Tag: estate trustee
In Baca v. Tiberi, the court awarded substantial costs as against an attorney for property/estate trustee for maladministration of her mother’s property while she was alive, and of her estate following her death.
The litigation was settled prior to a court determination. However, under the settlement, the parties submitted the question of costs to the court.
In Baca, the court found that there was serious misappropriation by the attorney and estate trustee. The attorney added her name to her mother’s bank accounts and took out money for her own expenses. She caused her mother to incur tens of thousands of dollars of debt for the benefit of the attorney, her husband and sister. She moved into her mother’s home with her family and did not pay rent. She transferred title to the home to herself and her mother jointly. After the mother’s death, she transferred the home to herself and her husband. She mortgaged the home to pay her own debts.
At the costs hearing, the court asked the parties whether the attorney’s lawyer might have personal liability for costs. The attorney waived solicitor-client privilege and the lawyer was subjected to examination and made submissions.
The court awarded costs against the attorney and the lawyer on a “full indemnity” basis, after a reduction of $50,000 for excessive time spent, in the amount of $301,941.41, plus HST and disbursements. (The estate had a total value of approximately $1m.) The attorney and the lawyer were jointly and severally liable for costs. As between themselves, the attorney was to be liable for 75% of the costs, and the lawyer was liable for 25%.
In its ruling, the court was critical of the lawyer’s conduct. The court found that the lawyer pursued a goal that was unattainable. Further, the lawyer misrepresented facts to the court. In pleadings, the lawyer (not the client, per the court) denied assertions that were, to her knowledge, true. Further, the pleadings contained assertions that were known to be false. The lawyer allowed a misleading affidavit to be sworn by her client. The lawyer also failed to ensure that certain funds were held in trust in accordance with a court order. At a later hearing, the lawyer advised the court that the funds were held in trust when they were not.
The court found the lawyer liable, partially, on the basis that she knew of her client’s misconduct yet advised or acted on instructions to take untenable legal positions. She also took legal steps that costed her client and the other side hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet the steps did nothing to avoid “the only inevitable conclusion possible”: that her client would have to make the estate whole. There was no evidence that the client was ever advised of the situation.
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Were you recently appointed as Estate Trustee and needed to obtain a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee (otherwise known as “probate”)? In that case, you need to know that an Estate Information Return must be filed with the Ministry of Finance within 90 days of the date of the appointment, setting out the assets in the Estate and their corresponding date of death values.
Typically when an Application for Certificate of Appointment is filed with the Court, a trustee may not have access to every asset of the Estate such that that the value of the Estate may not necessarily be accurate.
As a result, when an Estate Information Return is filed following the Certificate of Appointment being granted, all of the assets of the Estate must be listed. Depending on the values of the assets as confirmed by the trustee following the Certificate of Appointment being granted, a refund may be issued in the event that Estate Administration Tax was overpaid or additional tax may be payable in the event that the value of the assets as listed on the Application is lower than what was listed on the Estate Information Return.
The Estate Information Return may be audited by the Ministry of Finance for up to four years after it is filed. As such, it is important to retain all relevant records in the event of such an eventuality. Another important consideration is that the Ministry of Finance will not typically provide confirmation of receipt of an Estate Information Return so it is prudent to send it via means that would provide you with confirmation of delivery such as fax.
Finally, if a trustee finds out any additional information regarding the value of the assets of the Estate that has any bearing on the Estate Administration Tax payable, an amended Estate Information Return must be filed within 30 days of the new information being uncovered.
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It is not uncommon for the lawyer who drafted a testator’s will or codicil to subsequently be retained by the Estate Trustees after the testator’s death to assist with the administration of the estate. The rationale behind the drafting lawyer being retained to assist with the administration of the estate appears fairly self-evident, for as the drafting lawyer likely has an intimate knowledge of the testator’s estate plan and assets they may be in a better position than most to assist with the administration of the estate.
