An estate trustee may be bound to a contract previously entered into by the deceased. This duty is distinct from the duty of an estate trustee to discharge all debts of the deceased.
There are four main elements of a contract:
- Intention (consensus ad idem/meeting of the minds)
Prior to the formation of a contract, it is possible for an offer to be revoked by death, if the contract has not been accepted by the surviving party. If performance of a contract has already been initiated by the surviving party, the contract may not be able to be revoked. This is due to the fact that part-performance of a contract may validate a contract. The doctrine of part-performance has been upheld in cases such as Lensen v. Lensen, 1984 CanLII 2424 (Sask CA), and Thompson v Guaranty Trust Co.,  S.C.R. 1023.
In general, contracts often will have a clause stating that the terms are binding on the estate of a contracting party. Therefore, if a contract is found to be valid, the estate of a deceased may be bound by a contract entered into by the deceased. It is important to note that a contract need not be formally executed and signed in order to be considered enforceable by the court.
In Bayer Estate v. Blue Button Club, 2007 BCSC 517, the British Columbia Superior Court upheld a contract on the death of a party. In this case, the deceased, Bernard Bayer, and his employer, Blue Button Club, entered into an employment agreement for 10 years, with an annual base salary of $60,000.00 plus benefits. The contract provided that, upon the death of Bayer, the Club would pay into deceased’s estate an amount equal to the salary and benefits that the deceased would have earned. The amount paid into the estate was to be based on how much time was left in the employment contract. The contract also had a provision naming the Club as a beneficiary of the deceased’s insurance policy, so long as the Club was to maintain insurance on the life of Bernard. Upon the death of Bayer, the Club tried to submit that the employment contract was not enforceable. The Court rejected the Club’s submissions and upheld the contract, requiring the Club to pay the deceased’s salary into his estate.
Aside from part-performance of a contract or having a formally executed contract, it is possible to enter into a verbal contract prior to the formal contract being executed. Where a tentative agreement is reached from oral negotiations, the intentions of the parties are the key factor in determining if a contract is in existence. In attempting to enforce a contract in which one of the parties is deceased, the Court will look to the intention of the deceased in order to determine whether or not they intended for a contract to be formed.
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It is often the case that a testator may wish to make a significant inter vivos gift to one or more of their children. He or she may intend that such a gift is to be taken as either an advancement or in addition to a later inheritance. If, in preparing a Will and/or estate plan for a testator, a solicitor becomes aware of prior inter vivos gifts to the testator’s children, the solicitor should inquire further into the testator’s intention in this regard in the context of the estate plan.
Sometimes the dynamics in a family are such that any inequality as between siblings can become a serious issue, potentially leading to estate litigation following a testator’s death. If a testator is aware of this possibility, the testator should be alerted to the possible financial consequences of such a dispute. Of course, there is no way to guarantee that estate litigation will be avoided, but there are steps that can be taken in an estate plan to try to make the administration and distribution of an estate as smooth as possible.
One simple way of at least addressing the issue is to include a clear statement of the testator’s intentions in the Will, such as an indication that any gifts given during the testator’s lifetime are to be considered an advance, or should be given in addition to the child’s entitlement under the Will. Unfortunately, this will not necessarily avoid a fight amongst siblings if any of the children who have not received inter vivos gifts are not happy with the outcome, or if the child who did receive a gift expected to also receive an equal share of the parent’s estate.
An option for ensuring a truly equal distribution is a hotchpot clause. This is also an option if the testator does, in fact, intend that inter vivos gifts were to be given as an advancement on the child’s future inheritance, as is often the case.
A “hotchpot” clause will operate to take into account the value of gifts given during the testator’s lifetime in calculating the division of the estate, with any gifts previously given being subtracted from the portion given to the child in question. Effectively, the value of any substantial inter vivos gifts will be clawed back into the estate for the purpose of determining the value of the estate and the ultimate entitlement of the child or children who received such gifts. The end result of a hotchpot calculation will be that each child will receive from their parent, either inter vivos or from the estate, a share of exactly equal value. Hotchpot can be in relation to inter vivos gifts given, or to the forgiveness of outstanding loans given during the testator’s lifetime.
The concept of hotchpot is based on the equitable doctrine of ademption by advancement, also known as the presumption against double portions. This principle presumes that a parent intends equality between his children, such that if he or she leaves the residue to his or her children equally, but also made an inter vivos gift or advancement to one of the children, the rule will apply to bring the gift into hotchpot so that the intention of equality will not be altered.
Hotchpot, or ademption by advancement, also applies in the case of an intestacy. Section 25 of the Estates Administration Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.22, provides that if the child on an intestacy has been advanced assets, with such advancement being expressed by the deceased or acknowledged by the child in writing, the value of the advancement will be considered, for the purposes of s. 25, to be part of the estate to be distributed.
Accordingly, the default position when it comes to inter vivos gifts to a testator’s children will likely be equality, and as a consequence, some form of hotchpot calculation. Chances are that parents usually do intend to divide their estate equally amongst their children, so this rule will probably operate in line with the testator’s intentions in most cases. If a testator does wish to treat their children unequally, the estate plan must be carefully prepared with a view towards all possible consequences.
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