An unfortunate reality with the administration of estates is that probate can take a long time to be issued. It is not uncommon for it to take six to eight months, if not longer, after the application is filed before the Certificate of Appointment is issued. As many institutions such as banks require a Certificate of Appointment before they will grant access to estate funds, and the Estate Trustee is generally unable to deal with any real estate owned by the estate until the Certificate of Appointment has been issued, this delay can often result in complications with the initial administration of the estate. These complications can be particularly acute when there is an urgent need for the Estate Trustee to complete a particular task which requires probate, such as the potential urgent need to deal with certain real estate or assets on behalf of the estate.
In the past when faced with the urgent need for probate a common solution would be to bring a Motion seeking an order directing the Registrar to expedite the issuance of the Certificate of Appointment. As anyone who has recently attended an event at which an estates court judge has spoken can attest however this option generally appears no longer to be available, as the message being conveyed is the court is generally not prepared to order the Registrar to expedite the process absent extraordinary circumstances. Such a reluctance appears in part based on the court not wanting to place the Registrar in a position of being in contempt of court if they are unable to comply with the expedition order, as well as administrative issues the expedition orders were causing at the estate office.
The general inability to expedite the issuance of probate absent limited circumstances has raised a number of questions about what, if anything, an applicant Estate Trustee can do if faced with the urgent need for probate and their situation does not meet one of the limited circumstances the court has indicated they will consider expediting probate. Would the applicant Estate Trustee simply have to wait however long the probate application takes in the normal course, or are there other options absent expediting probate that may be available to them?
One potential solution is the use of a “limited grant” under section 29(3) of the Estates Act as a stop-gap, with the applicant Estate Trustee being provided with the authority to complete the particular urgent task under the limited grant until such a time as probate is issued at which time the limited grant would expire. As the limited grant should not require the active involvement of the Registrar, with the individual’s authority to complete the task being derived from the order itself, many of the concerns raised in relation to ordering the Registrar to expedite probate do not appear present with the limited grant.
The limited grant is technically a separate appointment from Estate Trustee, such that the order providing for the limited grant should likely contemplate items such as what is to happen to any assets subject to the limited grant upon the limited grant expiring (i.e. are they to be returned to the Estate Trustee), as well as whether an accounting for the limited grant and/or any compensation to the appointee is payable now or if it is to be deferred to any accounting for the main estate.
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Generally speaking an Estate Trustee has the ability to “step into the shoes” of the deceased individual as if they were the deceased individual. I have previously blogged, for example, about the Estate Trustee’s general ability to waive any duty of confidentiality owed to the deceased individual after death. This ability to represent the deceased individual generally extends to any legal proceedings commenced against the deceased individual’s estate, with it typically falling to the Estate Trustee to represent the deceased individual or their estate in the claim. But what happens when there is no Estate Trustee? Can a legal proceeding be commenced against a deceased individual when there is no Estate Trustee, and, if so, who represents the estate in such a claim?
Rule 9.02 of the Rules of Civil Procedure provides the general framework by which a claim can be commenced against the estate a deceased individual where there is no Estate Trustee, providing for the appointment of a “litigation administrator”. Specifically, rule 9.02(1) provides:
“Where it is sought to commence or continue a proceeding against the estate of a deceased person who has no executor or administrator, the court on motion may appoint a litigation administrator to represent the estate for the purposes of the proceeding”
The “litigation administrator” is typically a neutral third party whose sole role is to represent the estate in the proceeding. The authority of the litigation administrator does not extend beyond the representation of the estate in the legal proceeding, with the litigation administrator, for example, not having the authority to make distributions to the beneficiaries or otherwise administer the estate (i.e. pay debts or liabilities). To the extent it is desired to complete such tasks someone will need to be appointed as Estate Trustee or otherwise be provided with the authority by way of court order through something like a limited grant under section 29(3) of the Estates Act.
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When there is a Last Will and Testament the question of who is going to act as Estate Trustee is usually fairly straightforward, with the Will typically naming an individual to such a role. In the event the individual who is originally named as Estate Trustee is unable or unwilling to act, the Will often provides for an alternate individual to be appointed. But what happens when the Will does not name an Estate Trustee or an individual dies intestate? Who gets to be the Estate Trustee under such a circumstance?