While retaining the drafting lawyer to assist with the administration of the estate is fairly uncontroversial in most situations, circumstances could become more complicated if there has been a challenge to the validity of the testamentary document prepared by the drafting lawyer. If a proceeding has been commenced challenging the validity of the testamentary document, there is an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer’s notes and records will be produced as evidence, and that the drafting lawyer will be called as a non-party witness as part of the discovery process. If the matter should proceed all the way to trial, there is also an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer would be called as a witness at trial. As the drafting lawyer would personally have a role to play in any court process challenging the validity of the will, questions emerge regarding whether it would be proper for the drafting lawyer to continue to represent any party in the will challenge, or would doing so place the drafting lawyer in a conflict of interest?
Rule 3.4-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not act or continue to act where there is a conflict of interest. In the case of a drafting lawyer representing a party in a will challenge for a will that they prepared, an argument could be raised that the drafting lawyer is in an inherent position of conflict, as the drafting lawyer may be unable to look out for the best interests of their client while at the same time looking out for their own interests when being called as a witness or producing their file. There is also the potentially awkward situation of the drafting lawyer having to call themselves as a witness, and the associated logistical quagmire of how the lawyer would put questions to themselves.
The issue of whether a drafting lawyer would be in a conflict of interest in representing a party in a will challenge was dealt with in Dale v. Prentice, 2015 ONSC 1611. In such a decision, the party challenging the validity of the will brought a motion to remove the drafting lawyer as the lawyer of record for the propounder of the will, alleging they were in a conflict of interest. The court ultimately agreed that the drafting lawyer was in a conflict of interest, and ordered that the drafting lawyer be removed as the lawyer of record. In coming to such a conclusion, the court states:
“There is a significant likelihood of a real conflict arising. Counsel for the estate is propounding a Will prepared by his office. The preparation and execution of Wills are legal services, reserved to those who are properly licensed to practise law. Counsel’s ability to objectively and independently assess the evidence will necessarily be affected by his interest in having his firm’s legal services found to have been properly provided.” [emphasis added]
Decisions such as Dale v. Prentice suggest that a lawyer may be unable to represent any party in a will challenge for a will that was prepared by their office as they may be in a conflict of interest. Should the circumstance arise where the drafting lawyer is retained to assist with the administration of the estate, and subsequent to being retained someone challenges the validity of the Will, it may be in the best interest of all parties for the drafting lawyer to indicate that they are no longer able to act in the matter due to the potential conflict, and suggest to their clients that they retain a new lawyer to represent them in the will challenge.
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Estate litigation can be costly both financially and emotionally. As a result, there is often a strong incentive for parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Although entering into a settlement which resolves the estate litigation may appear straightforward from the outside, it may become more complicated if all potential financially interested parties are not signatories to the settlement. It is not uncommon in estate litigation for all beneficiaries of the estate to not actively participate in the litigation, leaving it to people such as the Estate Trustee or the other beneficiaries to defend a claim. As a settlement is in effect a contract between parties, if a settlement is reached which affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?
I have previously blogged about section 48(2) of the Trustee Act, and an Estate Trustee’s ability to settle claims on behalf of the estate which can bind the interests of the beneficiaries. While section 48(2) would allow the Estate Trustee to bind the interests of all beneficiaries to the settlement, the Estate Trustee does so at their own potential liability, as it is possible that one or more of the beneficiaries may later challenge the decision of the Estate Trustee to enter into the settlement, potentially seeking damages against the Estate Trustee if they are of the position that the settlement was not reasonable or in the best interest of the estate. As a result of such a risk, it is not uncommon for an Estate Trustee to be hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of the estate in contentious situations, not wanting to potentially expose themselves to personal liability if one or more of the beneficiaries should later object to the terms of the settlement. If an Estate Trustee is hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of all beneficiaries, but all actively participating parties are otherwise in agreement with the settlement, is there a way to bind the interests of non-participating parties to the settlement?
