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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Written reasons from a mid-trial motion was recently released in Barker v. Barker, 2019 ONSC 2906. The only issue in this motion was whether a particular video of a deceased plaintiff was admissible at trial. The larger claim at issue surrounds the Oak Ridge division of the Penetanguishene mental health centre and its treatment of maximum security mental health patients between the 60’s and the 80’s. One of the plaintiffs, James Motherall, died after the action was brought and his claims were continued by the estate trustees of Mr. Motherall’s estate under Rule 9 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Prior to Mr. Motherall’s death, Mr. Motherall was examined for discovery in the ordinary course but he was not examined under Rule 36 for the purpose of having his video testimony tendered as evidence at trial. Since a de bene esse examination did not occur, the trial judge was literally unable to assess Mr. Motherall’s credibility with his own eyes. In an effort to address this issue, counsel for the plaintiffs sought to introduce video footage of Mr. Motherall from a CBC documentary that featured Mr. Motherall and his experiences at Oak Ridge. The footage was taken a month before Mr. Motherall’s death and counsel for the Plaintiffs proposed to call the filmmaker as a witness to introduce the unedited footage of the filmmaker’s interview with Mr. Motherall.
Without criticizing the filmmaker’s work, the trial judge found that the video interview was not conducted under reliable circumstances for the purposes of a trial because Mr. Motherall was not sworn, he was not cross-examined, and he was simply asked to tell his story without more. The video was presumptively hearsay and it was up to the plaintiffs to meet, on a balance of probabilities, the criteria of necessity and reliability under the principled approach for the admissibility of hearsay evidence (R v. Khelawon, 2006 SCC 57, R. v. Chretien, 2014 ONCA 403).
In addition to the issues of reliability, the trial judge also found that the video was not necessary since there was a transcript of evidence from Mr. Motherall’s examination for discovery and an affidavit from Mr. Motherall in the course of a prior summary judgment motion.
Both the filmmaker’s proposed testimony and the video footage of Mr. Motherall was found to be inadmissible.
Even though Barker v. Barker is at its core a civil matter, the reasoning from this motion is instructive for estate litigators who are also bound by the additional hurdle for material corroboration pursuant to section 13 of the Evidence Act.
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Medical records are frequently key evidence in estate disputes. Often, a testamentary document or inter vivos transaction is challenged on the basis that the deceased lacked testamentary capacity or the mental capacity to make a valid gift.
The British Columbia Supreme Court recently reviewed the issue of admissibility of medical records within the context of a will challenge. The parties propounding the last will asserted that the deceased’s medical records were inadmissible on the basis that (1) the parties challenging the will were attempting to admit the records for the truth of their contents, (2) the records included third party statements from family members, which was suggested to constitute double hearsay evidence, and (3) the records were entirely inadmissible because they were not relevant, none of them being within weeks of the date of execution of the challenged will.
In Re Singh Estate, 2019 BCSC 272, the estate trustees named in the deceased’s will executed in 2013 only learned of the existence of a subsequent will executed in 2016 after they provided notice to the beneficiaries of the estate that they intended to apply for probate in respect of the 2013 will. The 2016 will disinherited two of the deceased’s eight children (including one of the two adult children named as estate trustee in the 2013 will) on the basis that they had received “their share” in their mother’s estate from the predeceasing husband’s estate. Between the dates of execution of the 2013 and 2016 wills, the deceased had suffered a bad fall and allegedly experienced delusions and had otherwise become forgetful and confused.
At trial, medical records are typically admitted under the business records exemption of the Evidence Act (in Ontario, section 35). Justice MacDonald acknowledged this general treatment of medical evidence, citing the Supreme Court of Canada (at para 48):
While clinical records are hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception both at common law and under s. 42 of the Evidence Act. The requirements for the admission of medical records as business records are set out in Ares[ v Venner,  SCR 608]. The Supreme Court of Canada held at 626:
Hospital records, including nurses’ notes, made contemporaneously by someone having a personal knowledge of the matters then being recorded and under a duty to make the entry or record should be received in evidence as prima facie proof of the facts stated therein.
