Tag: Estate Litigation
Estate litigation involves risk and reward, heartbreak and vindication. Costs and other consequences often flow from the strength of litigants’ positions. Delay, however, is shared equally. In a protracted legal battle, the symptoms of delay – stress, distraction, gloomy foreboding – linger around like a shadow or a bad cold. Wary of these tribulations, the courts are increasingly focused upon smoothing and straightening, and thereby shortening, the road to decisions.
In today’s blog we explore how this shift has affected the granting of adjournments in estate litigation.
Judicial economy is not always served by the refusal of an adjournment. For example, if two proceedings are interrelated, the preliminary matter should be heard first. If an appeal is scheduled before an associated lower court motion, the appeal should be adjourned until the other has been settled, lest the courts “waste limited judicial resources and increase expense for all of the parties” (Mancinelli v. Royal Bank of Canada,  O.N.S.C. 1526 at para. 5).
Reasons for granting adjournments include the ill health of a party, the emergence of new issues, and “to permit the appellants to file fresh evidence” (Morin v. Canada,  F.C.T. 1420 at para. 11). Courts are also more inclined to adjourn when the other party is not prejudiced by such a request. If there is an urgent need for resolution of the dispute – in the estates context, for instance, when an estate has been tied up for years, to the detriment of the beneficiaries – an adjournment could be denied. Other factors which may lead to the denial of a request for an adjournment consist of “a lack of compliance with prior court orders, previous adjournments … the desirability of having the matter decided and a finding that the applicant is seeking to manipulate the system by orchestrating delay” (The Law Society of Upper Canada v. Igbinosun,  O.N.C.A. 484 at para. 37).
Long waits and swollen court bookings have influenced today’s judicial decision-making. Judges are more inclined, progressively, to punish vexatious litigants, encourage parties to settle, and employ other strategies that are conducive to easing the strain on the courts. Much as the courts have emphasized the need to expedite decisions, however, the adjournment is still a mainstay in the judicial tool belt:
Perhaps to the chagrin of those opposing adjournments and indulgences, courts should tend to be generous rather than overly strict in granting indulgences, particularly where the request would promote a decision on the merits. (Ariston Realty Corp. v. Elcarim Inc.,  CanLII 13360 (O.N.S.C.) at para. 38).
In other words, fast adjudication should not compromise fair adjudication.
Enjoy the rest of your day, and thanks for reading.
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry
Competing applications about the ownership of a home were before the Court in Marley v. Salga, 2019 ONSC 3527. On the death, the home was jointly owned between the deceased (Salga) and his wife (Marley). Notwithstanding the registered, legal ownership of the property, Salga’s Will gave Marley a lifetime right to occupy and use Salga’s one-half interest in the property and thereafter directed that the house be sold for the benefit of the residuary beneficiaries.
This led the residuary beneficiaries to commence an Application for a declaration that the Estate is entitled to an undivided one-half interest in the home and for an order requiring the Estate Trustee (Klassen) to sell the home right away (the “Salga Application“). Thereafter, Marley commenced her own Application for a declaration that she was the sole legal and beneficial owner of the property, or, alternatively, that her interest in the property is greater than 50% (the “Marley Application“).
Ultimately, Justice Reid found that ownership of the property was severed by the deceased in the course of his dealings but denied the Salga Applicants’ request that the property be sold before the termination of Marley’s interest under the Will. The Marley Application was also denied. Our blog on this decision can be found here.
The parties were unable to agree to the issue of costs. Justice Reid, 2019 ONSC 6050, followed the traditional approach to costs in estate matters and the costs of both applications, on a partial indemnity scale, were ordered from the Estate. In reaching this conclusion, Justice Reid considered and found the following:
- The Marley Application was in essence a response to the Salga Application and the costs of both proceedings were treated as one;
- Both parties were found to be partially successful: the Salga Applicants were successful in obtaining a declaration that 50% of the home belongs to the Estate and the Marley Applicant was successful in preventing an immediate sale of the home;
- Consideration was given to the fact that an award of costs from the Estate meant that the Salga Applicants (as the residuary beneficiaries) would be effectively bearing their own costs as well as Marley’s costs. However, that was not enough to outweigh the deceased’s responsibility to act unambiguously by severing his interest on title during his lifetime.