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide the court with the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of parties who are not signatories under certain limited circumstances. This is done in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows the court to approve a settlement on behalf of a party who themselves cannot consent to the settlement on account of being under a legal disability (i.e. a minor). Perhaps importantly however, the court only has the authority under rule 7.08 to “approve” a settlement on behalf of a party under a legal disability, and rule 7.08 is not available in circumstances where the non-signatory is fully capable.
The Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise appear to provide any mechanism by which a settlement can be approved on behalf of a party who is not under a legal disability. As a result, if the non-signatory who you are you attempting to bind to the settlement is not under a legal disability, the court likely does not have the authority to “approve” the settlement on their behalf under the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Although the court likely does not have the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of an individual who is not under a legal disability in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure, this does not necessarily mean that there are no other ways to potentially bind the individual to a settlement. One potential solution may be to seek an Order “in accordance” with the terms of the settlement on notice to all interested parties. Should the court issue such an Order, which in effect repeats the terms of the settlement but as an Order of the court, the non-signatories would arguably then be bound to the terms of the settlement as it would now be in the form of an Order of the court.
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We have previously blogged on the various ways that an estate trustee may be removed and/or replaced. Examples include scenarios where an estate trustee dies in the midst of administering an estate, or renounces from his or her position, or where an estate trustee is removed by court order.
Ontario legislation provides guidance for beneficiaries and estate trustees in the aforesaid circumstances. Ontario legislation does not, however, specifically address what to do if an estate trustee is deemed mentally incapable to administer an estate, either before or after probate is granted. For more information on what mental incapacity is, and how to address mental incapacity, click here.
If an estate trustee is deemed mentally incapable, the first question to consider is how far along they were in the administration of the estate.
If the estate trustee has not yet applied for a certificate of appointment of estate trustee with a will (hereinafter referred to as the certificate of appointment of estate trustee), then another person may apply for a certificate of appointment of estate trustee in their place. A person acting under a valid continuing power of attorney for property for the mentally incapable estate trustee may renounce and consent (as appropriate) for the estate trustee. If the incapable individual has not appointed an attorney for property, then their statutory or court appointed guardian assumes this responsibility. Where the will names an alternate estate trustee in the event the estate trustee is unable to act, the alternate should be contacted to discuss whether they are willing and able to assume this role.
In circumstances where an estate trustee has been declared mentally incapable of administering an estate after the certificate of appointment of estate trustee has been issued, any person appearing to have a financial interest in the estate may bring a notice of application for the removal and replacement of the estate trustee. Again, the incapable estate trustee’s power of attorney or statutory or court appointed guardian would likely be involved in this process. Once a court order for removal and replacement is obtained, the replacement estate trustee may apply for a Court Status Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee with a Will pursuant to Rule 74 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
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In the past, in estate litigation matters, it was often the case that some or all of the litigating parties’ costs would be paid out of estate assets. However, in more recent years, the courts have been moving away from this general practice, and increasingly making costs awards providing for the payment of costs by one of the parties, personally. In particular, if the court views a party, including an estate trustee, to have behaved improperly or unreasonably, it may decide that such a party must pay the other party’s costs, personally. We have blogged about instances of such an outcome before.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has reaffirmed this general trend. The decision in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 542, involved a motion to pass over the named estate trustee, and appoint the two sole beneficiaries of the estate in question, as estate trustees. Although the named estate trustee and the beneficiaries were initially on good terms, within several months of the testator’s passing, the relationships began to break down, with the estate trustee beginning to make accusations towards the beneficiaries, in relation to the testator. The court found that it was “not a case of mere friction—this is a case of outright hostility from [the estate trustee] to the beneficiaries”, also commenting that it was difficult to fathom why the estate trustee acted as she did, and that her accusations were unwarranted. Ultimately, the court made an order passing over the estate trustee.
