I hope that everyone had a wonderful long weekend and has been able to check a couple of items off their summer “bucket list”. If the summer has been passing you by a little too quickly, and you feel that you are missing out—don’t worry! A recent essay in the Wall Street Journal makes the case for, at the least, scaling back on bucket lists:
Nobody really needs to go falconing in Mongolia or ride on the back of a nurse shark in Alaska for their life to be complete. They need to raise kids who won’t grow up to hate them. Or take care of their aging mother and make sure she gets a nice send-off.
That being said, there are a couple of things that we at Hull & Hull would recommend adding to your “bucket list”:
- Have a Will and Powers of Attorney: If you don’t take the time to set out what your wishes are, you risk those wishes being either unknown, or not respected.
- Review your Will and Powers of Attorney & Know what they say: You should be confident that you not only know exactly what your Will and Powers of Attorney say, but that they continue to represent your wishes. Particularly if your estate planning documents were prepared a number of years ago, it is important to review these documents and ensure that you recall their contents, so as to avoid any unexpected outcomes. If you are familiar with the contents of your Will and Powers of Attorney, you are more likely to be triggered by changes in circumstances that may affect you, and to take steps to adjust your estate planning documents accordingly.
- Revisit your estate plan: It is important to review your estate plan and consult with your lawyer regularly. There are a number of life events that can impact the effect of your Will, including marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, the death of an estate trustee, the death of a beneficiary, a beneficiary developing a disability, changes in the law, and the list goes on. If you aren’t revisiting and updating your Will regularly, based on changes in circumstances, the way in which your estate is ultimately distributed on your death could be vastly different than what you originally envisioned.
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A recent decision of the New South Wales State Supreme Court considers allegations of suspicious circumstances and undue influence within the context of marital separation and subsequent reconciliation.
Colleen McCullough, an Australian author famous for having written The Thorn Birds and a number of other novels, died in January 2015, leaving an estate of approximately CDN $2 million. McCullough also left a series of testamentary documents executed during 2014 and 2015, several of which contained technical defects. Most of the documents named McCullough’s long-time husband, Ric Robinson, as sole residuary beneficiary. One document executed in July 2014 (and a subsequent purported codicil), however, directed the distribution of the entire estate to the University of Oklahoma Foundation (of which McCullough was a founding member).
The plaintiff, McCullough’s friend and agent who had been named as estate trustee in the Oklahoma Will, challenged the subsequent documents on the basis of lack of knowledge and approval and undue influence. She relied, in part, upon the fact that Mr. Robinson had an affair of which McCullough had become aware in or about 2010, and that, in July 2014, she wished to disinherit him as a result of the state of their relationship around the time of their separation. Further, the plaintiff argued that Mr. Robinson’s request of McCullough that she execute a new Will later in 2014 represented suspicious circumstances.
Notwithstanding the concerns raised by the plaintiff, the Court found that the October 2014 Will naming Mr. Robinson was valid. Evidence in support of such finding included the involvement of McCullough’s lawyer in the preparation of the Will. The Court acknowledged the absence of evidence that Mr. Robinson had pressured or coerced McCullough or her lawyer into preparing/executing the October 2014 Will or that her testamentary intentions remained unchanged following a reconciliation with her husband in late July 2014. The plaintiff’s submission that a request by Mr. Robinson that McCullough make a new Will leaving him an interest in her estate after their relationship had improved was not considered to constitute suspicious circumstances and fell far short of the coercion necessary for a finding of undue influence.
This decision emphasizes the difference between influence and undue influence. Among spouses, a degree of influence is to be expected in respect of estate planning. Such influence does not in itself invalidate a testamentary document and may not even satisfy a judge that suspicious circumstances surround the execution of a will.
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A recent decision from the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Dujardin v Dujardin, 2018 ONCA 597, considers an appeal with respect to a Will challenge on the basis that the testator lacked testamentary capacity. The testator in this situation was a frequent consumer of alcohol. Despite what the trial judge called the testator’s “chronic alcoholism”, it seemed as though he was able to function normally on a day-to-day basis, including in business dealings relating to a family farm owned by the testator and his brother. Following the testator’s death, his wife disputed his Will, under which she received no benefit.
