Tag: estate planning
An important consideration in the classic Banks v Goodfellow test for testamentary capacity, is that “no disorder of the mind shall poison [the testator’s] affections, pervert his sense of right, or prevent the exercise of his natural faculties” and that “no insane delusion shall influence [the testator’s] will and disposing of his property and bring about a disposal of it which, if the mind had been sound, would not have been made.” This essentially means that the testator must understand the nature of the document and its implications and must have a sound mind at the time he or she executes the document.
Yet how is testamentary capacity determined when a testator has a history of mental illness? Is the Banks v Goodfellow test still applied? The recent case of Leonard v. Zychowicz, 2020 ONSC 662 provides some guidance regarding this.
The testator, Helene, died in April 2011, at the age of 86.
Helene had had a long history of bipolar disorder and depression and experienced several episodes of mania. She was hospitalized at various points in her life.
Throughout her lifetime, Helene executed five wills: one in December of 1976, one in December of 1984, one in September of 1989, one in October of 2002 (the “2002 Will”) and a final will in October of 2007 (the “2007 Will”).
The 2007 Will appointed Helene’s niece as the sole beneficiary and estate trustee.
The moving party, Cheryl, alleged that the 2007 Will should be set aside due to a lack of testamentary capacity and suspicious circumstances. Cheryl submitted that the 2002 Will, in which she was the sole beneficiary, should govern.
Cheryl pointed to Helene’s prior and subsequent hospitalizations and the acknowledged bipolar disorder Helene suffered from as evidence of incapacity.
After considering the test laid out in Banks v Goodfellow, Justice Sweeny concluded that Helene knew and approved of the contents of the 2007 Will and had the necessary capacity.
There were no medical records at the time the 2007 Will was made that suggested any concerns with capacity. Moreover, neither Helene’s family members nor her drafting solicitor, Mr. Sweetlove, raised concerns about Helene’s capacity around the time the 2007 Will was drafted.
Justice Sweeny further concluded that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the 2007 Will as the drafting solicitor, Mr. Sweetlove, received instructions from Helene and she advised him of the contents of her estate. Although Helene did not address a small RIF, Justice Sweeny did not think that this raised an issue.
Additionally, the 2007 Will was properly executed as Helene came to Mr. Sweetlove’s office alone and executed the Will in the presence of Mr. Sweetlove and his assistant.
Justice Sweeney found Helene had the necessary capacity based on the following reasons:
- Sweetlove had no concerns about Helene’s capacity at the time he took instructions or when the Will was executed;
- It was approximately 2½ years after the execution of the 2007 Will that Helene was hospitalized due to a physical injury. Even at this time, Helene’s half-siblings were not concerned about her mental capacity nor were they concerned about her ability to care for herself;
- After her period of hospitalization, Helene continued to live in her home;
- Given Helene’s history with respect to wills, the change of beneficiary was not radical. Helene gave Mr. Sweetlow a reason for why she wanted to change her beneficiary and she understood her potential beneficiaries; and
- Helene understood the nature of her assets.
The 2007 Will was therefore found to be valid.
Leonard v. Zychowicz illustrates that, while a history of mental illness may raise concerns about testamentary capacity, it is not always indicative of such. One of the most important considerations in determining testamentary capacity is the testator’s mind at the time the document is executed.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
A recent decision out of Alberta on holograph wills is interesting. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision released on February 20, 2020 in Edmonton in the Estate of Dalla Lana, 2020 ABQB 135 starts with the following :
“Mr. Dalla Lana made a will in 1997. On March 1, 2018 (four days before he died) and via notes made on two sticky notes, he made what he described as “changes to my earlier will”. The “changes” if valid, effectively rewrote the entire will.”
The decision then goes on to find that the “two sticky notes” were a valid will. This was one more decision in a long line of cases (in substantial compliance jurisdictions, unlike Ontario) with wills being upheld when written on everything from napkins to tractor fenders.
If a valid will can be done on a sticky note, one should ask is there any reason now why an electronic will could not be done on an iPad or smartphone?
Pandemic emergency Orders in Ontario have recently accepted wills being signed and witnessed by video conference or by counterpart. However, there is still a requirement for a “hard copy” of the will. A purely electronic will with a digital signature is still not permissible.
Some jurisdictions have already allowed electronic wills into probate. In Australia, the High Court of Queensland gave probate to a will in 2013 contained in the iPad of the deceased, in Yu Estate 2013 QSC 322.
Although digital electronic signatures have been allowed in Ontario for use in some business situations for many years, there are some restrictions on doing electronic will signatures which are found in the Electronic Commerce Act, 2000, SO 2000, c 17,
31 (1) This Act does not apply to the following documents:
- Wills and codicils.