After the parties were unable to reach an agreement as to costs, the court made an endorsement in this regard in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 1297. After a discussion of the costs principles applicable to estate litigation, the court stated as follows:
“I am mindful that an estate trustee should be fully compensated for any reasonable costs incurred in the administration of the estate. However, the actions of the [estate trustee] are far from reasonable. I was not provided any rationale as to why her animus became necessary in the administration of her good friend’s estate.”
Ultimately, the court made a costs award in favour of the beneficiaries, payable by the estate trustee, personally.
This costs decision serves as an important reminder that parties entering into estate litigation proceedings should not count on their costs being paid out of the estate. Additionally, even though the estate trustee’s conduct in this case appears to be extreme, litigants should still keep in mind the importance of acting reasonably.
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I recently blogged about the growing use of home DNA tests and what impact an unexpected result could have upon your rights as a beneficiary of an estate. While such a blog was from the perspective of an individual who discovered through a home DNA test that their biological father was not in fact the individual they previously believed it to be, and the potential impact such a finding could have upon their status as a beneficiary of their “father’s” estate if their interest was based on their status as a “child”, questions would also emerge in such a scenario if you were the Estate Trustee of such an estate regarding what you should do.
If you are the Estate Trustee of an estate in which a bequest is based on parentage (i.e. an intestacy or a bequest to a testator’s “issue” or “children”), and you discover that one of the beneficiaries has voluntarily taken a home DNA test which revealed that they were not in fact related to the deceased, could you still make a distribution to such a beneficiary? If you have already made a distribution to such a beneficiary, is there a risk that the other beneficiaries could now make a claim against you as Estate Trustee, alleging that you distributed the estate to the incorrect individuals and that they have suffered damages as a result?
In response to whether an Estate Trustee could potentially be liable to the other beneficiaries for historically paying out amounts to a beneficiary who it is later discovered was not actually related to the deceased, it would appear that the Estate Trustee likely would not be liable under such a scenario. In my previous blog I discussed the provisions of the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“) which establish a person’s legal parentage in Ontario, and the various presumptions establishing an individual’s father. While sections 13(1) and 14(1) of the CLRA allow the court to make a subsequent different declaration as to a person’s parentage, section 14(2) of the CLRA provides that such an Order “does not affect rights and duties that were exercised or performed, or interests in property that were distributed, before the order was set aside“. As a result, it would appear, arguably, that if an Estate Trustee historically made a payment to an individual based off of parentage, and a subsequent declaration is made by the court that the individual in question was not actually the parent of the beneficiary, the historic payment to the beneficiary could not be put in issue or reclaimed provided that at the time the payment was made the beneficiary was still presumed and/or declared to be the child of the deceased.
The issue of what an Estate Trustee is to do if a payment has not yet been made and they discover that an individual who they previously believed to be a beneficiary is not in fact related to the deceased could be more complicated. In the event that the other beneficiaries who could be affected by the distribution do not unanimously consent to continue to allow the distribution to the individual notwithstanding the results of the DNA test, it is possible that one or all of the other beneficiaries may later bring a claim against the Estate Trustee for negligence, alleging that the Estate Trustee knew about the results of the DNA test before making the distribution and that they have suffered damages as a result of the distribution. To offset such a risk, it may be wise for the Estate Trustee in such a scenario to bring an Application for the opinion, advice and direction of the court pursuant to section 60(1) of the Trustee Act and/or rule 14.05, asking the court to determine whether the distribution may still be made to the potential beneficiary in light of the results of the home DNA test.
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One of the most gifted items this past holiday season were apparently the home DNA tests which can reveal your genetic ancestry or even if you are predisposed to certain health conditions. As anyone who has taken one of these tests (myself included) can tell you, the test results also contain a long list of other individuals who have also taken the test who you are related to, allowing you to reconnect with long lost relatives.
While my own test results did not reveal any family secrets, the same cannot be said for other individuals who have taken the test, as there have been a growing number of articles recently about how home DNA tests have revealed family secrets which otherwise may never have come to light. Although not all of these secrets are necessarily negative, such as finding a long-lost sibling, others, such as finding out that the individual who you believed to be your father was not in fact your biological father, could be life changing. For the latter, the phenomena is apparently common enough that the Atlantic has reported that self-help groups have formed around the issue, such as the Facebook group “DNA NPE Friends”, with “NPE” standing for “Not Parent Expected”.
In reading through these stories I couldn’t help but wonder if having such a result could impact your potential entitlements as a beneficiary of an estate. What happens if, for example, the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father but the test reveals was not in fact your father should die intestate, or should leave a class gift to his “children” in his Will without specifically naming the children. Could finding out that you were not actually biologically related to your “father” result in you no longer being entitled to receive a benefit as a beneficiary? Could you potentially be disinherited as a beneficiary of an estate by voluntarily taking a home DNA test if your right to the gift is founded upon you being related to the deceased individual?
Who is legally considered an individual’s “parent” in Ontario is established by the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“). Section 7(1) of the CLRA provides that, subject to certain exceptions, the person “whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child” is the parent of a child. Section 7(2) of the CLRA further provides for a series of presumptions regarding the identity of the individual’s “whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child“, including, for example, that there is a presumption that such an individual is the birth parent’s spouse at the time the child is born, or the individual in question certified the child’s birth as a parent of the child in accordance with the Vital Statistics Act (i.e. signed the birth certificate). To the extent that there are any questions about parentage, section 13(1) of the CLRA provides that any interested individual may apply to the court at any time after a child is born for a declaration that a person is or is not the legal parent of the child.
In applying these presumptions to our previous questions about the home DNA test, if, for example, the individual who you previously believed was your biological father was your birth mother’s “spouse” at the time you were born, or signed the birth certificate, it would appear that, subject to there being a declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA to the contrary, there would continue to be a presumption at law that the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father would continue to be your legal “parent” in accordance with the CLRA. To this respect, in the absence of a formal declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA that the individual was no longer your legal “parent”, there would appear to be an argument in favour of the position that the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father would continue to be your legal “parent”, and that you should continue to receive any benefits which may come to you as a “child” on the death of your “father”, whether on an intestacy or a class bequest to his “children” in his Will.
This presumption, of course, is subject to the ability of any interested person (i.e. the Estate Trustee or one of the other beneficiaries) to seek a formal declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA that you were not in fact a “child” of the individual you believed to be your biological father. If such a formal declaration is ultimately made by the court, you would cease to be the legal “child” of the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father, and would likely lose any corresponding bequests which may have been made to you on an intestacy or as a member of the class “children” in the Will.
The use of DNA tests to establish the potential beneficiaries of an estate is not a new phenomenon (see: Proulx v. Kelly). What is new, however, are people voluntarily taking such tests en masse in a public forum, potentially voluntarily raising questions about their rights to receive an interest in an estate when such questions would not have existed otherwise.
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A recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal considered whether s. 7 of the Limitations Act, 2002 applies to extend the time within which an estate trustee can bring a claim that arose prior to a deceased person’s death.
Section 7 of the Limitations Act, 2002 provides as follows:
7 (1) The limitation period established by section 4 does not run during any time in which the person with the claim,
(a) is incapable of commencing a proceeding in respect of the claim because of his or her physical, mental or psychological condition; and
(b) is not represented by a litigation guardian in relation to the claim.
(2) A person shall be presumed to have been capable of commencing a proceeding in respect of a claim at all times unless the contrary is proved. 2002, c. 24, Sched. B, s. 7 (2).
(3) If the running of a limitation period is postponed or suspended under this section and the period has less than six months to run when the postponement or suspension ends, the period is extended to include the day that is six months after the day on which the postponement or suspension ends.
In Lee v Ponte, 2018 ONCA 1021, the estate trustee of the deceased person commenced a claim more than 2 years after the date on which the limitation period began to run, as determined by the trial judge. As a result, the action was statute barred.
The estate trustee appealed, taking the position that section 7 of the Limitations Act, 2002 should be “liberally construed”. The estate trustee argued that a deceased person is incapable of commencing a proceeding because of “his or her physical, mental or psychological condition”. He also argued that policy reasons support allowing additional time for an estate trustee or litigation guardian to be appointed and take over the management of the affairs of the incapable/deceased person.
The Court of Appeal disagreed and did not allow the appeal. In its view, the “grammatical and ordinary sense of the words of s. 7 are simply not elastic enough to apply to a deceased person and to construe an estate trustee to be a litigation guardian.”
Although the outcome is not surprising, it does serve as a reminder that limitation periods can be unforgiving. Estate trustees would be well-advised to act swiftly in reviewing the affairs of a deceased person in order to determine whether any claims may have arisen prior to death, and whether the expiry of any limitation periods are looming.
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Applications to pass accounts are unique as civil proceedings go. The nature of the inquiries being made by the Court, the relief that a judge is empowered to grant, and the procedural considerations that apply are all features that distinguish applications to pass accounts from other civil applications. Procedural considerations in particular have garnered some notoriety recently as a result of several notable decisions released in the past few years. The recent decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario (then sitting as the Divisional Court) in Wall v Shaw, 2018 ONCA 929, provides some clarity to a few of the loose ends.
In Wall, the Deceased died leaving a Will naming the appellant as estate trustee and which created two testamentary trusts for the benefit of her two children. The Deceased’s nieces and nephews were also named as contingent beneficiaries in the event that both children died before vesting in the trust property.
The estate trustee acted for more than 10 years, but never formally passed his accounts. Instead, the estate trustee held frequent informal meetings with the Deceased’s children to review the administration of the estate and to discuss the estate trustee’s compensation.
A dispute between the Deceased’s daughter and the estate trustee relating to the latter’s compensation eventually led the daughter to bring an application seeking an order compelling the estate trustee to pass his accounts.
The estate trustee subsequently commenced an application to pass accounts in March 2015. In June 2015, the Deceased’s daughter filed a notice of objection to the accounts, followed in January 2016 by a notice of objection delivered by two of the Deceased’s nieces.
In response, the estate trustee brought a motion seeking to strike out the objections of the daughter on several grounds. Notably, the estate trustee took the position that the daughter’s approval of the accounts at the informal meetings constituted acquiescence of the estate trustee’s conduct. In the alternative, the estate trustee argued that the daughter’s objections were now statute-barred pursuant to sections 4 and 5 of Ontario’s Limitations Act or barred by the doctrine of laches.
The estate trustee was unsuccessful at first instance on all three grounds, but only chose to appeal the first ground. Specifically, the estate trustee argued on appeal that the judge at first instance had erred in refusing to apply the two-year limitation period under section 4 of the Limitations Act. The appeal was dismissed, and the reasons on appeal provide some procedural clarity in respect of the interplay between limitation periods and passings of accounts.
Section 4 of the Limitations Act generally provides that a “proceeding” cannot be commenced in respect of a “claim” if more than two years have elapsed since the date the claim was discovered. The Court of Appeal took issue with each of the quoted terms.
Notably, the held that a notice of objection does not commence a “proceeding” for the purposes of section 4 of the Limitations Act. Rather, a notice of objection ought to be viewed as a response to a proceeding that has already been commenced, being the application to pass accounts. The Court also pointed to its prior ruling in Armitage v The Salvation Army, in which it was held that an application to pass accounts was not a “claim” pursuant to section 4 of the Limitations Act. Accordingly, it followed that a responding objection raised in that application could also not constitute a claim.
Finally, the Court highlighted an important distinction between applications to pass accounts and other civil applications. Unlike a traditional civil claim, the Court in an application to pass accounts is not tasked with awarding judgment in favour of one party or the other. The purpose of an application to pass accounts to is initiate a “judicial inquiry” into the management of an estate and, if appropriate, provide redress to the estate, rather than to the beneficiaries personally.
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