Tag: Estate Litigation
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, pursuant to the Notice to the Profession, the courts are presently restricted to hearing mainly urgent matters. For civil and commercial matters, this includes “urgent and time-sensitive motions and applications in civil and commercial list matters, where immediate and significant financial repercussions may result if there is no judicial hearing.” There is also a broad ability for the court to hear any other matter that it deems necessary and appropriate to be heard on an urgent basis, but these matters will be strictly limited.
In a recent decision, Weidenfeld v Parikh-Shah, 2020 ONSC 2401, the court considered two urgent motions brought by the plaintiff and the defendants, respectively. The defendants sought to have monies that had been paid into court several years ago, paid out from court. The plaintiff sought, among other things, an order prohibiting the payment out of the monies. The decision did not provide details of the background of the litigation between the parties.
The court stated that the parties’ first step is to establish that their respective motions are, in fact, urgent. The court provided some guidance as to what is needed in this regard:
“The obligation is on the moving party to provide cogent, particular and specific evidence to show the court that the relief requested is urgent. Speculative, supposition or theoretical evidence is not good enough. The present environment and limited use of judicial resources mandate that the urgency must be real and immediate.”
Unfortunately for the parties in this case, the court found that their affidavit evidence did not provide cogent evidence to satisfy the court that the relief sought was urgent. The reason for which the defendants had brought the motion seeking to have money paid out of court was not set out in the decision.
The court did consider the category of urgent matters where “immediate and significant financial repercussions may result”, and specifically mentioned (a) matters that may put a person in financial jeopardy; (b) the funding of a business, business venture or construction project, failing which the financial viability of the project is in jeopardy; and (c) the necessity of a person to have resources to pay expenses or an order for the health and safety of a person; as issues that would meet the test of “immediate and significant financial repercussions”.
In the current circumstances, we are continually adjusting to new ways of doing things. This includes bringing court proceedings. Based on the Weidenfeld v Parikh-Shah decision, it is clear that parties will need to provide clear and sufficient evidence to satisfy the court as to the urgency of the matter in order for the court to hear the proceeding while court operations are restricted.
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As we know, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario has passed emergency legislation allowing for Wills and powers of attorney to be executed and witnessed virtually, and in counterparts. This legislation will remain in effect for the duration of the declared emergency. Although Premier Doug Ford recently announced a plan for reopening Ontario, the timeline for doing so is still vague, and it’s unclear when the emergency will be declared to be at an end. Once the emergency is over, the normal rules for execution of Wills and powers of attorney, as set out in the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26, and the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30, will once again govern how such documents may be validly executed.
Before coronavirus became such a pressing concern, there was some discussion in the United States, of allowing Wills executed electronically to be considered valid testamentary documents. According to this article in The New York Times, entitled “A Will Without Ink and Paper”, at the time the article was published in October 2019, some states already had laws to allow e-signatures on Wills, and others were looking to adopt similar laws this year.
In the US, the Uniform Law Commission has proposed the Uniform Electronic Wills Act, which is intended to serve as a model for states who wish to enact such legislation. The law would allow testators to complete the entire Will-making and execution process online, without a lawyer or notary present. There are already online services, currently serving states that already have laws allowing electronic Wills, which provide a platform for the creation of these digital Wills.
According to The New York Times article, the process of creating an electronic Will involves a testator creating a Will online, and then having a video-conference call with a notary. The notary will review the document, ask questions of the testator, notarize it, and send it back.
Although the concept of electronic Wills seems convenient, the costs may ultimately outweigh the benefits. As one lawyer quoted in the article states, signing a Will “is not like getting toilet paper delivered by Amazon instead of going to a supermarket…This is a solemn thing that people don’t do every day.” The “inconvenience” of consulting a lawyer, having a Will professionally drafted, and executed in the traditional way, will likely be worth the trouble for most testators, particularly when you consider that this is not a task that needs to be done repeatedly, at frequent intervals (like going to the grocery store to buy toilet paper).