Recently, my colleagues, Noah Weisberg and Garrett Horrocks, discussed whether the classic test for testamentary capacity as set out in Banks v Goodfellow should be updated, and a new test as proposed in an article in the Canadian Bar Review, Vol 95 No. 1 (2017), Banks v Goodfellow (1870): Time to Update the Test for Testamentary Capacity.
The article opines that the context of the testator, including, for instance, family dynamics, should be incorporated explicitly into the test for testamentary capacity. This means that we would be asking the question: “can this particular person, with his or her particular mental abilities, in this particular situation, make this particular Will, at this particular time?”, rather than “can this testator make a Will?”
I thought the suggestions in the article were interesting when considering the facts of the Dujardin decision, and the findings of the trial judge. It seems as though the lower court took into account a number of contextual factors in applying the Banks v Goodfellow test, ultimately leading to a conclusion that the testator did possess the requisite testamentary capacity, a conclusion which was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
In particular, some of the interesting contextual factors included:
- the history of the testator and his brother’s ownership and operation of the family farm, and the brothers’ consistent desires to leave their respective shares of the farm to each other upon their death;
- prior mirror Wills executed by the brothers 13 years before the testator’s death, which reflected the same intention as the later Will that was being challenged (the testator’s prior will was revoked in 2000 when he married his wife); and
- the testator’s relationship dynamic with his wife, with whom it appeared he was not close, and the provision that he made for her outside of his Will.
In particular, the Court of Appeal commented that “[g]enerally, the manner in which [the testator] disposed of his property made sense in the context of his life and familial relationships.”
Had the trial judge not considered the various contextual factors, it’s possible she could have arrived at a different conclusion. Subject to the medical evidence, given that the testator suffered from alcoholism, it may have been open to the court to conclude that this condition had, in fact, affected the testator’s cognition.
In any event, it is interesting to see a practical example of the ideas put forth in the article mentioned above, and to consider how the suggestions of the authors may come into play in real-world situations.
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When making testamentary gifts in a Will, if a specific bequest fails for any reason, the assets in question will fall into the residue of the estate. However, if a gift of residue fails, the distribution of whatever assets are affected by the failure will be governed by the intestacy provisions set out in Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26.
The recent decision of Sabetti v Jimenez, 2018 ONSC 3523 in part considers the interpretation of a residue clause in order to determine whether there is a partial intestacy in respect of the estate of Ms. Valdes.
The applicant, Mr. Sabetti, was Ms. Valdes’ second husband. She had three adult children from her prior marriage. Ms. Valdes’ Will provided that the residue of her estate was to be divided into four equal shares. The first share was to be held in trust for Mr. Sabetti during his lifetime, and on his death, whatever amount was remaining was to fall into and form part of the residue. The remaining three shares were to be transferred to Ms. Valdes’ three children.
Mr. Sabetti claimed that because of the gift-over of his share of the residue, which provides that it is to form part of the residue, the beneficiaries of the first share of the residue were not named with sufficient certainty, and a partial intestacy must result. Ultimately, the Honourable Justice Dunphy concluded that Ms. Valdes’ intention was clear on the face of the will, and found that there was no partial intestacy.
In its decision, the Court goes through an interesting analysis of the residue clause, outlining the rules applicable to construction of documents. Where there are two possible interpretations, one of which creates an absurd result, and one of which is in line with the apparent intention of the maker of the document, the latter is to be preferred. It is also preferable to construe a will so as to lead to a testacy over an intestacy, if it is possible to do so without straining the language of the Will or violating the testator’s intention.
In this case, the Court found that to interpret the term of the residue according to Mr. Sabetti’s position would lead to an absurd result. In terms of Ms. Valdes’ intention, the Court was of the view that the intended beneficiaries of the remainder interest were clearly the other three shares of the residue. The Court found no difficulty in discerning the testator’s intention or in applying it, and was able to read the Will in such a way as to avoid an intestacy.