Subsequent case law cited by the Court addressed the second objection of the parties propounding the will, which provided that the observations that a medical practitioner has a duty to record in the ordinary course of business (including those involving third parties) are generally admissible (Cambie Surgeries Corporation v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2016 BCSC 1896). Lastly, the Court considered the issue of relevance of the medical records and found that evidence relating to the mental health before and after the making of a will can be relevant in supporting an inference of capacity at the actual time of execution of the will (Laszlo v Lawton, 2013 BCSC 305).
After finding the medical records to be admissible as evidence of the deceased’s mental capacity (and in consideration of all of the available evidence), the Court declared the 2016 will to be invalid on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.
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A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice highlights the importance of preserving a surviving married spouse’s ability to elect for an equalization of net family properties within the six-month limitation period.
Upon death, a surviving married spouse in Ontario can elect for an equalization of net family properties under Sections 5 and 6 of the Family Law Act instead of taking under the predeceasing spouse’s will or, if the spouse has not left a will, on intestacy. Subsections 6(10), 6(11), and 7(3)(c) of the Family Law Act provide that the surviving spouse must ordinarily make an election within six months of date of death and not after that date. The Court may, however, extend the election deadline in the event that: (a) there are apparent grounds for relief; (b) relief is unavailable because of delay that has been incurred in good faith; and, (c) no person will suffer substantial prejudice by reason of the delay (subsection 2(8) of the Family Law Act).
Courts have reviewed the circumstances in which an extension is typically ordered. The requirement that the delay be incurred in good faith has been interpreted as meaning that the party has acted honestly and with no ulterior motive (see, for example, Busch v Amos, 1994 CanLII 7454 (ONSC)).
In Mihalcin v Templeman, 2018 ONSC 5385, a surviving spouse had commenced two claims with respect to the estate of her late husband and an inter vivos gift made to a live-in caregiver. However, neither of the proceedings had sought any relief relating to an equalization of net family properties, nor did the wife take any steps to make an election or to extend the time within which she was permitted to do so. The Court reviewed whether the delay in making the election was in good faith. The evidence regarding the reasons for the delay in electing for equalization were considered to be vague and insufficient to satisfy the evidentiary burden that the delay was incurred in good faith. Accordingly, the applicant was not permitted to amend her pleadings to incorporate this relief.
Justice Bruce Fitzpatrick commented as follows with respect to the importance of limitation periods, generally (at para 48):
I am mindful of the general importance of limitation periods for the conduct of litigation. There is an obligation on parties to put forward all known legitimate claims within certain time limits. In this case, the time limit was relatively short. I think it cannot be readily ignored. The evidentiary record is not sufficient for me to say that justice requires me to exercise my discretion in favour of allowing [the applicant] to amend her claim so as to include a claim for equalization in all of the circumstances.
Where an equalization of net family properties may be sought at a later time (for example, pending the outcome of a will challenge or dependant’s support application), it is prudent to seek an extension well before the expiry of the six-month limitation period as courts may or may not assist a surviving spouse in seeking this relief down the road, if and when it may become advisable.
Thank you for reading,
Other blog entries/podcasts that may be of interest:
- When is it Appropriate to Extend the Time Granted in Favour of Equalization Under the Family Law Act?
- Equalization Claims and Unequal Division of the Net Family Property
- Family Law Equalization Claims and Bankruptcy
- Consolidation of Family Law Act and Dependant Support Claims
A decision released earlier this week highlights the importance of a complete Management Plan supported by evidence when seeking one’s appointment as guardian of property.
Sometimes, the necessity of filing a Management Plan is viewed as a formality without proper attention to the details of the plan. However, the failure to file an appropriate Management Plan may prevent the appointment of a guardian of property, putting the administration of the incapable’s property in limbo.