The article mentions a number of points as to why electronic Wills may not be such a great idea. Without a lawyer’s involvement, there is a heightened risk for undue influence to go undetected. Testators with significant assets that may be structured in complicated ways, or who have unique family situations, such as a blended family, are not likely to be well-served by the creation (let alone the execution) of a Will online, without estate planning advice from a lawyer.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it is helpful to have alternate methods of executing Wills and powers of attorney in these unprecedented times. But when life goes back to normal, I think we can be comfortable with the return to the “old-fashioned” way of executing Wills and powers of attorney. Although some may consider the process to be cumbersome, the added protection for testators, and the comfort of an estate plan that takes into account each testator’s unique situation, is worth the price.
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Natalia Angelini recently blogged about some helpful tips from LawPRO on how to minimize the risk when virtually witnessing Wills and powers of attorney. On April 24, LawPRO posted another helpful article about the risks of “renting out” your signature as a virtual witness.
The emergency legislation requires that one of the witnesses to a Will that is executed by means of audio-visual communication technology (which now temporarily meets the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 requirement that the testator and witnesses be “in the presence of” each other), be a Law Society licensee. This means that some of us may be asked to be witnesses to a Will or power of attorney that we did not prepare ourselves. However, as LawPRO points out, simply being a witness does not necessarily mean that we will not be held responsible if there are problems with the Will or power of attorney.
Some of the issues that may arise could include the following:
- Problems with the Will or power of attorney not being executed properly, in accordance with the requirements for due execution and the specific requirements of virtual execution pursuant to the temporary legislation.
- The Will or power of attorney not reflecting the testator or grantor’s wishes. This may arise if a testator or grantor prepares their own Will or power of attorney from an online service or kit, resulting in a document that is likely not tailored to the testator or grantor’s particular situation, financial circumstances, and wishes.
- Technical errors in the document, such as the omission of a residue clause, which can drastically impact the distribution of the testator’s assets.
LawPRO has provided some tips for how to protect yourself if you are asked to be a witness to a Will or power of attorney that you did not prepare (although the tips seem equally applicable if you did prepare the document in question):
- Take detailed notes.
- Send a reporting letter following the execution of the document and confirm the scope of your retainer.
- Record the signing (with the client’s permission).
You may also consider having the testator or grantor sign a limited retainer agreement, before you witness the Will or power of attorney, which explicitly sets out that you have been engaged only for the purpose of witnessing the document, and not to review it or provide any legal advice.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe!
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We recently wrote about the Estates Arbitration Litigation Management (“EALM”) initiative, which I have spearheaded in an effort to keep estate litigation matters moving forward during the COVID-19 pandemic. As our readers will know, at this time, access to courts is currently limited and EALM is available as a means of obtaining assistance in the determination of procedural and/or interim (and certain substantive) matters that are not urgent in nature.
Since announcing the EALM initiative, I have heard from many members of the Estates Bar, and many others as well across the province, who look forward to implementing EALM in their own practices. I have now also had an opportunity to consult with the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee and the Office of the Children’s Lawyer to ensure that EALM is structured in a manner such that its use does not in any way restrict their roles in matters where the rights of persons under legal disability may be affected.
A copy of our draft EALM agreement, which is the product of consultations with senior practitioners, is available here.The draft EALM agreement is intended to serve as a template, to be updated by counsel prior to its execution as may be agreed upon by the parties and the proposed arbitrator based on the circumstances of the case, the issues to be submitted to arbitration, and the terms of the engagement of the arbitrator.
A list of senior estates practitioners who are prepared to assist as EALM arbitrators is available here. I thank all of those who have demonstrated an interest in assisting other members of the Estates Bar as arbitrators and would ask that you please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to be added to our list of EALM arbitrators.
We look forward to hearing from our peers regarding their experiences with EALM and how this tool is assisting us all in continuing to advance matters in the best interests of our clients during this period of uncertainty.