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While digital assets constitute “property” in the sense appearing within provincial legislation, the rights of fiduciaries in respect of these assets are less clear than those relating to tangible assets. For example, in Ontario, the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, and Estates Administration Act provide that attorneys or guardians of property and estate trustees, respectively, are authorized to manage the property of an incapable person or estate, but these pieces of legislation do not explicitly refer to digital assets.
As we have previously reported, although the Uniform Law Conference of Canada introduced the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act in August 2016, the uniform legislation has yet to be adopted by the provinces of Canada. However, recent legislative amendment in one of Ontario’s neighbours to the west has recently enhanced the ability of estate trustees to access and administer digital assets.
In Alberta, legislation has been updated to clarify that the authority of an estate trustee extends to digital assets. Alberta’s Estate Administration Act makes specific reference to “online accounts” within the context of an estate trustee’s duty to identify estate assets and liabilities, providing clarification that digital assets are intended to be included within the scope of estate assets that a trustee is authorized to administer.
In other Canadian provinces, fiduciaries continue to face barriers in attempting to access digital assets. Until the law is updated to reflect the prevalence of technology and value, whether financial or sentimental, of information stored electronically, it may be prudent for drafting solicitors whose clients possess such assets to include specific provisions within Powers of Attorney for Property and Wills to clarify the authority of fiduciaries to deal with digital assets.
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I recently came across several articles (one of which can be found here) regarding the elder financial abuse of a senior gentleman in Moncton, New Brunswick. Around 2013, Mr. Goguen had been living in the home that he owned, with tenants residing in part of the property. Upon deciding to sell his home, Mr. Goguen was referred to Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier, licensed real estate agents in New Brunswick. After the home had been listed for sale for some time, without success, Ms. Hannah apparently told Mr. Goguen that his home was in such deplorable condition that it would be impossible to sell without making certain repairs (which Ms. Hannah says Mr. Goguen could not afford) and removing the tenants (whom Ms. Hannah has claimed were using drugs and not paying rent).
As a result of the alleged difficulty in selling Mr. Goguen’s house, he, Ms. Hannah, and Mr. Poirier entered into an agreement whereby Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier purchased Mr. Goguen’s home. The terms of the arrangement were not favourable to Mr. Goguen, and it appears that Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier did not follow through on certain aspects of the agreement.
The Financial and Consumer Services Commission, which regulates real estate agents in New Brunswick, has revoked Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier’s real estate licenses. The Commission stated that Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier committed financial abuse of a senior and took “outrageous and egregious advantage” of Mr. Goguen. The Public Trustee of New Brunswick has now become involved on Mr. Goguen’s behalf, and has filed a statement of claim against Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier, seeking $83,320.00, characterized as the amount owing to Mr. Goguen.
We’ve blogged about elder abuse a number of times. Unfortunately, due to factors such as isolation, physical difficulties, and cognitive impairments, elderly people are often vulnerable to abuse. Given this vulnerability, and the circumstances in which abuse occurs, it can go undetected for a significant amount of time. In such situations, it may be too late to make the elderly person “whole” if the abuse is not discovered until it is too late.
Fortunately in Mr. Goguen’s case, despite the fact that it took a number of years, the Public Trustee discovered the abuse and is now taking steps to protect Mr. Goguen and recoup funds owed to him by his abusers. However, the Public Trustee is seeking the amount of approximately $83,000.00, which may not fully reimburse Mr. Goguen for the value of the house had it been sold to a normal third-party purchaser. Additionally, one of the articles also notes that Mr. Goguen had named Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier as his attorneys, and also executed a will naming them as executors and beneficiaries of his estate. It is unclear whether the Public Trustee has sought any relief in this regard. As such, even though the Public Trustee may be pursuing relief on Mr. Goguen’s behalf, it is an unfortunate possibility that he may continue to feel the effects of the abuse.
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The recent decision of Fletcher’s Fields Limited v Estate of Samuel Harrison Ball, 2018 ONSC 2433 considered whether an appointment of trust funds for a particular purpose created an interest in land.