- Costs against the Estate in this case “places the responsibility for the litigation squarely on [the deceased] where it belongs“.
This costs decision is also an informative read for the costs of an estate trustee as a respondent in both proceedings and how costs should be paid from an estate where there is no liquidity.
Thanks for reading!
For those who are about to enter, or are in the very midst of, a long and arduous legal dispute, beware the ineffaceable nature of social media activity. The sands of time might erode Rome and the Pyramids, but they will bounce off the public record of your impassioned posts and hyperbolic tweets. Keeping in mind that such evidence lasts forever, and is also readily accessible, devoid of context, and cheap to procure, litigants may be wise to keep their online communication to a minimum – lest they spoon-feed their opponents material that could later prove hamstringing and self-defeating.
In recent years there have been stories about criminals sharing their crimes with the world via Facebook Live. In family law, we have seen a support claimant attain more support by citing a payor’s lavish life on Instagram, and a father’s custody compromised by his errant Youtube video. In estates law, where there is often mystery and ambiguity involved with testamentary intention, and much of the evidence is “he-said-she-said” – in other words, uncorroborated parole evidence tainted by self-interest – parties scramble for whatever concrete material they can find, such as a screenshot of a social media tirade.
In one recent Ontario decision (Lyons v. Todd,  O.N.S.C. 2269), a man not only dragged out litigation against his sister, who was the estate trustee, but engaged in a campaign of harassment, menaces, and defamation – all of which the court was able to scrutinize with ease:
“The transcription of voice messages, copies of emails and other social media posts, establish that Bob threatened to make what he described as Victoria’s ‘perverted’ sex life public. He threatened to expose her to the clients of the Park and bankrupt her with the costs of litigation if she did not settle. With some of the Facebook posts, he posted the location of the Park.”
The court did not accept the man’s argument that the posts were unrelated to the proceedings, finding instead that the “gratuitous humiliation and embarrassment” the estate trustee suffered was a further reason for which she should receive the $60,000 in costs that she requested.
In Nova Scotia (Public Safety) v. Lee,  N.S.S.C. 71, a man came under the fire of CyberSCAN and the Director of Public Safety, which are government bodies mandated with the policing, punishment and prevention of cyberbullying. The man was purportedly vexed with his sister, who was the sole beneficiary of the mother’s will. The rambling posts were addressed to “anybody out there in Facebook land” and the “cowards in my family”, but in fact the speech was tantamount to a naked admission before a stern court.
The frustrated litigant or potential litigant who needs to vent would be safer, and likely more satisfied, by confiding his or her troubles to a friend in a private setting rather than airing from a veritable rooftop grievances which will echo for the end of time.
Thank you for reading,
Ian Hull and Devin McMurtry
In contentious litigation, it is quite rare for a court to award complete indemnity costs to one of the parties. The decision to award costs, and the amount of such costs, is within the court’s discretion. There are a number of factors for the court to consider in exercising its discretion, as set out in Rule 57.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, including factors relating to the conduct of a party.
Where a party has made an offer to settle pursuant to Rule 49 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, there are certain costs consequences if that party is successful, including the scale of costs to which they are entitled. Rule 49 specifically sets out when a party is entitled to partial or substantial indemnity costs. But in what circumstances will the Court increase the scale of costs to complete indemnity?
The recent decision of Churchill v Churchill, 2019 ONSC 5137 considered this issue. There had been a dispute between children over their mother’s estate. The plaintiffs were virtually entirely successful at trial as against the respondent, their brother, and had made several offers to settle that were more favourable to the brother than the results at trial. The court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to substantial indemnity costs from the date of the offers made, but raised the additional question of whether the scale of costs should be increased to complete indemnity, in view of the brother’s conduct throughout the proceedings. Citing the Ontario Court of Appeal, the court stated that, in order to increase the scale “the conduct of the losing party would have to be based on their serious misbehaviour so, as to fall within the category of ‘reprehensible’ behaviour”.