Thank you for reading and stay safe.
Mediation, with plenary sessions, small break-out rooms for parties and their counsel, and a mediator shuttling between the rooms seem like a distant, archaic memory. The former format of mediation is the antithesis of social distancing.
(I find it hard to now watch a tv show or movie without thinking to myself, “That’s not very good social distancing.”)
However, the show, litigation and mediations, must go on. Welcome to the age of virtual mediation.
Programs such as Zoom allow for parties to meet and discuss ideas and resolve differences without being physically in the same room. While the virtual alternative is not perfect, it is workable.
With Zoom, there are a few ways for mediations to be accommodated. One option is for the organizer to set up several online meetings: one to be used as a plenary session where everyone has access, and one for each of the parties to the litigation. In the plenary room, all of the parties and their counsel can join. In the parties’ separate room, only the party and their counsel can participate, with the mediator joining and leaving as necessary.
Another option is for the organizer to set up one meeting. The organizer would be able to admit participants into the meeting room, or put them into a virtual “waiting room” while others remain in the meeting room.
Another consideration when organizing a Zoom mediation is to ensure that the organizer has a Pro account or better. While the Basic account is free, it only allows for meetings of 40 minutes or less. The Pro account, at $20 per month per host, allows for meetings of up to 24 hours, which should probably enough for most mediations. (Some mediators are slow mediators: you know who you are.)
Some reporting services are offering virtual mediation assistance. Neesons, for example, can offer extensive technical support for mediations, examinations and arbitrations. They have also hosted a number of presentations on virtual examinations, arbitrations and mediations. Contact them if you want more information.
(Fun fact: Zoom Video was trading at $68.04 on December 31, 2019. On March 23, 2020, it was trading at $159.56. As of the time of writing this (April 2, 2020), share prices had relaxed to $118.10.)
Thank you for reading. Stay healthy. Practice safe litigation.
We have previously blogged about NoticeConnect’s Canada Will Registry. The Will Registry allows lawyers and law firms to register their clients’ estate planning documents. Other lawyers are then able to search the Registry for the Will of someone who has passed away. The Registry alerts the lawyer who registered the Will of the search, and the lawyer can decide whether to disclose the existence and location of the Will.
On Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford released a list of essential businesses, which included lawyers, meaning that law firms may remain open during the shut-down of non-essential businesses in Ontario. That being said, we are still being encouraged to maintain social distancing, and many of us are working from home to try to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Working from home can present a unique set of challenges for solicitors with an estate planning practice, given the volume of original documents that must be stored, organized, updated, and maintained. Records may be kept partially, or entirely by paper records, which are physically located at the office, and inaccessible from home.
The Will Registry can be a helpful tool in organizing estate planning documents electronically, in order to reduce or eliminate issues with accessing records and information when working remotely.
NoticeConnect recently posted this blog setting out how the Will Registry can help professionals work from home. For instance, one of the tools mentioned is the ability to attach electronic copies of documents, such as Wills, to your registered records. This would allow you, and any staff who have access to your digital Will vault, to access and review estate planning documents. This may be helpful in a situation where a client contacts you seeking advice as to whether their Will needs to be updated; you would not be required to go into the office in order to review the client’s Will. There are also organizational tools, which can help with searching, sorting, and updating your records.
In these uncertain and constantly changing times, it is useful to consider any tools that may help us adapt and maintain our practice.
Thanks for reading and stay safe!
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Many of us are familiar with the expression: “Time waits for no one.” We also previously blogged about the impact time has on all parties in litigation: “No one likes to see a limitation period applied to dismiss a claim.” (So says Justice Nakatsuru in the opening line of his decision in Sinclair v. Harris.)
In general, claims must be commenced in a timely fashion. If too much time passes–depending on the circumstances and nature of the claim–parties may be prohibited from commencing a lawsuit, or have their lawsuit dismissed, by what is known as a ‘limitation period’.
With the recent developments of COVID-19, however, the Lieutenant Governor in Council made an Order under s. 7.1 of Ontario’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act suspending limitation periods in Ontario. This suspension is retroactive to March 16, 2020. A copy of the Order can be found here.
What happens when the suspension is lifted? It will be interesting to see if limitation periods go back to existing the day this suspension is lifted, or if further legislation may be needed to deal with this issue. For now, it appears that “time” is waiting for everyone.
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For a will in Ontario to be valid, it must meet the statutory requirements for due execution as outlined in section 4(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”). In some cases, however, determining whether these requirements have been met is not always clear-cut. Bayford v. Boese, 2019 ONSC 5663 provides such an example.
In this case, the testator, Bruce Boese (“Bruce”), died in June of 2015. Bruce was the sole owner of a farm he inherited from his parents. He never married and did not have any children. For the past two decades prior to Bruce’s death, his friend, Brenda Bayford (“Brenda”), assisted him with the operation of the farm.
Throughout his lifetime, Bruce executed two wills: one in 1992 and another in 2013. Under the 1992 will, Bruce named his parents as his sole beneficiaries. However, since both of Bruce’s parents had pre-deceased him, his estate would pass on an intestacy to his siblings, with Brian and Rhonda each inheriting 50%. Under the 2013 will, the farm property was to be transferred to Brenda, with the residue being equally divided amongst four children of Bruce’s two siblings. Interestingly, the 2013 will had the word “DRAFT” stamped on every page. Also, there were two versions of the 2013 will: “Version 1” and “Version 2”. Version 1 contained Bruce’s signature but did not contain the signatures of any witnesses. Version 2 contained Bruce’s signatures and the signature of two witnesses, Sophie Gordon (“Sophie”) and Colleen Desarmia (“Colleen”).
After Bruce’s death, Brenda found Version 1 of the will. She brought it to the office of Bruce’s lawyer as she thought that the fully executed version of the will would be there. It was not. Shortly after, Colleen informed Brenda of the existence of Version 2. Upon hearing this, Brenda did a further search and found Version 2.
Brian asserted that the 2013 will did not comply with section 4(1) of the SLRA. His theory was that upon finding Version 1 of the will, Brenda colluded with the two witnesses to procure the 2013 will. In the alternative, Brian asserted that Bruce’s signature was forged on the 2013 will which the two witnesses signed.
Although Brian called an expert to give evidence with respect to Bruce’s signature on the wills, Justice Corthorn did not find the expert’s evidence to be helpful to Brian, nor did she find that it made the two witnesses less credible.
At trial, there were discrepancies between the evidence of the two witnesses with respect to the specific mechanics of Bruce signing the will and the witnessing of his signature. For example, Colleen testified that she believed that both she and Sophie remained standing while Bruce was seated at the kitchen table when he signed the 2013 Will. Sophie’s evidence was that she believed she was the only person standing and that both Bruce and Colleen were seated. Justice Corthorn noted, however, that “these inconsistencies [were] in keeping with the frailty of human memory, including […] the passage of time” and that they did not give her a reason to be concerned with the credibility of either witness.
Furthermore, based on the witnesses’ respective education and work experience, Justice Corthorn drew an inference that each of them had sufficient experience in completing paperwork to know that a witness to a document signs after the document is signed by the principal signatory.
Taking this into consideration, Justice Corthorn concluded that Bruce’s 2013 will was executed in accordance with s. 4(1) of the SLRA and that it was therefore valid.
While Bayford v Boese provides many noteworthy take-aways, perhaps the main one is the importance of ensuring that a will is properly executed, and that it is stored in a safe and easily accessible place that the testator’s lawyer and estate trustee(s) are aware of. Had this happened, the case could have been avoided altogether.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
The song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, recorded in 1956, became a number 1 hit, and established the career of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The song has been covered by many, including the Beach Boys and, most notably, Diana Ross.