Fletcher’s Fields is a not-for-profit Ontario corporation which owns land that is predominantly used as a sports facility for rugby football union (the “Land”). Mr. Jenkins was the trustee of the estate of Samuel Harrison Ball. He was also a lawyer, and over the years had been actively involved with Fletcher’s Fields, as General Counsel, and as a member of the board of directors. In Jenkins’ role as trustee of Mr. Ball’s estate, he had the power to appoint money forming part of the estate as he saw fit.
In 1994, Jenkins exercised his power to provide Fletcher’s Fields with $100,000.00 pursuant to a “Deed of Appointment”. The Deed of Appointment provided that (a) the money must be used solely for the purpose of improving the sports facility on the Land; (b) the trustee had the right to revoke any or all of the money if the Land was not kept in good condition suitable for playing the sport; and (c) if revoked, Fletcher’s Fields was required to transfer the fund to the trustee, with interest.
In 2015, a new board of directors for Fletcher’s Fields was elected, which did not include Jenkins. It seems that Jenkins may not have been pleased with this development. The following year, Fletcher’s Fields discovered that a notice had been registered on title to the Land by Jenkins, under s. 71 of the Land Titles Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. L.5. It appears that the notice had been registered after Jenkins had ceased to be a member of the board.
Fletcher’s Fields took the position that the funds provided pursuant to the Deed of Appointment were a gift or, alternatively, trust funds. Jenkins took the position that the Deed of Appointment was not a trust, but rather that it was a loan that was to be repaid if certain conditions crystallized. He characterized it as an equitable mortgage.
The Court noted that the terms of the Deed of Appointment were key to determining whether or not an interest in land had been created. There was no indication of an express intent to create an interest in the Land, or provide that failure to repay the funds would result in a charge over the Land. Without such an express intent, the notice should not remain on title to the land. The Court also held that the parties’ conduct supported the position that there was never any intention to create an interest in the Land.
The Court ordered that the notice that had been registered by Jenkins on title to the Land be removed. The result of this case seems correct, as one would expect that an interest in land should not be created unilaterally and without notice. There are significant differences between types of financial arrangements such as loans, mortgages, gifts, and appointments of trust funds. It is reassuring that the Court in this situation upheld the integrity of the parties’ intentions in crafting their financial arrangement and did not impose a charge-type interest in the Land where none existed.
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The Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30 (the “SDA”), governs, among other things, the appointment of guardians for incapable persons. There are two types of guardians: a guardian for property and a guardian for personal care.
Sections 22(1) and 55(1) of the SDA provide that the Court may, on any person’s application, appoint a guardian of property or of the person, for a person who is incapable of managing property or personal care if, as a result of the said incapacity, it is necessary for decisions to be made on his or her behalf.
In order to appoint a guardian for someone, the Court will need to make a finding of incapacity for that person. This is an important hurdle, and the Court will generally need to see evidence that the person in question has been assessed as incapable of managing property and/or personal care prior to making a finding that he or she is incapable.
Depending on the circumstances, a person may submit to a capacity assessment voluntarily. However, according to section 78(1) of the SDA, if a person refuses to be assessed, an assessor shall not perform the assessment. Section 79 of the SDA allows the Court to order that a person be assessed, provided that the Court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe the person is incapable. Additionally, to obtain a Court Order for an assessment, there must be a proceeding under the SDA, in which the person’s capacity is in issue. The Ontario Court of Appeal in Neill v Pellolio, 2001 ONCA 6452 held that there is no stand-alone relief available for an Order for a capacity assessment in the absence of an application brought under the SDA. Accordingly, obtaining a finding of incapacity from the Court may not be a simple endeavour.
The SDA also has in place measures to protect an individual’s decision-making rights from undue restriction. Sections 22(3) and 55(2) state that the Court shall not appoint a guardian if it is satisfied that the need for decisions to be made will be met by an alternative course of action that does not require the Court to find the person incapable, and is less restrictive of the person’s decision-making rights than the appointment of a guardian.
