Tag: estate and trust
Trustees may be cautious or uncertain when administering trusts, even when the trust deed gives them unfettered discretion in carrying out their duties.
In Ontario, trustees are able to seek advice and directions from the court under section 60 of the Trustee Act and also seek advance approval of various exercises of discretion in administering a discretionary trust. The jurisdiction of the Court to approve the exercise of discretion by trustees was formally recognized in Public Trustee v. Cooper  WTLR 901, a decision of the High Court of Justice in the UK. These orders are often referred to as “Cooper orders”. However, trustees must consider when it is appropriate to involve the Court in decisions that should be made by trustees.
Justice Hart in Cooper outlines instances in which trustees can seek directions from the Court. He states that parties may seek to obtain the blessing of the Court for a “momentous decision” that they have resolved to make in the trust’s life. As long as the proposed course of action is within the proper exercise of the trustees’ powers and where there is no real doubt as to the nature of the trustees’ power, the Court may make a declaration that the trustee’s proposed exercise of power is lawful. The Courts have made it clear that they will not exercise discretionary powers on behalf trustees.
Cooper Orders have been successfully sought in Canada. In Toigo Estate (Re) 2018 BCSC 936, the Trustees of an Estate sought the Court’s declaration that their exercise of discretion was lawful. The deceased created a spousal trust which permitted the trustees uncontrolled discretion to encroach on the capital of the estate in favour of his wife. After his wife’s death, the residue of the estate was to be divided amongst the deceased’s children and grandchildren.
The wife asked the trustees for a significant encroachment. The trustees had uncontrollable discretion to make the encroachment. However, they still wanted the Court’s “opinion, advice or direction” as to whether they should proceed.
The Court held that because of the magnitude of the encroachment, the Court could provide advice on this “momentous decision”. In making the decision, the court asked the following questions:
- Does the trustee have the power under the trust instrument and the relevant law to make the “momentous decision”?
- Has the trustee formed the opinion to do so in good faith and is it desirable and proper to do so?
- Is the opinion formed by the trustee one that a reasonable trustee in its position, properly instructed, could have arrived at?
- Is the Court certain that the decision by any actual or potential conflicts of interest?
Ultimately, trustees need to consider whether it’s suitable in their circumstances to apply to the court for a stamp of approval when taking drastic or “momentous” action.
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I recently came across this article on the Financial Times Adviser discussing estate litigation in the UK in general, and, in particular, a situation relating to the estate of Tracey Leaning. I thought the article was interesting as it touched upon a couple of topics that raised some thought-provoking points for me.
To briefly summarize, Ms. Leaning died in 2015 leaving a Will which provided that her entire estate was to be transferred to her partner, Richard, on the condition that he look after her three dogs. However, she had also made a prior Will leaving her entire estate to four charities. Somehow, the charities learned that, while they had previously been included as beneficiaries of Ms. Leaning’s estate, her last Will did not gift anything to them. They wrote to Richard to advise him that they intended to challenge the later Will. According to the article, it is not clear whether any proceedings have yet been commenced by the charities.
The first thing I wanted to touch on was the “pet trust” aspect of this situation. This topic was recently discussed in a paper by Jenny Pho of Dale & Lessmann LLP for the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Practice Gems: Probate Essentials program on September 29, 2017. The arrangement made by Ms. Leaning appears to be in the form of a cash legacy to a pet guardian, namely Richard, together with the condition precedent that Richard take care of her dogs. Generally this option for leaving money for the care of one’s pets would only be recommended if the testator trusts the chosen pet guardian to properly care for the pets, as once the funds have been bequeathed to the pet guardian, the testator loses control over how the funds can be used.
In this particular situation, Ms. Leaning not only left a specific legacy to Richard, but rather her entire estate. It is likely that, in doing so, she did not intend that her entire estate be used solely for the care of her dogs, but rather, she put her trust in Richard to care for the dogs generally, using funds from her estate as needed. According to the article, Ms. Leaning’s later Will had been prepared by Ms. Leaning herself, without seeking legal advice. However, had she not had a trusted individual to care for the dogs, the pet trust arrangements would likely have been much more complicated, and may have required legal advice in order to properly implement.
Secondly, I also found one of the alleged bases for the charities’ challenge to Ms. Leaning’s will interesting. As noted above, Ms. Leaning had allegedly prepared her later Will herself, without seeking legal advice. Additionally, the signature page of the Will, which had been stapled to the remaining pages, had apparently become detached, leading to questions as to whether there had been any additional pages that were missing at the time of Ms. Leaning’s death. If such a situation arose in Ontario, it’s not clear what the ultimate outcome would be. If the court could not determine how the Will should be interpreted based on the available pages of the Will itself, it could also consider indirect extrinsic circumstances that were known to the testator at the time the Will was made. However, as it is ultimately a question of interpretation, it would likely be up to the court to decide whether, taking all the facts into consideration, it is satisfied that the Will is complete and should govern the distribution of Ms. Leaning’s estate.
Had Ms. Leaning sought legal advice and assistance with respect to the preparation of her Will, this question would likely have been avoided by the standard use of simple page numbering to indicate that all pages are present and accounted for.
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It’s 8:30 am, you’ve just entered your office, and you get a call from the common-law spouse of one of your long-term clients. It’s bad news – your client is in palliative care and has a will from 2001 that he urgently needs to update. Time is of the essence.
You and your assistant can squeeze in time late in the day to see the client at the hospital. But you know it’s a tricky situation that’s fraught with potential problems. Here are a few steps to consider that could protect you and your client before you head bedside.
- Make sure you have the expertise they need: On the initial call, be sure to ask specific questions about what the client needs done. If there are trusts or other complex arrangements involved, assess whether you have the expertise to assist. If death is imminent, the last thing your client can waste is time in trying to line up another lawyer. So do your due diligence up front.
- Assess capacity: Capacity issues could be front and centre for clients who are close to death. If possible, contact an attending doctor, explain the legal test for capacity and ask them to confirm his or her opinion in writing as soon as possible, even on an interim basis by email.
Learn more about capacity issues here: https://estatelawcanada.blogspot.ca/2010/12/when-is-doctors-opinion-on-capacity.html
- Talk one-to-one: You need, and must insist on, time alone with your client, both to do your own capacity assessment and to minimize any unsubstantiated allegations of undue influence. If the situation is at all suspicious, you have a duty to inquire to satisfy yourself that the client is fully acting on their own accord. This is especially important if the client has had multiple marriages or common-law partners, or has been estranged from family members. If you are not satisfied, you may choose to decline to act.
- Take notes and/or video: Your notes could potentially be used as evidence in a will challenge or solicitor’s negligence action, so be sure to set out the basis for your opinion on issues such as capacity and undue influence, rather than simply stating a conclusion. Consider having a junior lawyer attend with you, to provide a more complete base of evidence. Videotaping the interview may also be helpful, as it can provide important evidence if the will is ever challenged.
Finally, if you have older clients who have indicated a need to revise their will, be proactive. Send them this link and encourage them to act now to avoid the potential drama and perils of a deathbed will: http://globalnews.ca/news/1105176/the-mortality-of-deathbed-wills/
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