- Trusts created by wills or codicils.
- Powers of attorney, to the extent that they are in respect of an individual’s financial affairs or personal care.
Given the emergency statutory provisions triggered by the pandemic, it seems inevitable that a meaningful debate will soon ensue about the merits of electronic wills and the broader question of whether Ontario should adopt substantial compliance in its estates legislation.
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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.
Thanks for reading,
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Does a testator have to sign his or her own Will to be valid? A little used provision of the Succession Law Reform Act permits a Will to be signed by some other person (an “amanuensis”) in testator’s presence and by the testator’s direction.
Our managing partner, Suzana Popovic-Montag, wrote several on this very topic.
With the logistical issues associated with execution of wills by video-conference, it may be that this manner of execution may become more widely used.
If this is to be done using presence by video conference, we have come up with some suggestions in our Hull e-State Planner Blog. (click here)
Note that the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 does not specifically permit execution by an amanuensis for Powers of Attorney.
We continue in unchartered waters and we welcome any suggestions or comments.
We have blogged over these past couple of weeks about the novel issues which have arisen with the drafting and execution of Wills during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we remain hopeful that there will be guidance and/or legislative changes from the government soon regarding how to address issues such as the witnessing of Wills for individuals who are in quarantine or self-isolation, a recent article from Dale Barrett in Lawyers Daily notes that it may not all be doom and gloom surrounding estate planning during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the recent significant drop in the stock market could make it an ideal time for certain individuals to complete an “estate freeze”.
An estate freeze at its most basic accomplishes exactly what the name implies, insofar as it “freezes” the value of an individual’s assets at a particular date and time prior to their death, with any “future growth” on the assets being attributed to someone else (often the individual’s children). The use of an estate freeze is often done as a tax planning tool, with the underlying rationale being an attempt to reduce the potential taxes associated with the deemed disposition of their assets upon their death, which is accomplished by “freezing” the value of the assets at their current value such that the growth is not as great as it otherwise may have been (assuming the asset would continue to grow in the future). Although the structure that is required to accomplish this is somewhat complicated and will require the involvement of professionals, in a very basic overview it is typically accomplished by having the individual create a new company that will ultimately hold the assets being “frozen”, with two classes of shares being created the first which is retained by the individual implementing the freeze and fixed at the value of the assets on the day the of the freeze, with the second class of shares being attributed any “gain” in value of the assets after the freeze attributed to someone or something else other than the individual carrying out the freeze (often ultimately benefiting their children). The implementation and steps required is more complicated and nuanced than the description above suggests, and will almost certainty require the involvement of professionals to ensure that the individual does not go offside complex tax rules, but you get the basic idea.
Although the availability and potential use of an estate freeze is not for everyone, the recent drop in the stock market associated with COVID-19 could create a potential advantage and incentive for people considering an estate freeze to do so now as they could potentially “freeze” the value of their assets at a lower value than they otherwise may have been able to. If you are considering an estate freeze you may wish to speak with a professional now about whether it may be an opportune time to do so and to ensure that it is properly implemented.
Thank you for reading and stay safe and healthy.
There are numerous resources available to estates and trusts lawyers to help them navigate their practice during these COVID-19 times. As there does not yet seem to be one amalgamated repository, I thought I would use today’s blog to highlight some sites that I tend to be frequenting:
The Law Society of Ontario
The LSO has created an easy to read list of FAQs. Certain questions that I have found particularly helpful include: the requirements regarding commissioning an affidavit, including affidavits of service; the use of virtual means to identify or verify the identity of a client; whether virtual means can be used to assess a client’s capacity; and, what are the best practices for using video conferencing in providing legal advice or services.
LawPRO is continuing to update avoidaclaim.com. Given that new claims reports continue to come in at pre-crisis numbers, lawyers must remind themselves that although the physical location of their practice may have changed, the level of service provided must not.
Hull & Hull LLP
If you are reading this blog, you are probably already aware of the comprehensive resources being provided by Hull & Hull LLP, which can be found here. If not, we are covering everything from estate planning to estate litigation, including the execution of wills and how to have litigious matters heard by presiding judges.
Ontario Bar Association
The OBA has set up a COVID-19 Action Centre. While helpful information continues to be provided, I find myself continually looking forward to their ‘mindful moments’ which arrive daily in my inbox.
Stay safe and wash your hands,
If you consider this topic interesting, please consider these other related sites:
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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Most of us are used to meeting our clients in person. With that option on hold for now, we are having to adopt new practices, like “virtual” meetings. How can we make virtual meetings work for estate planning where communication is so important?
Like many of you, we are turning to technology.
Remote meeting software, like Skype and Zoom, allow us to communicate, see and hear our clients and vice versa. And yet, there can still be a disconnect in trying to ensure that both parties understand one another.