In Connolly v Connolly and PGT, 2018 ONSC 5880 (CanLII), Justice Corthorn declined to approve of a Management Plan filed by the applicant and, accordingly, refused to appoint her as guardian of property. The Management Plan was rejected for the following reasons (among others):
- it did not address an anticipated increase in expenses over time (including when the applicant was no longer available to serve as the incapable’s caregiver and he may incur alternate housing costs);
- there was no first-hand evidence from BMO Nesbitt Burns or Henderson Structured Settlement with respect to the net settlement funds in excess of $1.4M and their payout and investment in a portfolio on the incapable’s behalf;
- the Court was concerned that stock market volatility could threaten to deplete the invested assets;
- the Public Guardian and Trustee had strongly recommended that the applicant post security, the expense of which was reflected as a deduction from the incapable’s assets (while not suggested that this was unreasonable, Justice Corthorn took issue with the absence of any case law or statutory provision cited by the applicant in support of the payment of the expense by the incapable rather than the applicant herself); and
- while the applicant had agreed to act as guardian without compensation, the plan did not contemplate how compensation would be funded if claimed by a potential successor guardian.
Notwithstanding that neither the incapable nor the Public Guardian and Trustee had opposed the Management Plan or the appointment of the applicant as guardian of property, Justice Corthorn found that the appointment of a guardian to manage over one million dollars in settlement funds was “contentious” and, accordingly, under Rule 39.01(5) of the Rules of Civil Procedure, direct evidence from a representative of the financial institution was required. In short, although the applicant was accepted as being a suitable candidate for appointment as guardian of property (and it was anticipated by the Court that she would ultimately be appointed), the Court was not satisfied on the evidence available that the management of the incapable’s property in accordance with the contents of the Management Plan was consistent with the man’s best interests.
While Justice Corthorn declared the individual respondent incapable and in need of assistance by a guardian of property, Her Honour adjourned the balance of the matter, suggesting that the applicant’s appointment as guardian of property could be revisited once additional evidence was filed in support of the contents of the Management Plan and/or the plan was further revised.
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Other blog entries and podcasts that may be of interest:
It is with great pleasure to announce that myself, Ian Hull, and Lionel Tupman will be co-chairing a professional development program on Essential Evidence for Estate Litigators through the OBA.
The program has been created specifically for estate litigators and will run over three evenings on April 5, May 17, and June 6, 2018.
Details of the program can be found by clicking here.
This program is a must for anyone who litigates in the area of estates, wills, and trusts!
I recently came across the decision in Campbell v Campbell, 2017 ONSC 2139. This is a recent decision with respect to two motions brought within an application for the interpretation of the last will and testament (the “Will”) of the late Howard Campbell (the “Deceased”). While the decision focuses on the various procedural matters at issue in the motions rather than the interpretation question at issue in the application, the decision also provides a brief summary of the facts which raised an interesting question for me regarding the admissibility of extrinsic evidence.
The interpretation concerns the Deceased’s Will, which contains three seemingly incompatible bequests, as follows:
- Paragraph 3(b) of the Will directs the estate trustee “to pay my debts, funeral and testamentary expenses, and to transfer the residue of my estate to my wife, if she survives me for a period of thirty days, for her own use absolutely”;
- Paragraph 3(c) of the Deceased’s Will directs the estate trustee “to deliver to my wife, for her use and enjoyment for life, all articles of personal domestic and household use or ornament belonging to me at the time of my death…and on her death, to divide all such articles among my children…”; and
- Paragraph 3(d) of the Will directs the estate trustee “to divide the residue of my estate equally between my wife (if she survives me for a period of thirty days) and my children, Kim, Howard, Rory, Cherie, Gina, Casey and Patrick, if then alive…”.
There appear to be four possible interpretations of the Deceased’s Will based on the above clauses:
- One hundred percent of the estate is left to the Deceased’s wife;
- The Deceased’s wife is given a life interest in personal property, which is later to be divided amongst the Deceased’s children;
- Fifty percent of the Deceased’s estate is to be left to his wife, and the other fifty percent is to be divided amongst the Deceased’s children; or
- The Deceased’s wife and the Deceased’s children are each to receive one-seventh of the estate.
