for spouses who are separating or divorcing to revisit all their estate planning documents to ensure they reflect their current wishes. This recent post contains a good discussion of how marital breakdowns can lead to unintended estate consequences unless a review of estate documents takes place – and changes are made if needed: http://www.osullivanlaw.com/blog/2015/03/the-importance-of-updating-your-affairs-on-separation-and-divorce.shtml
When the zip goes out of marriage, it’s still important to show your estate some love and do a thorough review of your assets and the documentation associated with them.
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Marriage is commonly understood to have the effect of revoking a will. The public policy rationale is simple: legal obligations are imposed on spouses to provide support to one another. A will predating the marriage that does not reflect this obligation would force the surviving spouse to have recourse to statutory remedies. Better to simply start from scratch from the commencement of the marriage and make a will that (presumably and hopefully) adequately provides for the surviving spouse.
The Common Exception to Revocation by Marriage
Marriage does not, however, always have the effect of revoking a will. There is an exception which gives a nod to the possibility that the testator who is about to marry may have the foresight to make an appropriate will “in contemplation of marriage.” Accordingly, pursuant to s. 16(a) of the Succession Law Reform Act, if there is a declaration contained in the will to such effect, it will not be revoked and will remain in force on the death of the testator.
The Lesser-Known Exception to Revocation by Marriage
Just as the testator has the power to avoid revocation by marriage by advance planning, the surviving spouse is empowered by the statute as well. Although not so well known, Section 16(b) of the Succession Law Reform Act allows the surviving spouse to elect “to take under the will, by an instrument in writing signed by the spouse and filed within one year after the testator’s death in the office of the Estate Registrar for Ontario.”
Presumably, it is a somewhat rare circumstance for a surviving spouse to elect under s. 6(b). In most circumstances, a Will benefiting the surviving married spouse that is made in advance of the marriage would contain the “in contemplation of marriage” declaration, thereby negating the need to elect. However, by addressing the circumstance of a Will that does not include the declaration yet still benefits the surviving spouse to his or her satisfaction, unnecessary litigation and recourse to statutory remedies is avoided.
For the uninformed, s. 6(b) of the SLRA can result in unintended consequences. Consider a situation in which a testator, incorrectly assuming that his Will which solely benefits the woman who became his wife was automatically revoked by marriage, separates but does not divorce. He assumes he will die intestate, leaving his estate to his children from a prior marriage. However, on his death, his separated but not divorced wife is empowered under the SLRA to choose to benefit under a Will which the testator did not realize was open to be relieved from revocation by the surviving wife’s right of election.
As is usually the case, unintended consequences can be avoided by knowledge and information. In the context of a matrimonial dispute, all possible ramifications of an unexpected death should be considered.
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This week on Hull on Estates, Paul Trudelle and Umair Abdul Qadir discuss recent amendments to the definition of “spouse” under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, and the implications for former and divorced spouses. For more on this topic, read our associate Stuart Clark’s recent blog post on the amendments.