The court considered the brother’s behaviour, including his misappropriation of estate assets, failure to comply with court orders, and perseverance with meritless claims despite a number of court hearing with rulings adverse to the brother and two adverse costs awards. Although the brother was self-represented, that did not justify his conduct.
The plaintiffs’ complete indemnity costs were approximately $77,000.00. Ultimately, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to more than substantial indemnity costs, and awarded them costs in the amount of $75,000.00.
Thanks for reading,
You may also be interested in these other blog posts:
A few months ago, I blogged about a New Yorker article that discussed the challenges of living well now that people are living longer than ever, and what is being done about it. One of the topics addressed was the difficulty of marketing certain products that are aimed at older adults, mainly because we do not want to buy something that will remind us that we are aging or old.
A recent article in MIT Technology Review asked an interesting, and related, question: Why are products for older people so ugly?
One quote in particular, I think, sums up the issue quite well:
Presented with products that are ‘brown, beige, and boring,’ many older people will forgo convenience for dignity.
Unfortunately, most individuals and companies who design products for older people seem to make assumptions about what older people are looking for in a product. For instance, they may assume that an older person cares more about functionality than aesthetics. In many cases this is not necessarily true, and the older person in question will likely end up feeling that the product ultimately draws unwanted attention to their age and particular needs.
The article discusses the idea that older people should be more directly involved in conversations about how to design the products that they need, or that are aimed at them. This would, of course, be helpful to those designing and using the products, but would also allow older people who may feel that they are no longer seen as contributing to society, do something that they may find useful and fulfilling.
The “Longevity Explorers” consulting group was created around this concept. It started with a group of older people meeting to discuss aging in order to pinpoint the areas that product developers should focus on. Participants can suggest topics they want to cover, and there is also a moderator who will introduce a main discussion topic. In 2017, a separate branch of the group was introduced to serve as paid focus groups for companies. Each “Explorer” receives a fee for participating in the focus group, and in exchange, the company gets feedback from their targeted customers (namely, seniors) about a product that they are designing.
This seems like a much-needed shift in how we think about products for older people. If we can focus on creating products that not only address the needs of older people, but are designed in a way that will make seniors want to use the product, both the companies selling the products, and importantly, the older people using them, will benefit.
Thanks for reading,
You may also enjoy these other blog posts:
Financial elder abuse can take many forms. We have previously blogged about elder abuse by family members, as well as the role technology plays in the increase in phone and email scams affected seniors.
This Global News article tells the story of an elderly couple who claim they were pressured into selling their house.
The couple had lived in their home in Woodbridge, Ontario, for over 20 years, and had no plans to move or sell their home. Although the house was not for sale, in February 2012, a real estate agent showed up at the couple’s door with an offer to purchase the home. There is some dispute about the subsequent interactions between the couple and the agent, but ultimately, a contract was signed for the sale of the couple’s home. After seeking advice from a lawyer, the couple refused to close on the sale of the home. The buyer brought a claim against the couple to enforce the contract, and it appears from the article that, as of October 2018, the litigation remained ongoing.
The couple say that, initially they ignored the offer to purchase that had been delivered by the real estate agent. The husband told his daughter that he had asked the agent several times to give him a few days to consult with his children before finalizing any deal. On the other hand, the agent says that negotiations occurred over a three-day period, and the couple had several days to consider the offer and consult with their children.
There is also a question of whether the couple was capable of entering into the sale transaction. The couple’s daughter says that the wife was 84 years old at the time and suffering from early onset dementia, and that the husband was not fluent in English.
The couple’s daughter believes that her parents were pressured into agreeing to sell their home by the agent. The article mentions that a similar situation could come up with any door-to-door salesperson, as elderly people are generally home during the day, and will typically open their door and talk to people. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a simple solution if an older adult is pressured into an agreement. If the other party to the agreement is intent on enforcing it, the senior may need to resort to failing to comply with the terms of the contract, which is likely to lead to litigation. That can be a stressful and time-consuming endeavour—the couple in the article are apparently still involved in litigation years after the contract was entered into.