Accordingly, for example, if a person has already granted a power of attorney, allowing the named attorney to act would constitute a less restrictive course of action which also does not require the Court to make a finding of incapacity in order for decisions to be made for an incapable person. Furthermore, if a person is incapable of managing their property or personal care, but remains capable of granting a power of attorney, that would likely also constitute a less restrictive course of action, and would allow that person to exercise their decision-making rights.
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There is a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where an individual tries to include his very much still alive relative on a cart carrying out plague victims to the still alive individual’s protests. Upon being presented to be taken away, the individual loudly protests “I’m not dead yet” to the annoyance of the individual trying to have them taken away, resulting in a back-and-forth about whether they will be dead soon and should still be included on the cart. Hilarity ensues.
This scene from Monty Python always plays through my mind whenever I hear stories of individuals who are incorrectly declared dead by the court. The Toronto Star recently reported on a case about a man from Romania who returned from working abroad to find that his wife had had him declared dead by the court while he was away. Despite showing up to his own hearing to reverse the Order declaring that he was dead, the court refused to reverse the Order, saying that it was too late for him to do so. Stories such as these are surprisingly common, with an Ohio man having found himself in similar circumstances in 2013.
In Ontario, the process by which an individual is declared dead in absentia when there is no body is governed by the Declarations of Death Act, 2002. Although the Declarations of Death Act does not set out a process by which an individual who is still alive could reverse an Order finding that they were deceased, it notably does not contain any provision barring the reversal of such an Order, and does contain language providing what is to occur with the “deceased” individual’s property should they later found to be alive such that it appears that such an Order is possible.
Section 6(1) of the Declarations of Death Act provides that when an Order has been made declaring an individual dead, and their estate has been distributed, such a distribution is final even should the “deceased” individual subsequently be found to be alive. While section 6(3) grants the court special powers to order specific property be returned to the deceased individual, absent a specific court order to the contrary, the “deceased” individual’s property is now the property of those to whom it was distributed.
While it appears the Ontario court can reverse an Order incorrectly finding you to be deceased, you may not be so lucky in getting your stuff back. Maybe now we know why the man was so loudly protesting “I’m not dead yet” in the Monty Python sketch.
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I recently read this article from the New York Times, which discusses the Will of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as well as some of the events that occurred several years prior to Harper Lee’s death. Harper Lee died in 2016, at the age of 89. In the years leading up to her death, there was some question as to her capacity, and possible vulnerability to coercion or undue influence.
The New York Times article states that Ms. Lee had had a stroke in 2007 and also had severe vision and hearing problems. Ms. Lee resided in an assisted living facility before her death. The article also describes the position taken by counsel for Ms. Lee as part of a copyright dispute in 2013, where counsel stated that Ms. Lee had been taken advantage of and coerced into signing away her copyright because she was “an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.”
A couple of years ago, in 2015, Ms. Lee published her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman”. It turned out that this novel had been an earlier draft of her extremely popular book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is purported to have been discovered by Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, in 2014. There was some controversy surrounding the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” on the basis that Ms. Lee had not actually consented to the manuscript being published, and may have been manipulated into doing so. The publication of a new book was particularly remarkable given that Ms. Lee had only ever published one book prior to “Go Set a Watchman”—namely, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which was published in 1960. However, an investigation was performed, and a determination made that there had been no elder abuse of Ms. Lee.
After Ms. Lee’s death, her Will had not been made a matter of public record, as a result of the successful efforts by Ms. Carter (named in the Will as executor) to have the Will sealed on the basis that Ms. Lee, who was a very private person, would have wanted her Will to remain private. It was only unsealed recently after litigation by the New York Times, and after Ms. Lee’s estate withdrew its opposition to the Will being unsealed.
The Will was signed only 8 days before Ms. Lee’s death, and apparently directs that the bulk of her assets be transferred into a trust formed by Ms. Lee in 2011. Ms. Carter is one of the trustees of this trust. Further documents relating to the trust are not public, and accordingly, very few details are known about it.
Given the questions surrounding Ms. Lee’s potential vulnerability in the years leading up to her death, it will be interesting to see whether anything further develops in relation to her estate, or the trust which apparently will hold most of the assets of Ms. Lee’s estate.
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