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.
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These days, life expectancy is longer than ever. We have previously blogged (for instance, here and here) about some considerations and consequences of having a longer life expectancy. A recent article in The New Yorker considers aging, and in particular, anti-aging now that people are generally living longer. The online version can be found here: Can We Live Longer but Stay Younger?
One of the problems with living longer, as highlighted in the New Yorker article, is that we still must deal with the challenges and realities of aging. What we really want is not eternal life but rather, eternal youth.
The article discusses several efforts to address or counteract the types of issues that we face as we age. For instance, a geneticist at Harvard has successfully extended the life of yeast, and is moving on to human trials. A Harvard molecular biologist, George Church, has had success reprogramming embryonic stem cells to essentially turn an old cell into a young cell. Church’s work has been done so far on mice and dogs, but there are plans to commence human clinical trials within the next five years.
The goal of the work being done by Church is to live better, not necessarily longer: “The goal is youthful wellness rather than an extended long period of age-related decline.” The article discusses the nature of this age-related decline, through the illustration of a “sudden aging” suit that allows the wearer to experience the physical challenges of aging, including boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback, and bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness. The point of the aging suit is to help create empathy and understanding about how difficult each and every task (an example was reaching up to a top shelf and picking up a mug) can be for older adults, both physically and mentally. So the question becomes, if we are living so much longer, but with age, every day and every task becomes much more difficult, what can we do to counteract that?
The work being done related to anti-aging and the creation of products to make older people’s lives easier is interesting and seems to be moving in new directions. For instance, the article mentions the difficulty of marketing certain products aimed at older people, because we do not like the idea of buying something that reminds us that we are old. So instead of selling a personal-emergency-response system to send an alert and seek assistance in the event of a fall, or some other physical emergency, in the form of a pendant worn around the neck, it is suggested that the most effective such device would be an iPhone or Apple Watch app.
Unfortunately, the issue of dementia is still a concern. There still does not appear to be a cure in sight for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The causes remain unclear. The effects, however, are evident. One of the individuals mentioned in the article was Professor Patrick Hof, who studies brains. On the physical effects of dementia on our actual brains, Professor Hof notes that “[y]ou can’t tell any difference, even under extreme magnification, between an aging non-demented brain and a younger human one…But, holding an Alzheimer’s brain in your hand, you can see the atrophy.” It appears that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, in particular.
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I recently came across an article discussing a court’s decision in respect of what appears to be a claim for dependant’s support in Tasmania. In the decision of Booth v Brooks  TASSC 35, the deceased died with a Will that did not leave anything to his estranged daughter. The deceased was also survived by a long-term partner and two adult sons, who were mentioned in his Will.
The daughter made a claim under a Tasmanian statute, the Testator’s Family Maintenance Act 1912 (the “TFMA”). Section 3(1) of the TFMA states as follows:
3 (1) If a person dies, whether testate or intestate, and in terms of his will or as a result of his intestacy any person by whom or on whose behalf application for provision out of his estate may be made under this Act is left without adequate provision for his proper maintenance and support thereafter, the Court or a judge may, in its or his discretion, on application made by or on behalf of the last-mentioned person, order that such provision as the Court or judge, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, thinks proper shall be made out of the estate of the deceased person for all or any of the persons by whom or on whose behalf such an application may be made, and may make such other order in the matter, including an order as to costs, as the Court or judge thinks fit.
By comparison, section 58(1) of Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act, (the “SLRA”) seems to have quite similar language. Section 58(1) provides:
58 (1) Where a deceased, whether testate or intestate, has not made adequate provision for the proper support of his dependants or any of them, the court, on application, may order that such provision as it considers adequate be made out of the estate of the deceased for the proper support of the dependants or any of them.
Under the SLRA, in order to qualify as a “dependant”, one must be a spouse, parent, child, or brother or sister of the deceased, to whom the deceased was providing support or was under a legal obligation to provide support immediately before his death. The TFMA, on the other hand, provides in section 3A that the persons who may make an application pursuant to section 3(1) are the:
- parents (if the deceased person dies without a spouse or children); and
- person who had a certain relationship with the deceased, and who was entitled to receive maintenance from the deceased at the time of his or her death.
In Booth v Brooks, the court concluded that the daughter had been left without adequate provision. One of the factors that lead to this conclusion was that the deceased had not had a good relationship with the daughter throughout her life and had not provided her with any direct financial support. In particular, the court stated that the deceased’s “abnegation of parental responsibility during childhood increases the moral obligation of the testator to the child”.