In interpreting wills, Courts must first look to the language of the will to ascertain whether the testator’s intention can be discerned from the will itself. If the Court is unable to determine the testator’s intention from the will alone, it may then consider the surrounding circumstances known to the testator at the time that he or she made his or her will.
The surrounding circumstances that may be considered include only indirect extrinsic evidence, and not direct extrinsic evidence. Indirect extrinsic evidence consists of such circumstances as the character and occupation of the testator, the amount, extent and condition of his property, the number, identity, and general relationship to the testator of the immediate family and other relatives, the persons who comprised his circle of friends, and any other natural objects of his bounty. Direct extrinsic evidence would include, for example, instructions given by the testator to his solicitor in respect of the preparation of his will, or direct evidence from other third parties about the testator’s intentions.
As discussed in the decision of Rondel v Robinson Estate, 2011 ONCA 493, an exception to the general rule that direct extrinsic evidence is not admissible is in circumstances where there is an “equivocation” in the will, meaning that the words of the will in question apply equally well to two or more persons or things. Equivocation should not be equated with either ambiguity or mere difficulty of interpretation
One of our recent blog posts discusses a case where extrinsic evidence was not permissible. In that case, the court found that the language of the will in question was not equivocal, and accordingly, extrinsic evidence was not admitted. However, in the facts described above, it appears that the Deceased’s Will may provide an example of a situation where there is an equivocation, given that there seem to be four alternative interpretations.
As further discussed in the Rondel v Robinson decision, when direct extrinsic evidence, such as third party evidence of a testator’s intentions are admitted, this can give rise to reliability and credibility issues. Accordingly, it is important that the admissibility of direct extrinsic evidence be restricted, and permitted only when the rules of interpretation and construction are insufficient to interpret equivocal language.
Thanks for reading,
Other Blog posts that may be of interest:
A couple of weeks ago, Jonathon Kappy and I podcasted on a recent decision of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, which raises the issues of knowledge and approval and suspicious circumstances, and which provides an effective overview of the shifting evidentiary burdens within the context of a will challenge.
As many of our readers may already be aware, if a last will and testament or other testamentary document is executed in compliance with the formal requirements (that is, it is executed by the testator, duly witnessed, and testamentary in nature), it is presumed to be valid. However, if a party challenges the validity of a will and is able to establish that its execution was surrounded by suspicious circumstances, the presumption that the will is valid not longer applies, and the burden of proving the will shifts to the person asserting the validity of the document (its propounder). Even if suspicious circumstances cannot be established, the challenger may seek to have a will proved in solemn form by the propounder. In order to prove a will in solemn form, the propounder need only provide basic evidence in support of the due execution of the will and the testamentary capacity of the testator. If the Court accepts that suspicious circumstances existed at the time of the execution of the will, the evidentiary burden on the propounder can become relatively onerous.
In the recent Manitoba case of Garwood v. Garwood Estate, 2016 MBQB 113, 2016 CarswellMan 198, after the will had been proved in solemn form, Justice Bond reviewed the circumstances at hand in determining that they were suspicious and that the will, accordingly, needed to be proved by the propounder to be valid on a balance of probabilities. However, the Court considered the suspiciousness of the circumstances in determining the strength of the evidence in support of the validity of the will that would be required. Justice Bond found that, although the test for suspicious circumstances had been met (the drafting solicitor’s notes were sparse and his testimony was not found to be credible, the testator had been legally blind and incapable of reading the will herself, suggesting that she may not have had knowledge of and approved of the contents of the will, etc.), the circumstances were not so suspicious as to require the propounder to provide compelling evidence in support of the validity of the will. The Court was satisfied that the will was valid simply on the basis of the fact that the will had been prepared by a lawyer in accordance with the testator’s instructions, none of the major beneficiaries were involved in the testator’s estate planning, and the lack of evidence supporting the allegations that the will was procured by undue influence and/or that the testator was mentally incapable at the relevant time.
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As a part two of my blog from Tuesday, the Superior Court recently released a decision on the issue of disclosure for surveillance evidence.
