Tag: Estate Litigation
I recently read this article from the New York Times, which discusses the Will of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as well as some of the events that occurred several years prior to Harper Lee’s death. Harper Lee died in 2016, at the age of 89. In the years leading up to her death, there was some question as to her capacity, and possible vulnerability to coercion or undue influence.
The New York Times article states that Ms. Lee had had a stroke in 2007 and also had severe vision and hearing problems. Ms. Lee resided in an assisted living facility before her death. The article also describes the position taken by counsel for Ms. Lee as part of a copyright dispute in 2013, where counsel stated that Ms. Lee had been taken advantage of and coerced into signing away her copyright because she was “an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.”
A couple of years ago, in 2015, Ms. Lee published her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman”. It turned out that this novel had been an earlier draft of her extremely popular book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is purported to have been discovered by Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, in 2014. There was some controversy surrounding the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” on the basis that Ms. Lee had not actually consented to the manuscript being published, and may have been manipulated into doing so. The publication of a new book was particularly remarkable given that Ms. Lee had only ever published one book prior to “Go Set a Watchman”—namely, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which was published in 1960. However, an investigation was performed, and a determination made that there had been no elder abuse of Ms. Lee.
After Ms. Lee’s death, her Will had not been made a matter of public record, as a result of the successful efforts by Ms. Carter (named in the Will as executor) to have the Will sealed on the basis that Ms. Lee, who was a very private person, would have wanted her Will to remain private. It was only unsealed recently after litigation by the New York Times, and after Ms. Lee’s estate withdrew its opposition to the Will being unsealed.
The Will was signed only 8 days before Ms. Lee’s death, and apparently directs that the bulk of her assets be transferred into a trust formed by Ms. Lee in 2011. Ms. Carter is one of the trustees of this trust. Further documents relating to the trust are not public, and accordingly, very few details are known about it.
Given the questions surrounding Ms. Lee’s potential vulnerability in the years leading up to her death, it will be interesting to see whether anything further develops in relation to her estate, or the trust which apparently will hold most of the assets of Ms. Lee’s estate.
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In Ontario, if there is a claim to be made or continued by a deceased person or their estate, any such claim must be brought by the executor or administrator of his or her estate. If there is no executor or administrator, under Rule 9.02 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, RRO 1990, Reg 194, the court may appoint a litigation administrator, who will represent the estate for the purpose of the proceeding. A beneficiary or other person may also represent the interests of an estate, under Rule 10.02, where it appears that an estate has an interest in a matter in question in a proceeding.
In British Columbia, section 151 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, SBC 2009, c. 13 (“WESA”) provides an alternative way of pursuing a claim by an estate. Section 151 states that a beneficiary of an estate may, with leave of the court, commence proceedings in the name and on behalf of the personal representative of a deceased person, either to recover property or enforce a right, duty or obligation owed to the deceased person that could be recovered or enforced by the personal representative, or to obtain damages for breach of a right, duty or obligation owed to the deceased person. Section 151(3) outlines the circumstances in which the court may grant leave in this regard:
(3) The court may grant leave under this section if
(a) the court determines the beneficiary or intestate successor seeking leave
(i) has made reasonable efforts to cause the personal representative to commence or defend the proceeding,
(ii) has given notice of the application for leave to
(A) the personal representative,
(B) any other beneficiaries or intestate successors, and
(C) any additional person the court directs that notice is to be given, and
(iii) is acting in good faith, and
(b) it appears to the court that it is necessary or expedient for the protection of the estate or the interests of a beneficiary or an intestate successor for the proceeding to be brought or defended
In a document produced by the Government of British Columbia entitled “The Wills, Estates and Succession Act Explained” (“WESA Explained”), section 151 is described as overcoming a gap in the law. Previously, if a beneficiary wished for an action to be brought on behalf of an estate, and the personal representative refused to do so, the beneficiary’s sole recourse would be to apply for removal of the personal representative.
However, removal may not always be necessary or convenient. As described in WESA Explained, such a situation could arise in the event that the personal representative’s main concern (as is often the case with executors, generally) is to preserve and distribute the estate. The personal representative is therefore likely more risk adverse and conservative in assessing the potential success of pursuing an action. The beneficiary may have differing views on the merits of the claim, and in his or her assessment of the risk and return.
Section 151 of WESA differs from the process for litigation administrators and representation orders in Ontario in that s. 151 allows the executor and beneficiary appointed to bring a claim on behalf of the estate to co-exist simultaneously.
The concept of s. 151 is similar to a derivative action, in which a shareholder or other person is permitted to bring an action on behalf of a corporation, where the corporation refuses to do so.