There is now software that can help with that communication. Hull e-State Planner, which we created, is cloud based software that can be accessed from home and shared with your client via Zoom or Skype. It’s a visual platform so you and your client can literally be on the same page – even in different locations.
The client’s family tree and list of assets are displayed on the screen.
You can drag and drop assets, creating legacies and bequests, while the client watches their plan being developed.
While discussing their instructions, you can show the client the different implications of their decisions.
At the meeting, you can give the client a graphic summary of their Will.
Once the meeting is over, you can automatically generate the Will and Powers of Attorney in Word format.
We have found that virtual meeting software, when coupled with Hull e-State Planner, can help make those estate planning meetings much more efficient and effective.
As well, we also understand there has been a financial impact to your practice during this time. In what we hope may help a little, we have decided to waive all Hull e-State Planner fees, for the foreseeable future until things settle down.
We’d be happy to have you join us for a Free Webinar where we will show you how we are using virtual meeting software and Hull e-State Planner together and our thoughts on getting Wills signed up.
The Webinars are:
Click on the date to sign up for the Webinar.
Wishing you and your loved ones good health,
In our blog on March 18th, we gave some ideas for getting formal wills executed when the lawyer couldn’t be present to witness. In today’s blog, we have a few more options for our clients to consider if getting a Will executed immediately is necessary.
As we all know, holograph Wills are valid in Ontario. To qualify as a valid holograph Will, the document must be in the handwriting of the Will-maker and signed. The Succession Law Reform Act speaks to being “wholly” in the Will-maker’s handwriting. However, case-law supports the validity of a handwritten portion of a document, even if the entire document is not in the Will-maker’s handwriting. To the extent any part of the document is not in the Will-maker’s handwriting, that part will be excluded from the otherwise valid holograph document.
We have several clients who are in isolation making it impossible to have two witnesses execute our drafted Will. For a simple but, emergency situation, we are recommending that a holograph Will be done. We have a few key provisions to be included as a bare minimum:
- Identifying the document as a Will;
- Revoking prior Will;
- Appointing an executor;
- Simple dispositive provisions;
- Executor’s power to sell; and
The key instructions are:
- The entire document must be handwritten by the Will-maker; and
- The Will-maker must sign the document at the end.
Proof of handwriting will be necessary if the holograph Will must be probated. One option that may come in handy is to have the Will-maker video the writing and signing of the document.
We also strongly recommend that the client come in to sign a formal Will as soon as possible.
Click on the link to see a sample Client Holograph Will Instruction sheet for use in these kinds of situations.
In Monday’s blog, we’ll discuss the novel idea that our colleague, Mary Stokes raised. Can a client use a simple holograph Will to incorporate the terms of a comprehensive formal Will which can’t be properly signed because of a lack of witnesses?
Hope you are all safe and healthy,
Like many of you, we are struggling to figure out ways to get our clients’ Wills executed during this period of social distancing.
Ontario has very strict rules on how a Will has to be executed in order for it to be valid. Unlike many other Provinces, Ontario does not have “substantial compliance” legislation that allows a Court to validate a Will that has not been duly executed.
These rules cannot be changed except by legislative action. The Succession Law Reform Act would have to be amended. The Law Society of Ontario is not able to give permission to override these requirements.
The key requirements are that:
- The Will-maker must sign or acknowledge his/her signature in the presence of two witness; and
- Both witnesses must sign in the presence of the Will-maker and each other.
The “presence of” requirement is generally regarded as having to be in the same room and be able to see one another signing the Will.
We have almost always resisted sending the Will out to be executed by the client without our presence for fear that it would not be executed properly. However, under the current circumstances, we are adopting a process for our clients who need to have their Wills signed.
Protocol for Remote Execution
Firstly, we explain to the client the strict rules for signing the Will and that the Will won’t be valid unless these rules are followed exactly.
We also remind them of who cannot be a witness:
- A Beneficiary (even a contingent beneficiary);
- The married spouse of a Beneficiary; or
- A person under age 18.
A person who is named as an executor, but not a beneficiary, can be a proper witness.
We’ve created this Client Will Signing Checklist document that we send to the client and ask them to complete during the Will signing and send back to us. Here is a link to the document.
Some firms are asking their clients to video the Will execution process in such a way that all three parties, the Will-maker and the two witnesses are visible. The client can send a copy of the video for the lawyer’s files. Of course, this is not required, but may put you more at ease when you see that they did it correctly.
The Affidavit of Execution can be prepared and sworn after the signing.
Once we are able to interact in person, we are recommending that our clients come in to re-sign their Wills at our office, just to be on the safe side.
Thank you for reading.