Tag: duty of care
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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Solicitors preparing Wills need to be mindful of the obligations they owe to a testator. The seminal Court of Appeal decision in Hall v Bennett Estate provides a helpful refresher of the steps a solicitor should consider to ensure best practices are followed.
According to the Court, it is well established that a “solicitor who undertakes to prepare a will has the duty to use reasonable skill, care and competence in carrying out the testator’s intentions. This duty includes the obligation to inquire into and substantiate the testator’s capacity to make a will”.
Testing for capacity is fundamental – a solicitor has a duty to make inquiries into the testamentary capacity of the testator.
Should the solicitor have any doubt as to capacity, Justice Cullity in Scott v Cousins, famously states that “…careful solicitors who are in doubt on the question of capacity, will not play God – or even judge – and will supervise the execution of the will while taking, and retaining, comprehensive notes of their observations on the question”.
The Court of Appeal proceeds to summarize an article written by M.M. Litman & G.B. Robertson outlining errors made by solicitors in the preparation of a Will, leading to negligence claims, including failing to:
- obtain a mental status examination;
- interview the testator in sufficient depth;
- properly record or maintain notes; and
- test for capacity.
As such, notes from a drafting solicitor should ensure that all of these are addressed.
In certain instances, although narrow, a duty of care might also be owed to a disappointed beneficiary. A two part test is applied as set out by the Supreme Court of Canada in Cooper v. Hobart.
While claims for negligence by testators and disappointed beneficiaries cannot be stopped, a file with detailed notes can go a long way in defending such a claim.
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If someone asks you to act as their Estate Trustee, or you learn to your surprise that you are named as an Estate Trustee after the person’s passing, there are a number of things that you should consider before accepting such a responsibility. Given the significant duties involved in such a role, it is important to be aware of the potential for personal liability.
An Estate Trustee’s Legal Duties
An Estate Trustee is a fiduciary and, as such, s/he owes a duty to exercise the care, diligence and skill that a person of ordinary prudence would exercise in dealing with the property of the Deceased.
Furthermore, an Estate Trustee owes a “duty of loyalty”, which has been described as the duty to act honestly and in good faith, and to use powers solely for the purposes for which they were granted (see Oosterhoff on Trusts: Text, Commentary and Materials, 8th ed.). The “duty of loyalty” means that:
(a) An Estate Trustee must exercise powers and perform duties solely in the interest of the Estate.
(b) An Estate Trustee must not knowingly permit a situation to arise where:
(i) The Estate Trustee’s personal interest conflicts in any way with the exercise of powers or performance of duties; or
(ii) The Estate Trustee derives a personal benefit or a benefit to a third party, except as far as the law or the Will expressly permit.
Additional legal duties of an Estate Trustee are:
- The “prudent investor” rule which ensures that the Estate Trustee properly invests the Estate assets;
- The “even-hand” rule which ensures that the Estate Trustee acts impartially among all the beneficiaries;
- The “duty of transparency” which ensures that the Estate Trustee provides information to the beneficiaries; and
- The “duty to account”.
Some Practical Considerations
From a practical stand point it is also prudent to consider the overall complexity of the Estate and what type and quantity of work will be expected from you in your role as an Estate Trustee. Certainly, some Estate Trustees can be compensated for the work they perform; however, there is a limit to what one may claim and it largely depends on the circumstances.
There are certain tasks that an Estate Trustee may want to delegate to third parties; however, there is a limit as to what type of work may be delegated and what is considered reasonable.
You should consider whether the Will properly sets out the powers as well as the responsibilities of the Estate Trustee which will aid you in the future, should any of your decisions be challenged. Another useful consideration is whether there are any third parties, or specifically, any beneficiaries who may be difficult to deal with in your role as an Estate Trustee, or may want to challenge your authority in the future.
In making the decision whether or not to act as an Estate Trustee, it may also be a good idea to speak to a lawyer regarding whether taking on this role may present an unacceptable legal risk for you in the future.
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