The order of priority for who gets to act as Estate Trustee when there is no one appointed is governed by section 29(1) of the Estates Act, which provides:
“Subject to subsection (3), where a person dies intestate or the executor named in the will refuses to prove the will, administration of the property of the deceased may be committed by the Superior Court of Justice to,
(a) the person to whom the deceased was married immediately before the death of the deceased or person with whom the deceased was living in a conjugal relationship outside marriage immediately before the death;
(b) the next of kin of the deceased; or
(c) the person mentioned in clause (a) and the next of kin,
as in the discretion of the court seems best, and, where more persons than one claim the administration as next of kin who are equal in degree of kindred to the deceased, or where only one desires the administration as next of kin where there are more persons than one of equal kindred, the administration may be committed to such one or more of such next of kin as the court thinks fit.”
Although the court retains the power to select amongst this group as it “thinks fit”, generally speaking the individual entitled to be appointed as Estate Trustee is the Deceased’s spouse followed by their next of kin (or some combination of these individuals). Section 29(3) of the Estates Act contemplates that the right of these individuals to be appointed as Estate Trustee is not absolute, with the court having the ability to select a different person if it thinks fit. The position of a majority of the beneficiaries can also be taken into account in selecting the individual under section 29(2).
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The commencement of an Application for support as a dependant under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”) can be an extremely stressful event for the Applicant. Not only is the Applicant likely commencing court proceedings against fellow family members and/or close friends of the deceased, but there may also be a sense of urgency to the Application to ensure that steps are taken before the estate has otherwise been administered and/or distributed to those who would be entitled to the estate but for the support Application. As a result of these concerns it is not uncommon for the Applicant in the early stages of the Application to seek some form of court intervention to stop and/or stay the administration of the estate until the Application has been adjudicated, thereby ensuring that there are assets remaining in the estate to satisfy any support award should it ultimately be made. But is such court intervention actually necessary?
Under section 67 of the SLRA, once an Estate Trustee has been served with an Application for support under Part V they are automatically required to cease all distributions from the estate unless certain conditions are met. Specifically, section 67(1) provides:
“Where an application is made and notice thereof is served on the personal representative of the deceased, he or she shall not, after service of the notice upon him or her, unless all persons entitled to apply consent or the court otherwise orders, proceed with the distribution of the estate until the court has disposed of the application.”
Section 67(3) provides that any Estate Trustee that makes a distribution in violation of section 67(1) once they have been served with an Application under Part V of the SLRA is personally liable to pay any shortfall should a support order ultimately be made. As a result, any distribution made by the Estate Trustee once an Application for support has been commenced would be at great potential personal liability, as they could personally be required to pay any support order.
Although section 67 of the SLRA automatically stops any external distributions being made once an Application for support has been commenced, it does not stop the internal administration of the estate itself. As a result, the Estate Trustee would, for example, still be at liberty to collect and/or liquidate any estate assets, including any real estate. They just could not distribute those funds to the beneficiaries once the assets had been liquidated. In the event the Applicant should seek a particular asset as part of their support order, such as the transfer and/or use of particular real property, additional steps would need to be taken by the Applicant to ensure that the Estate Trustee did not dispose of the asset while the Application remained before the court. These additional steps would likely be in the form of an order under section 59 of the SLRA, while allows the court to issue an order “suspending” the administration of the estate either in whole or in relation to a particular asset (i.e. the real estate) for such time as the court may decide.
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Yesterday I blogged about the Notice of Contestation of Claim, which is a process that in essence provides the Estate Trustee with the ability to require individuals with a potential claim against the estate to commence such a claim within 30 days of being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim such that they can no longer pursue it before the court.
The power given to an Estate Trustee by the Notice of Contestation of Claim coupled with the relatively short timeframe by which the claimant must respond could appear attractive to an Estate Trustee, potentially enticing the Estate Trustee to use such a process to flush out all potential claims at the early stages of the administration of the estate. This is turn raises questions about the kinds of claims that the Notice of Contestation of Claim can be used for, and whether it can be used for all potential claims against an estate or whether the claims against which it can be used are more limited. Could you, for example, serve a possible dependant with a Notice of Contestation of Claim, and in doing so require the alleged dependant to bring their claim for support forward within 30 days failing which they are deemed to have abandoned their claim?