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When someone composes an obituary for a loved one who has passed away, carefully selecting the photograph to go along with it, one would suppose that the last thing on their mind is the copyright they may hold in that obituary and photograph. Of course, few people expect that an obituary could be the subject of republication or possible copyright infringement.
However, one website has been reproducing obituaries in their “database of deceased people”, leading to questions about ownership of the obituaries themselves, as well as the photographs accompanying them. The website reproduces obituaries and photographs, apparently without permission from the individuals who originally created and posted the obituaries. As reported in this Global News article, one family even states that an obituary for their loved one, which had not been written by their family and contained a number of errors, was posted on the website less than a day after their loved one passed away. The family did not know who wrote the obituary, although the website released a statement that all of the obituaries they re-post are already on the internet.
A recent article in The Lawyer’s Daily discusses an application for certification of a class action copyright claim against this obituary database website. The application claims that the website is infringing copyright and moral rights in respect of the obituaries and photographs. The moral rights claim relates to the website’s monetization of the obituaries by offering options to purchase flowers, gifts, or virtual candles, through affiliate retailers. Some funeral homes offer a similar service, but the article notes that the unsavoury nature of the website’s business model, which consists of “scraping” obituaries from elsewhere on the internet, without permission or notice, and making money by doing so through advertisements or the selling of flowers or virtual candles, could provide some support for the moral rights claim.
In relation to the copyright infringement claims, there may be some obstacles to overcome, particularly in relation to ownership of the copyright. According to The Lawyer’s Daily article, under the Copyright Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42, the person claiming a copyright infringement must be the owner, assignee or exclusive licensee of the work in question. An assignment of copyright must be in writing. As mentioned in the article, this could create an issue if the photograph used in the obituary was taken, for instance, by a stranger.
Damages in the event of liability are also uncertain. In a recent case with similar facts, where the defendants were found to have infringed on the plaintiff’s copyright, the court awarded statutory damages of only $2.00 per image because the cost of capturing the images in that case was low. However, given the emotional aspect of obituaries, it is possible that the facts in this case could lead to a larger damages award.
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As the holiday season comes to a close, many of us will take stock of the time enjoyed with friends, family, and loved ones, and look forward to the prospect of a new year. Unfortunately, as members of the estates bar, we are occasionally called on to review circumstances in which no family members or loved ones are around for the purposes of a deceased individual’s estate planning decisions. More specifically, we are often asked to consider the proper legal procedures when an individual passes away having named an estate trustee who is incapable of acting, and where the individual died leaving no spouse, children, or next-of-kin in Ontario.
In the foregoing circumstances, Ontario’s Crown Administration of Estates Act gives the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (the “PGT”) the appropriate authority to step in to the shoes of an estate trustee and administer the estate, if necessary and subject to certain statutory guidelines. Section 1 of the Act allows the Superior Court of Justice to issue to the PGT “letters of administration or letters probate”, thereby giving it the authority to administer an estate, provided the following conditions are satisfied:
- The deceased person died in Ontario, or was a resident of Ontario but died elsewhere;
- The person died intestate (that is, without a validly executed will), or died leaving a will that does not name an executor or estate trustee who is willing and able to administer the estate; and
- The Deceased had no known next-of-kin of the age of majority residing in Ontario who are willing to administer the estate.
Certain additional policy considerations not listed in the Act have also been adopted to govern whether the PGT will agree to administer an estate. Notably, the PGT will generally only act as an estate trustee of last resort. Before agreeing to act, the PGT will typically take steps to locate another interested party who may wish to be appointed, for example, any of the deceased person’s next-of-kin from out of province. Moreover, the PGT will only step in to administer estates that will hold a value of at least $10,000 after all debts of the estate have been paid. By its own estimates, at any given time the PGT is actively administering more than 1,400 estates. Accordingly, these additional policy considerations ensure that the appropriate resources can be directed to the estates that the office has agreed to administer.
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A beneficiary of a trust can have either a vested or a contingent interest in the trust’s assets. For example, if a trustee holds an asset in trust for another person, with no further conditions attached, the beneficiary’s interest in that asset will be vested. However, if the trustee holds the same asset in trust for a beneficiary, subject to the condition that the beneficiary attain the age of 30, that beneficiary’s interest depends on them reaching the age of 30, and is therefore contingent. Whether a beneficiary’s interest is vested or contingent can have different consequences depending on the particular circumstances.
In Spencer v Riesberry, 2011 ONSC 3222 (affirmed in Spencer v Riesberry, 2012 ONCA 418), the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered the nature of a beneficiary’s interest in a trust. Specifically, in the context of matrimonial litigation, the court considered whether a spouse’s beneficial interest in real property held by a trust could be considered as “property in which a person has an interest” for the purpose of s. 18(1) of the Family Law Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F.3, such that the property in question could be considered the matrimonial home. If a property is considered to be a matrimonial home, pursuant to s. 4 of the Family Law Act, it cannot be deducted or excluded from the calculation of net family property and can contribute to increasing the owner spouse’s net family property.