Incidents like these are an unfortunate reminder that elder abuse continues to be an issue, and that it can take many forms. That being said, with increased attention will come increased awareness, which, I hope, will lead to the prevention or avoidance of similar issues in the future.
Thanks for reading,
Other blog posts that may be of interest:
With the enactment of Rule 75.1 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, those involved in disputes relating to an estate, trust or substitute decision-making matter in Toronto, Ottawa or the County of Essex are referred to mediation unless there is a court order exempting it under Rule 75.1.04.
As lawyers, “mediation” is a term we are familiar with. However it may not be as familiar to clients. Many of them may have never heard of “mediation” before. As such, if you or a client have an upcoming mediation, it is important to prepare early to avoid being caught off guard during the mediation.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution where people can settle their disputes outside of court. It is a voluntary process in which the parties meet with a neutral third-party (referred to as the “mediator”) who provides them with assistance in negotiating a settlement. The mediator does not impose a judgment as the process is led by the parties.
Mediation vs. Litigation
The big “pull factor” to mediation is that it vastly differs from litigation. The major differences include:
- Decision-Making: With mediation, the parties decide the outcome but with litigation, a judge imposes his or her decision upon the parties
- Private vs. Public Process: Mediation is a private and confidential process, whereas litigation is a public process
- Costs: The costs of mediation are typically lower than that of litigation
- Time: The mediation process tends to be faster than litigation
- Adversarial vs. Non-Adversarial: Mediation is viewed as a non-adversarial process, whereas litigation is viewed as an adversarial process
Preparation for Mediation
Preparation for mediation should start well in advance of the mediation date.
Preparing the Client
Start by explaining to the client what mediation is and how the process works. Assure the client that the mediator will be a neutral facilitator and that abusive behaviour by the other party will not be tolerated.
As part of discussing the mediation process with the client, let the client know about the time commitment that mediation entails. The mediation could last the entire day or even multiple days.
Determine the client’s interests and goals for the mediation. Are they looking to settle the case at mediation or are they prepared to go to trial? What types of offers would they be willing to accept?
Preparation for the Lawyer
Know the mediator’s background and approach beforehand. Is the mediator someone who has a background in estates law? Are they a lawyer? Are they a former judge? Knowing the answers to these questions can help the lawyer determine what approach would be the most beneficial to employ during mediation.
Prepare a comprehensive mediation brief and send it to the opposing counsel and mediator well in advance of the hearing date. A comprehensive mediation brief can maximize a lawyer’s presentation at the mediation. It is helpful to include copies of all relevant documents, such as the wills in question, within the brief. Additionally, it might be helpful to include a chronology of events as a schedule to the mediation brief.
If the mediation results in a settlement, ensure that the terms of the settlement are formally documented and that each client has signed the document. In some cases, however, a “cooling-off period” of one or two days from the proposed settlement might be necessary.
At the end of the day, the best approach a lawyer can take in preparing for mediation is to know the mediator, prepare their documents ahead of time and provide the client with as much information about the mediation process as possible. The more prepared the lawyer and the client are, the smoother the mediation will go.
For more information on preparing your client for an estate mediation, visit this link.
Thanks for reading,
Ian Hull & Celine Dookie
Building on this idea of judicial discretion is the recent case of Dobis v Dobis recently heard and decided by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, whereby the court ordered a passing of accounts by a party who was deemed to have misappropriated funds from an estate asset.
Elizabeth commenced an application in her role as the estate trustee of her late husband’s estate. She sought, among other things, certain orders that would allow her to gain and maintain possession and control over one of the estate assets, a four unit rental property. She also sought an order requiring her son, Mark, to pass his accounts in respect of funds she alleged were misappropriated from the rental property.