The issue of whether a Notice of Contestation of Claim can be used against a potential dependant of the estate was dealt with by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Omiciuolo v. Pasco, 2008 ONCA 241, wherein the court confirmed that the Notice of Contestation of Claim could not be used in relation to a potential claim for support by a dependant under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act. In coming to such a decision the Court of Appeal notes that historically the “claim or demand” referenced in sections 44 and 45 of the Estates Act had been interpreted to mean a “claim or demand against the estate by a ‘creditor’ for payment of money on demand“, and that it could not be used for claims such as declaratory relief or a claim for judicial sale or foreclosure.
From the Court of Appeal’s rationale in Omiciuolo v. Pasco it would appear that the “claims” against which a Notice of Contestation of Claim can be used are likely limited to claims of potential creditors of the estate (i.e. claims that the deceased owed an individual money), and that it cannot be used against other more nuanced or equitable claims such as a potential claim from a dependant for support or declaratory relief.
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What’s an Estate Trustee to do when faced with a situation in which an individual has threatened to bring a claim against the estate but has not yet actually taken any formal steps to advance the claim. As Estate Trustee you have certain obligations to the beneficiaries of the estate, including seeing to the administration in a timely manner. An Estate Trustee also has obligations to the creditors of the estate however, and needs to ensure to that all debts of the estate are paid prior to distributing the estate to the beneficiaries. If they fail to do so, the Estate Trustee could face potential personal liability to the creditors of the estate.
An active claim being commenced against the estate can significantly delay the amount of time it takes for an estate to be administered, as the Estate Trustee cannot see to the final administration of the estate while the claim remains active as they must ensure that there are requisite funds in the estate to satisfy any damages award should the estate ultimately not be successful in the claim. The same is also true for a claim that has been threatened against the estate, as the Estate Trustee may be apprehensive to distribute the estate in the face of a claim possibly being commenced for the same reason. When faced with a such a threatened claim the Estate Trustee could be put in a difficult dilemma, for on the one hand they wish to administer the estate in a timely fashion to the beneficiaries and there is no active claim that has been commenced that would otherwise stop them from doing so, yet because of the threatened claim they may be reluctant to do so for fear of their own potential liability should the claim later be commenced after the funds have been distributed. When faced with such a situation the “Notice of Contestation of Claim” could become the Estate Trustee’s new best friend.
At its most basic the Notice of Contestation of Claim provides a mechanism by which a Estate Trustee can require the potential claimant to formally advance their claim against the estate failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim. The “Notice of Contestation of Claim” process is governed by sections 44 and 45 of the Estates Act. If a potential claimant is served with a Notice of Contestation of Claim they are provided with 30 days to issue a “claim” pursuant to the Notice of Contestation of Claim, failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim. The 30 day deadline may be extended up to a maximum of three months by the court if the claimant should seek such an extension.
The process by which a Notice of Contestation of Claim is issued is governed by rule 75.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, providing the form (Form 75.13) that the Notice of Contestation of Claim must be in, as well as the steps that the claimant must follow to bring their claim before the court upon being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim should they intend to pursue the matter.
Through the Notice of Contestation of Claim an Estate Trustee can force a potential claimant to make a decision regarding whether they intend to bring a claim against the estate. If the potential claimant does not take the appropriate steps following being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim their potential claim is deemed to be abandoned and can no longer be pursued before the court, with the Estate Trustee being theoretically free to proceed with the administration of the estate.
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It is not uncommon for the lawyer who drafted a testator’s will or codicil to subsequently be retained by the Estate Trustees after the testator’s death to assist with the administration of the estate. The rationale behind the drafting lawyer being retained to assist with the administration of the estate appears fairly self-evident, for as the drafting lawyer likely has an intimate knowledge of the testator’s estate plan and assets they may be in a better position than most to assist with the administration of the estate.