Frankie Lymon died on February 27, 1968 at the age of 25, as a result of a heroin overdose. In his wake, he left a series of relationships. Years after his death, litigation ensued.
After Diana Ross’s cover version of the song reached the charts in 1981, three women, each claiming to be Lymon’s spouse and lawful heir, sought payment of royalties arising from the song.
The first, Elizabeth Waters, married Lymon in 1964. Together, they had a child who died shortly after birth. Waters, however, was not divorced from her first husband at the time of her marriage to Lymon.
The second woman, Zola Taylor, a singer with the Platters, claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico, 1965. However, no documentation of the marriage could be found.
The third, Emira Eagle, married Lymon in June 1967.
The question of who was Lymon’s proper heir went to trial. According to a Washington Post article, at first instance, the court held that first wife Waters was the proper heir. Although Waters was not yet divorced when she married Lymon, their relationship “satisfied the requirements of a common law marriage in the State of Pennsylvania.” Although Waters was not yet divorced when she married Lymon, the marriage became valid when the divorce from her first husband became final.
On appeal, the court held that the marriage between Waters and Lymon was not valid. The marriage to Eagle was valid and therefore she was entitled to the estate.
The story does not end there. Issues arose as to what royalties Lymon’s estate was entitled to. This involved litigation with Lymon’s former manager. In an article in Ebony Magazine, it is reported that Lymon’s estate was worth more than $1m.
In the Ebony interview, Eagle says that she knows why fools fall in love: “Love doesn’t hurt. Love is supposed to be tender, beautiful and caring. Frankie treated me like his queen.” When asked, Eagle said she would do it all again, “but I would insist on a will.”
Frankie’s life and posthumous issues are portrayed in the movie “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, starring Vivica Fox as wife #1, Halle Berry as wife #2, Lela Rochon as wife #3 and Little Richard as himself.
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In a recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision, the Court considered certain extrinsic circumstances surrounding the making of the Will, as well as the reading of the Will as a whole, in reaching a decision regarding its interpretation.
In Love v Wheeler 2019 ONSC 4427, a spouse of a deceased beneficiary sought a declaration that a beneficiary’s estate was entitled under a testator’s Will to an undivided half-interest in property and that the other beneficiary wrongfully appropriated it.
Frances Irene Wheeler died in 2012. She bequeathed a parcel of land to her two sons, Harold William Wheeler and Martin Douglas Wheeler. Her Will stated that this property was to go to Harold and Martin “jointly or the survivor of them”.
The Court grappled with the question of whether Frances meant to leave the property to Harold and Martin as joint tenants or as tenants in common. Certainly, in a joint tenancy, there would be a significant benefit to the survivor of the two brothers, as the other half interest would pass on a right of survivorship, rather than form a part of the deceased brother’s estate.
This is exactly what happened in this case. Martin died in 2015 and in April, 2017, Harold had the title to the property transferred into his own name, on the argument that it was owned by him and Martin, as joint tenants.
Deborah Love, Martin’s common-law spouse of 16 years, commenced an application before the Court, as against Harold. One of the grounds for Deborah’s position was that the extrinsic evidence surrounding the making of the Will, including a prior Will of February, 2009, supports a finding that Frances intended her sons to inherit the property as tenants in common.
The Court’s Decision
In reaching its decision, the Court emphasized its role in giving effect to the testamentary intention of the testator, as expressed in a Will. Justice Chozik gave consideration to the “armchair” rule, which requires a judge to place him or herself in the position of the testator at the time when the last Will was made, and to consider and weigh the circumstances which then existed and which might reasonably be expected to influence the testator in the disposition of her property.
Justice Chozik found that Frances intended to leave the property in question to her sons, as tenants in common. This intention was held to be clear from the Will when it is read as a whole, taking into account some of the extrinsic circumstances surrounding the making of the Will.
This decision certainly emphasizes how important it is that the Will clearly stipulates the terms of each bequest, particularly when it comes to large assets, such as real property.
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