Mark resided in one of the units of the rental property with his spouse, and alleged that it was his father’s intention that he maintain a life interest in the property. During the lifetime of the deceased, Mark acted as a manager/superintendent of the rental property in exchange for reduced rent. He also collected rent from one of the tenants and deposited the funds into a bank account owned jointly by his parents. Following his father’s death, Mark began diverting rent from the rental property to himself rather than depositing it in the joint account.
Despite requests from Elizabeth, Mark failed to properly account for the rental income. The accounting that was provided to Elizabeth was not supported by vouchers, and contained no detail of the expenses incurred. Elizabeth submitted that Mark had no legal or beneficial interest in the property, that he was holding the property hostage while unlawfully benefiting personally from the funds generated by the property, and that he failed to account for those funds.
In arriving at its decision, the court relied on the 2016 Ontario Superior Court decision in Net Connect Installations Inc. v. Mobile Zone Inc., which held that a court has jurisdiction to order an accounting where a party is deemed to have misappropriated funds.
Ultimately, Mark was compelled to pass his accounts for all monies received by him in connection with his management of the property. All this to say, watch what you do, because you may be held accountable.
Thank you for reading!
Today on Hull on Estates, Noah Weisberg and Nick Esterbauer discuss the role of social media in the context of Estate Litigation.
Should you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our blog.
At what point does a settlement become final? Is it when the parties agree on all of the terms of the settlement and sign a written agreement, such as minutes of settlement? Or at an earlier time?
In the recent decision of Cox v Baker, 2019 ONSC 2859, the court was asked to make a determination as to whether a binding settlement had been reached. The litigation involved an inter vivos trust (the “Trust”) settled by a mother for the benefit of her two daughters and subsequent generations. After the death of Donna (the second to die of the two daughters), the three living beneficiaries were Donna’s sons, Brett and Brent, and her niece, Marnie. Brett was the sole trustee after Donna’s death.
Prior to her death, Donna was living at a house that was owned by the Trust (the “Property”), with her husband, John. About a year after Donna’s death, in March 2018, John brought an application against Brett, as trustee of the Trust, and against all three of the beneficiaries, personally, seeking, among other things, an interest in the Property by way of resulting and/or constructive trust.
In May 2018, John and Brett ran into each other at Donna’s gravesite. They discussed John’s application, John advised Brett that he would call his lawyer and withdraw his application, and the two shook hands. Thereafter, a number of emails were exchanged between counsel for John, and counsel for Brett, Brent, and Marnie. It appeared that the parties had reached an agreement that John would withdraw his application, without costs, provided that all parties sign a mutual release. However, John subsequently took the position that there was never a binding settlement agreement, as the parties had not agreed on the specific terms of the mutual release. Brett, Brent, and Marnie brought an application to enforce the settlement.
Ultimately, the court concluded that a binding settlement had been reached. Some of the key factors were, in the court’s finding, that there had been a mutual intention between the parties to create a legally binding contract, and that all essential/material terms had been agreed upon. The court also noted that the agreement had been reduced to writing by way of the email exchanges between counsel.
The court specifically considered whether the fact that the parties had not yet agreed on the specific wording of the mutual release was necessary to create a binding settlement. After reviewing the case law, the court concluded that, unless there is some indication that the settlement was conditional on the parties also agreeing on the language for a release, it is not required that the parties agree on the specific terms of such a release before there will be said to be a binding settlement agreement.
The court also commented on the importance of the principle of finality, which demands that settlements entered into with the assistance of legal counsel be upheld, as it is a matter of good public policy to encourage settlement. Settlements of this kind should be upheld other than in exceptional cases, which the present case was not.
This decision is an important reminder that, if the parties have reached an agreement on all essential terms, even if the more minor details have not been agreed upon, and the minutes of settlement and/or release have not been finalized and executed, a binding settlement may still exist. Parties should be aware that once a binding settlement has been reached (which could happen prior to signing minutes of settlement), they cannot simply change their minds. It is important to keep this in mind at all stages of a negotiation, and to be alert as to when it could be said that all essential terms have been agreed upon.
Thanks for reading,
Other blog posts that may be of interest: