Amidst this terrible COVID-19 pandemic, as with past crises and other contentious affairs, we see the steady emergence of dichotomies in the policy debate – public health versus the economy, liberty versus protection, individual versus group interests … In some cases, however, we see disputes arise wherein two sides share the same source of inspiration but disagree upon how best to do justice to their ostensibly common cause. Many of history’s religious wars demonstrate this phenomenon – two factions purportedly fighting for the same god, but interpreting the god rather differently. In the context of estates law, this phenomenon is discernible in the commentary surrounding statutory wills in Canada: proponents of statutory wills want to incorporate them in our law out of concern for incapable people’s equality rights, while critics of statutory wills oppose their introduction out of concern for incapable people’s equality rights.
A statutory will, in essence, allows for a judge to execute, revoke or amend a testamentary instrument on behalf of an incapable person. They are often praised for their tax advantages, as they may include testamentary trusts and other tax-avoiding instruments (avoid not evade, an important distinction for the C.R.A.) that are not available to incapable people if their estates devolve under intestacies. The drafter of a statutory will may also arrange a statutory will in a manner that will tend to preserve the affection of an incapable person’s relatives – no spurned children or blindsided spouses, in other words.
There is more controversy with respect to whether statutory wills should be used to “protect”. In one prominent English case, Re Davey,  3 AII E.R. 342, a 92-year-old incapable woman, who was residing in a nursing home, married one the nursing home’s employees, a man 45 years her junior. The woman’s relatives, alarmed at the prospect of the man gaining everything on an intestacy, applied to the court for a statutory will, and won.
Critics of statutory wills observe that since courts cannot interfere with the testamentary freedom of the capable, they should not have the power to commandeer and transform the estate plans of the incapable. Perhaps, as well, skeptics are wary of variable outcomes (i.e. how judges will devise statutory wills), which may flow from what they may perceive as an excess of judicial discretion – unlike an intestacy, the terms of which are definite and predictable; a similar debate is often had with respect to minimum sentences in criminal law, which boils down to, as with statutory wills, how one balances trust for legislators with trust for judicial discretion, to achieve the best results.
In Canada, only New Brunswick has a statutory will. Section 11.1 of the New Brunswick Infirm Persons Act emphasises that courts must act in concert with what incapable people would want, if competent to make a will themselves. In somewhat of a legal bombshell, however, the Manitoba Law Reform Commission has favoured the adoption of a statutory will in Manitoba’s Wills Act.
Thank you for reading … have a wonderful Wednesday!
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Devin McMurtry
A recent decision by an Egyptian court saw the reversal of the trend in following Islamic Sharia inheritance law under which female beneficiaries are entitled to half the interest of their male counterparts.
The claimant, a human rights lawyer, applied to obtain the same rights as her brothers on the death of her father. Her case was previously dismissed by two courts.
In Egypt, Sharia principles are typically applied unless the parties agree that Christian inheritance laws, which do not favour male beneficiaries over females, instead be followed. In this case, the claimant and her brothers agreed that the administration of their father’s estate would not be subject to Sharia inheritance rules.
Last year, a proposed law in Tunisia designed to promote equality in respect of inheritances sparked discussion regarding unequal inheritances in a number of jurisdictions including Egypt. A 2017 survey suggests that over half of Tunisia’s population remains opposed to equal inheritance rights.
It is anticipated that this decision may result in significant change in jurisdictions where Sharia law has historically been applied in respect of personal property, regardless of religion.
Canadian courts have also considered the issue of cultures that may support an estate plan favouring sons over daughters simply on the basis of their gender. In Grewal v Litt, 2019 BCSC 1154, the daughters of the deceased challenged the Wills left by their parents, who both died in 2016, on the basis that they discriminated against them in favour of their brothers on the basis of their sex. The four daughters applied under Section 60 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, SBC 2009, c 13 (the “WESA“), for the variation of the Wills that directed the payment of $150,000 to each daughter, while the residue of the estates valued at greater than $9 million was left to the two sons.
Justice Adair noted that there was no dispute that the parents owed a moral obligation to their daughters under BC law, and, as the Wills made inadequate provision for them, they should be varied under the WESA. The Court attempted to resolve the matter by balancing the adequate, just, and equitable provision for the daughters with their parents’ testamentary autonomy and varied the division of estate assets from approximately 93% in favour of the sons with only a combined 7% for the daughters, to the more equitable division of 15% of the value of the estates for each daughter and 20% for each son. Notwithstanding the granting of the variation of the Wills, the Court stopped short of finding that the parents’ testamentary intentions were motivated solely by unacceptable discrimination against the daughters.
While many provinces do not recognize a parental obligation to benefit a non-dependant adult child after death, coming years may nevertheless see an increase in the number of challenges to a will on the basis that its terms are discriminatory.
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Other blog posts that may be of interest:
Last night, I attended an advance screening of RBG, a documentary focusing on the career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a current Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Ginsburg is a long-time social rights activist and advocate well known for her work in promoting gender equality on both sides of the bench.
More recently, Justice Ginsburg has gained notoriety for frequent dissenting opinions within the context of a primarily conservative judiciary. While a dissent is, by definition, “a disagreement with [the] majority decision” (Black’s Law Dictionary) that becomes law, one should not underestimate the value of a strong dissent over time.
At provincial appellate courts in Canada, a strong dissent may be of great assistance in preparing an application seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, as well as at the appeal stage if leave is granted. Dissenting opinions of the Supreme Court of Canada have been referred to as the voice of the future, with prophetic potential.
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