In this case, a married couple, Sandra and Derek, had been residing, with their children, in their family home on Riverside Drive. In 1993, Sandra’s mother, Linda, had purchased the Riverside Drive property and settled it in a trust (the “Trust”). Sandra and Derek resided in the residence prior to their marriage in 1994, as well as during the marriage. The couple separated in 2010.
The beneficiaries of the Trust were Sandra, Linda, and Linda’s three other children. Three other properties were added, by gift, to the Trust over subsequent years, and each of these other properties were occupied by one of the other three children and their families.
The terms of the Trust provided that the trustee was to hold the trust property, subject to a life interest in favour of Linda. Upon Linda’s death, the trustee was to divide the trust property into equal parts so that there is one part for each beneficiary living at the date of Linda’s death.
The court considered the nature of Sandra’s interest in the Riverside Drive property in the context of her net family property and whether it could be characterized as a matrimonial home. Due to the terms of the Trust, the court held that Sandra did not have a specific interest in the Riverside Drive property. Although she was a beneficiary of the Trust, which owned the Riverside Drive property, it does not follow that Sandra was specifically entitled to that property in particular. Sandra’s interest in the Trust was characterized as a contingent beneficial interest, as her ultimate entitlement under the Trust depended on various factors. For instance, as the division of Trust property amongst beneficiaries would happen only upon Linda’s death, the assets to be distributed would consist of whatever is held by the Trust at that time. Additionally, the beneficiaries must be alive at the time of Linda’s death in order to receive their share.
On this basis, the Court concluded that Sandra did not have a specific interest in the Riverside Drive property such that it could be considered a matrimonial home. As Sandra was a contingent beneficiary of the Trust, the Court did find that she held an interest in the Trust’s assets generally, which was required to be valued and included as part of the equalization calculations. However, as the interest is not subject to the special treatment given to the matrimonial home, it can be deducted or excluded from net family property, as applicable. Overall, as Sandra’s interest in the Trust’s assets was contingent and not vested, it had a significant effect on the matrimonial proceedings with her spouse.
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In the spirit of the holidays, today I thought I would write about a recent decision related to gifting. In Grosseth Estate v Grosseth, 2017 BCSC 2055, the British Columbia Supreme Court considered whether the presumptions of resulting trust and undue influence were applicable to various inter vivos gifts made by a deceased uncle to one of his nephews. Ultimately, the court concluded that both presumptions were rebutted, and the gifts were valid.
In Grosseth Estate, the deceased, Mort, left a Will providing that the residue of his estate was to be distributed equally amongst his 11 nieces and nephews. However, most of his estate had been gifted to one particular nephew, Brian, and his wife, Helen, prior to Mort’s death. This left only about $60,000.00 to be distributed in accordance with Mort’s Will. One of Mort’s other nephews, Myles, who was the executor of Mort’s estate, brought a claim against Brian and Helen following Mort’s death, seeking to have the money that had been gifted to them by Mort, returned to the estate.
About 10 years prior to Mort’s death, he moved from Alberta, where he had lived most of his life, to British Columbia, where he moved into Brian and Helen’s basement suite. Mort became a full participant in the family; he was included on family outings, attended family dinners every night, and became like a grandfather to Brian and Helen’s children.
For the first couple of years after Mort moved in, he gave Brian and Helen money each month, on an informal basis, as contribution to household costs. Around 2 years after Mort had been living with them, Brian and Helen had decided to purchase a commercial property for Helen’s chiropractic practice. Mort insisted on gifting $100,000.00 towards the purchase price, making it clear that he did not want anything in return. Following this payment, Mort did not make further contributions to the monthly household expenses. The court concluded that there was a tacit agreement amongst Mort, Brian, and Helen that Mort’s generous gift had cancelled any notion that further payments would be required. Several years later, Mort also gifted $57,000.00 to Brian and Helen to pay off the balance of their mortgage.
The court found that the nature of the relationship between Mort, Brian, and Helen gave rise to the presumption of resulting trust as well as the presumption of undue influence. However, both of these presumptions are rebuttable.
The court acknowledged that, with respect to undue influence, Mort did depend on Brian and Helen, but based on the evidence of a number of individuals, concluded that he remained independent and capable throughout. Accordingly, the presumption of undue influence was rebutted.
The presumption of resulting trust was also rebutted as the court was satisfied that Mort intended the transfers to be gifts motivated by “a natural and understandable gratitude to Brian and Helen for the happiness and comfort of his final years.”
It is not uncommon for this type of situation to come up. Where a deceased lived with one niece or nephew (or sibling), or where the niece/nephew/sibling is the primary caregiver prior to the deceased’s death, any gifting that was done in the context of this relationship may be vulnerable to challenge on the basis of resulting trust or undue influence. Unfortunately, in some instances, the relationship dynamics involved in these kinds of arrangements can result in suspect gifts or transfers. Transfers made without clear evidence of an intention to gift can also raise questions. In this case, the court did not find that there was any improper behaviour on the part of the giftees, did find evidence of an intention to gift, and the transfers were ultimately upheld.
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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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Submissions from the Joint Committee on Taxation Regarding Proposed Changes to Voluntary Disclosure Program
Last month, I blogged about some changes proposed by the CRA to the Voluntary Disclosure Program. It was noted that the CRA would be accepting comments with respect to the proposed changes until August 8, 2017.
The Joint Committee on Taxation of The Canadian Bar Association and Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (the “Joint Committee”) made submissions in this regard in a letter to the Minister of National Revenue dated August 8, 2017.
In their letter, the Joint Committee recommends that the Minister reconsider a number of points, including, among other things, the introduction of a multi-tier system including the “general program” and the “limited program”. The Joint Committee states that part of the success of the Voluntary Disclosure Program is due to the fact that taxpayers applying to the Program are able, to a certain extent, to predict the consequences of initiating a voluntary disclosure. This allows non-compliant taxpayers to assess the benefits of the Program as opposed to the ongoing uncertainty of non-compliance and the risk of assessment and/or prosecution. The Joint Committee submits that the proposed changes may lead to uncertainty, and therefore, may encourage non-compliance, which would be inconsistent with the objectives of the Voluntary Disclosure Program and with encouraging non-compliant taxpayers to become compliant.
The submissions from the Joint Committee also comment that the draft Information Circular setting out the proposed changes apparently provides that the No-Name method of disclosure, wherein certain information may be provided to a Voluntary Disclosure Program officer without identifying the taxpayer, in order to obtain a better understanding of how the taxpayer’s disclosure may be addressed, will no longer be available for disclosures commencing after December 31, 2017. In the Joint Committee’s experience, non-compliant taxpayers are more likely to proceed with a voluntary disclosure if the process is perceived as transparent and predictable. If they are correct and the Minister of Revenue proposes to eliminate the No-Name disclosure method, the Joint Committee urges the Minister of Revenue to reconsider this proposed change.
The letter from the Joint Committee makes a number of other submissions that are beyond the scope of this blog, but can be read in full here.
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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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We have previously blogged about the CRA’s Voluntary Disclosure Program and how it can, for instance, be useful for estate trustees should they encounter a situation where the deceased whose estate they are administering failed to meet their tax obligations. Essentially, the program gives a taxpayer a second chance to come forward voluntarily and change a tax return that was previously filed, or to file a return that should have been filed, and to request relief from prosecution or penalties as a result of any erroneous or incomplete filings.
However, as discussed in a recent article in the Financial Post, the CRA has proposed some changes to the Voluntary Disclosure Program. The draft “Information Circular – IC00-1R6-Voluntary Disclosures Program” prepared by the CRA for discussion purposes can be found here. The key proposed changes would narrow the eligibility for the Voluntary Disclosure Program, and impose additional conditions on taxpayers who are applying. The proposed changes also include less generous relief in certain circumstances, such as cases of major non-compliance.
As discussed in a PwC Tax Insights publication, another proposed change creates two tracks into which the CRA can assign a taxpayer upon application to the Voluntary Disclosure Program—either the “general program” or the “limited program”. The general program is intended for inadvertent and minor non-compliance, while the limited program is intended for major non-compliance. The general program involves mostly minor changes, including a limitation on interest relief. Major non-compliance, which will fall into the limited program, includes, for example, active efforts to avoid detection, multiple years of non-compliance, a sophisticated taxpayer, or disclosure being made after an official CRA statement regarding its intended focus of compliance or following CRA correspondence or campaigns. If an application is assigned to the limited program, the relief available to the taxpayer will no longer include interest relief or relief from penalties other than gross negligence penalties. The determination of which track an application will be assigned to will be made on a case-by-case basis.
Previously, there were four conditions that had to be met in order to be considered as a valid disclosure. The proposal would add a fifth condition, requiring payment of the estimated tax owing along with the application. The changes described above are only a few of the proposed changes, and all such changes can be found in the Information Circular.
The CRA will be accepting comments with respect to the changes proposed in the draft Information Circular – IC00-1R6 – Voluntary Disclosures Program until August 8, 2017. Any changes to the program would come into effect as of January 1, 2018.
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