It seems that the key difference in the law in Tasmania versus Ontario that came into play in the Booth v Brooks decision, which would likely have resulted in a different outcome had the scenario arisen in Ontario, is that the TFMA does not require that a spouse, child, or parent be receiving or entitled to support or “maintenance” at the time of the deceased’s death. Interestingly, the Tasmanian law seems to lean the other way—if the deceased has not provided adequate support during his or her lifetime, it may increase the ability of a child or spouse to obtain support from the deceased’s estate.
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A recent decision dealing with the estate of a French rock star highlights the potential relevance of social media evidence in estates matters.
Johnny Halliday, known as the “French Elvis”, died in 2017, leaving a Last Will and Testament that left his entire estate to his fourth wife, disinheriting his adult children from a previous marriage. The New York Times reports that French law does not permit a testator to disinherit his or her children in such a manner, and the adult children made a claim against the estate on that basis. The issue became whether the deceased singer had lived primarily in the United States or in France.
Halliday was active on Instagram, using the service to promote his albums and tours, as well as to share details of his personal life with fans. The adult children were, accordingly, able to track where their father had been located in the years leading up to his death, establishing that he had lived in France for 151 days in 2015 and 168 in 2016, before spending 7 months immediately preceding his death in France. Their position based on the social media evidence was preferred over that of Halliday’s widow and their claims against the estate were permitted.
Decisions like this raise the issue of whether parties to estate litigation can be required to produce the contents of their social media profiles as relevant evidence to the issues in dispute. Arguably, within the context of estates, social media evidence may be particularly relevant to dependant’s support applications, where the nature of an alleged dependant’s relationship with the deceased, along with the lifestyle enjoyed prior to death, may be well-documented.
The law regarding the discoverability of social media posts in estate and family law in Canada is still developing. While the prevalence of social media like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook is undeniable, services like these have not become popular only in the last fifteen years or so and it seems that users continue to share increasingly intimate parts of their lives online.
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Sometimes a Will may include an “option to purchase” clause. Basically, this type of clause will provide that a particular person shall have the option to purchase a particular asset of the estate, for a particular price. Usually the option will end after a certain period of time, to allow the estate to continue being administered, depending on whether the person decides to exercise the option. Typically, options to purchase will play out in a fairly straightforward way—either the option is exercised, or it expires. However, in the recent decision in Crawford v Culbert et al, 2019 ONSC 1048, the chain of events was not quite so simple.
Hannah died in February 2018, and was survived by her four children: a son, Terry, and three daughters, Tammy, Tracey, and Tina.
At the time of Hannah’s death, the four siblings were not specifically aware of the contents of Hannah’s Will. A few days after Hannah died, they located an unexecuted document that appeared to be a Will, which Tina read out loud. The Will contained a provision that Terry would have a first option to purchase a farm property owned by Hannah’s estate, for $200,000.00, and that he had a period of 30 days “from the date that express written notice” of the option is given to him. At that time, it was unclear whether the Will had been executed.
The next day, the three sisters obtained a notarial copy of the executed Will from the law firm that had prepared it, but did not provide or show a copy to Terry. Some text messages were exchanged between Terry and Tammy about a month later, in which Terry commented that he did not intend to purchase the property. A short while after that, all four of the siblings met at the office of the lawyer who drafted the Will. It was at this time that Terry learned that Hannah’s Will was in the same form as the unexecuted document the siblings had located following her death. Twenty days later, Terry advised the lawyer that he intended to exercise the option to purchase. Both Tracey and Tammy took the position that Terry was out of time to exercise the option.
The court considered what constituted “express written notice” as required by Hannah’s Will. It easily concluded that Tina’s reading of the unexecuted Will did not constitute express written notice. The court also found that the earliest date that the 30 day period could have commenced was the day that all four siblings attended at the lawyer’s office, and Terry learned that the Will had been executed. Additionally, the court found that nothing Terry said or did prior to the date of the lawyer’s meeting could be considered an effective waiver of his entitlement to the option.
This decision may serve as a reminder to anyone who encounters an option to purchase that being crafty to try to circumvent the option is unlikely to be successful.
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In Ontario, we are fortunate to have the ability to execute powers of attorney in respect of our property and our health care. I recently learned that Jersey, in the Channel Islands, has only lately gained the ability to execute a “Lasting Power of Attorney” to record their decisions and intentions in respect of their assets and care. On that note, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide a quick reminder of the importance of executing powers of attorney, and the possible consequences of not doing so.