While retaining the drafting lawyer to assist with the administration of the estate is fairly uncontroversial in most situations, circumstances could become more complicated if there has been a challenge to the validity of the testamentary document prepared by the drafting lawyer. If a proceeding has been commenced challenging the validity of the testamentary document, there is an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer’s notes and records will be produced as evidence, and that the drafting lawyer will be called as a non-party witness as part of the discovery process. If the matter should proceed all the way to trial, there is also an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer would be called as a witness at trial. As the drafting lawyer would personally have a role to play in any court process challenging the validity of the will, questions emerge regarding whether it would be proper for the drafting lawyer to continue to represent any party in the will challenge, or would doing so place the drafting lawyer in a conflict of interest?
Rule 3.4-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not act or continue to act where there is a conflict of interest. In the case of a drafting lawyer representing a party in a will challenge for a will that they prepared, an argument could be raised that the drafting lawyer is in an inherent position of conflict, as the drafting lawyer may be unable to look out for the best interests of their client while at the same time looking out for their own interests when being called as a witness or producing their file. There is also the potentially awkward situation of the drafting lawyer having to call themselves as a witness, and the associated logistical quagmire of how the lawyer would put questions to themselves.
The issue of whether a drafting lawyer would be in a conflict of interest in representing a party in a will challenge was dealt with in Dale v. Prentice, 2015 ONSC 1611. In such a decision, the party challenging the validity of the will brought a motion to remove the drafting lawyer as the lawyer of record for the propounder of the will, alleging they were in a conflict of interest. The court ultimately agreed that the drafting lawyer was in a conflict of interest, and ordered that the drafting lawyer be removed as the lawyer of record. In coming to such a conclusion, the court states:
“There is a significant likelihood of a real conflict arising. Counsel for the estate is propounding a Will prepared by his office. The preparation and execution of Wills are legal services, reserved to those who are properly licensed to practise law. Counsel’s ability to objectively and independently assess the evidence will necessarily be affected by his interest in having his firm’s legal services found to have been properly provided.” [emphasis added]
Decisions such as Dale v. Prentice suggest that a lawyer may be unable to represent any party in a will challenge for a will that was prepared by their office as they may be in a conflict of interest. Should the circumstance arise where the drafting lawyer is retained to assist with the administration of the estate, and subsequent to being retained someone challenges the validity of the Will, it may be in the best interest of all parties for the drafting lawyer to indicate that they are no longer able to act in the matter due to the potential conflict, and suggest to their clients that they retain a new lawyer to represent them in the will challenge.
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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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In Milne Estate (Re), 2018 ONSC 4174 (CanLII), the court refused to grant probate to a will where there was uncertainty as to the subject matter governed by the will. We blogged and podcasted on this case here and here.
Historically, probate has been granted to wills that have not disposed of property. For example:
- In Brownrigg v. Pike (1882), 7 P.D. 61 (Eng. P.D.A.), the court probated a Will that did no more than appoint an executor;
- In Jordan, Re (1868), L.R. 1 P.& D. 555 (P.D.), the court probated a will that only appointed an executor, even though the executor had renounced;
- In Re Blow, 1977 CanLII 1274 (ON SC), the court stated that “In my view, it is not an essential element of a testamentary instrument that it have dispositive effect (although the fact that an instrument does not purport to dispose of property may be a factor to be taken into account in determining whether it was intended to have testamentary effect”. There, however, a precatory memorandum of advice to executors was not admitted to probate;
- In Tatnall v. Hankey (1838), 2 Moo. P.C. 342, 12 E.R. 1036, a will that merely executed a power of appointment was entitled to probate;
- In Barnes v. Vincent (1846) 5. Moo. P.C. 201, 13 E.R. 468, the Privy Council held that a grant of probate could be made without an inquiry into the validity of an exercise of the power of appointment, or even whether the alleged power of appointment in fact existed;
- Section 12 of the Estates Act allows for probate to be granted even if the will does not purport to dispose of any property in Ontario.
For a further and more extensive commentary on the Milne decision, see Professor Oosterhoff’s article, “What is a Will and What is the Role of a Court of Probate?”.
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