The litigation in Bishop-Gittens v. Lim also arose from a motor-vehicle accident. In this particular case, the Plaintiff brought a motion, prior to opening submissions at trial, to exclude surveillance evidence that had been gathered by the Defendant. The issue before the Court was whether the Defendant should be allowed to rely on the surveillance and video footage for impeachment purposes under the following set of circumstances:
- there was no reference to surveillance in the Defendant’s affidavit of documents, as none had been conducted at that time;
- during the examination for discovery, the Defendant advised the Plaintiff that no surveillance had taken place;
- surveillance was conducted one month after the Defendant’s examination for discovery and over various days two years after the initial surveillance;
- the Defendant did not deliver a revised affidavit of documents in advance of trial; and
- there was no disclosure of the surveillance evidence until a letter disclosing the particulars of the surveillance, without a copy of the surveillance evidence itself, was delivered to the Plaintiff less than one month before trial.
Justice McKelvey concluded that the Defendant was in breach of the Rules, and
“In light of the defence’s failure to disclose the surveillance information in a prompt manner, it is apparent that this evidence may not be referred to during the trial unless leave is given by this court. The test for leave in connection with both a failure to disclose a document under rule 30.08 and the failure to correct an answer on discovery under rule 31.09 is governed by rule 53.08. This rule provides that where evidence is admissible only with leave of the trial judge, “leave shall be granted on such terms as are just and with an adjournment if necessary, unless to do so will cause prejudice to the opposite party or will cause undue delay in the conduct of the trial.”
The case law makes it clear that, in considering whether leave should be granted under rule 53.08, a trial judge must grant leave unless to do so will cause prejudice that cannot be overcome by an adjournment or costs. See Marchand (Litigation Guardian of) v. The Public General Hospital Society of Chatham (2000), 2000 CanLII 16946 (ON CA), 51 OR (3d) 97 (ON CA). As noted in the Iannarella decision, this mandatory orientation is understandable, since relevant evidence, including surveillance, is ordinarily admissible.”
Ultimately, Justice McKelvey allowed the Defendant to rely on the surveillance evidence only for the purposes of impeachment. The present circumstances before Court was distinguished with Iannarella because the trial not yet begun and neither party had taken any steps at trial which could result in prejudice by not knowing that this evidence may be introduced.
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Earlier this year, the Ontario Court of Appeal released a lengthy decision in respect of a party’s obligation to disclose surveillance evidence throughout the litigation process if one intends to rely on such evidence at trial.
The factual background of Iannarella v. Corbett arose from a personal injury claim relating to a rear-end collision that occurred on a snowy winter evening. The Plaintiff claims that he suffered a rotator cuff injury to his left shoulder when the Defendant failed to stop in time before he collided with the Plaintiff’s vehicle. According to the Defendant’s testimony,
“there was nothing further he could have done to avoid the collision and repeatedly said that the accident was caused by “mother nature”. He told Mr. Iannarella at the scene: “Sorry, but I don’t control mother nature.”
While the Defendant may not be in control of mother nature, he was in control of his conduct throughout the proceedings.
In defence of the Plaintiff’s claims for damages, the Defendant retained private investigators to conduct surveillance on the Plaintiff over various time periods between 2009 and 2012. As the result, 130 hours of surveillance was recorded after the accident on February 19, 2012. However, the existence of the surveillance was not disclosed to the Plaintiff in an affidavit of documents nor were its particulars made known to him.
At trial, the Defendant sought to use the surveillance footage as evidence of the functionality of the Plaintiff’s left arm after the accident. Ultimately, the Court of Appeal found that the use of surveillance evidence at trial to be improper as “a form of trial by ambush”. The Court of Appeal was adamant that the disclosure obligations required by the Rules of Civil Procedure must be followed to ensure fairness and prompt settlement discussions.
In essence, as a general rule of thumb, a party may not rely on surveillance evidence if it is not disclosed through an affidavit of documents. Disclosure must be made either in full or as a privileged document, depending on whether the evidence is relied upon substantively or for impeachment purposes.
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