Powers of attorney in Ontario are governed mainly by the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30 (the “SDA”). The SDA sets out, among other things, the requirements for powers of attorney, the requisite capacity to grant a power of attorney, and the powers and duties of attorneys. There are two types of powers of attorney: powers of attorney for personal care (dealing with your health, medical care, and other matters related to your well-being) and powers of attorney for property (dealing with your property and financial matters). Generally, powers of attorney will come into play if you become incapable of managing your property or personal care, respectively, but it is also possible to grant a power of attorney for property that is effective immediately (that is, not conditional upon later incapacity).
What Happens if I Don’t Execute Powers of Attorney?
If you do not execute powers of attorney, and you never lose capacity, you may never realize how important they are. However, as we have blogged about previously, as our population begins to live longer, there has been an increase in dementia and other aging-related conditions associated with cognitive decline, meaning that the use and activation of powers of attorney is increasing.
Taking the step of executing powers of attorney means that you have the chance to make your own decision regarding who will handle your affairs in the event that you are no longer capable. If you become incapable, and have not named an attorney for property or personal care, it is open (and may become necessary, depending on your circumstances) for an individual to bring an application seeking to be appointed as your guardian for property or personal care, thus allowing them to act as your substitute decision-maker. The application process requires that notice be given to certain people (including certain family members), and if someone disagrees with the appointment of the proposed guardian, they may contest the guardianship—but the key detail to remember is that the ability to make the decision is taken away from you.
A guardianship application can also be brought if a person has executed a power of attorney, but the existence of a power of attorney will be an important factor for the court’s consideration: pursuant to the SDA, if the court is satisfied that there is an alternative course of action that is less restrictive of the person’s decision-making rights, the court shall not appoint a guardian.
Naming someone to act on your behalf with respect to your property and personal care is a big decision. It is almost certain that you are in the best position to make a determination as to who you want acting for you in this regard. We should all take the opportunity to exercise our own decision-making rights, to choose the person that we want to play the important role of attorney, and not leave it up to others to make this decision for us.
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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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There’s a lot to like about Paul Allen – the Microsoft co-founder who died on October 15 at age 65. He was a brilliant man, whose perfect SAT score of 1600 during his college years foreshadowed his financial success.
Few can match this success. Allen died with an estate estimated at $26 billion. But it’s not just the size of the estate that’s impressive, it’s the scope of his interests that are remarkable, most of which played a role in building the value of his holdings. At his death, Allen ownership interests included:
- Three professional sports teams – the Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Seattle Sounders
- A space-travel company, Vulcan Aerospace
- A film production company, Vulcan Productions
- A real estate company, Vulcan Real Estate, with a large focus on the redevelopment of land in the Seattle area; and
- An extensive fine art collection.
In 2010, he signed the Giving Pledge , a commitment by billionaires around the world to donate at least half of their fortune to philanthropic causes. He also invested in, or donated money to, a number of other initiatives, from artificial intelligence research to elephant conservation in Africa. More locally, he played in a band, Paul Allen and the Underthinkers, and was an accomplished guitar player.
The life lessons
Admittedly, we aren’t all billionaires with perfect SAT scores. So, what can we learn from Paul Allen? This quote from him says it all:
“You look at things you enjoy in your life, but much more important is what you can do to make the world a better place.”
Here are three takeaways that I think are worth considering:
- He enjoyed life: He owned homes in several countries, owned two of the largest yachts in the world, and surrounded himself with people accomplished in the art, sport and film world. He rarely courted media attention – and he remained low-key until the end – but he seemed to thoroughly enjoy his life. So many people in every wealth bracket forget this important part of the equation.
- He followed his interests in making the world a better place: He saved sports franchises from relocation, movie theatres from demolition, and ensured that important stories were preserved and told. He knew intuitively that following personal interests was critical to his active involvement in projects and ultimately each project’s success.
- Much of his focus was local: We can likely do our most effective work if we focus locally, on the area of the world we know best. Paul Allen’s initiatives certainly had a global reach, but many of his projects were Seattle-based and he transformed the city and the U.S. north-west in significant ways.
Paul Allen’s estate is, not surprisingly, complex – and could take years to settle as this article explains. But it appears that the family business structure he left behind will continue to make the world a better place for many years to come.
Happy New Year – and thanks for reading!