George Floyd died tragically during an arrest by Minneapolis Police officers on May 25, 2020. Mr. Floyd’s highly publicized death ignited demonstrations and protests across the United States and Canada against police brutality and in support of anti-racism. Many individuals are also showing their support to this cause with donations to community groups, non-profit organizations, and other fundraising campaigns with a related mission or purpose.
One of the more successful fundraising campaigns has been the George Floyd Memorial Fund established by Mr. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, on GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform. This campaign has raised just over $14 million to date, far surpassing its original target of $1.5 million. The overwhelming success of this GoFundMe campaign invites the question – what happens if more funds are donated to a fundraising campaign than originally requested?
Crowdfunding campaigns are often created in order to raise money for a specific purpose or project. If more money is raised than is needed to fulfill the campaign’s intended purpose, then there will be surplus funds. A common example is a GoFundMe campaign created to defray funeral expenses and the campaign ends up raising funds over and above the actual costs incurred for the funeral. What is the campaign promoter entitled, or perhaps required, to do with the leftover funds?
In general, if money is donated for a specific purpose and not all of the funds raised can be applied to that specific purpose, the surplus funds may be returned to the donors via a resulting trust. Returning donated monies can be burdensome where there have been a significant number of donors and/or anonymous donors who cannot be easily identified. To help avoid this situation, a campaign promoter can include alternative purposes for which funds can be used. These additional purposes must be set out at the time the funds are solicited.
In the case of the George Floyd Memorial Fund, the GoFundMe page states:
“This fund is established to cover funeral and burial expenses, mental and grief counseling, lodging and travel for all court proceedings, and to assist our family in the days to come as we continue to seek justice for George. A portion of these funds will also go to the Estate of George Floyd for the benefit and care of his children and their educational fund.”
The above description includes multiple purposes for the collected funds. Some of these purposes likely have been or will be fulfilled, such as the payment of funeral expenses. However, other purposes are seemingly unbounded, such as supporting the care and education of Mr. Floyd’s children. Thus, although the George Floyd Memorial Fund garnered millions of dollars in excess of its original goal, it is likely that all of these funds can properly be applied to the campaign’s defined purposes. If this is the case, then no portion of the collected funds will be considered to be surplus and all of the money should remain available for the benefit of the Floyd family.
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Sydney Osmar‘s blog from yesterday covered the issue of the recent cuts to legal aid funding, which can only be expected to result in increased barriers to Ontario residents in accessing the court system.
Within the context of estates, high legal fees may contribute to the inability of (would-be) litigants to obtain able assistance in accessing the court system. Some meritorious estate and capacity-related litigation may not be commenced simply because of a lack of funds required to hire a lawyer to assist in doing so.
While successful parties may be awarded some portion of the legal fees that they have incurred, payable by the unsuccessful party to the litigation (or out of the assets of the estate), recovery of all legal fees incurred in pursuing litigation is rare. The balance of legal fees that a party can be expected to pay out of whatever benefit they may ultimately receive dependent on the outcome of the litigation may eliminate some or all of the financial benefit of the funds that they may stand to receive.
For example, a dependant’s support application brought by a surviving spouse who lacks the financial means to support him or herself may result in protracted litigation. Even if the application for dependant’s support is successful, the court may not always make an order that adequately reflects the entitlements of the dependant and the total fees that he or she has incurred to bring the application, limiting the funds available for the dependant’s expenses going forward. While interim support orders or orders directing payments toward professional fees related to bringing the application may be available during litigation in some circumstances, the related motions will serve to further increase the legal fees incurred by the applicant if such relief is not obtained on consent. In the absence of contribution from the assets of the estate to fund the litigation or an alternative arrangement for the payment of legal fees, it may not be possible for a surviving spouse in need to make a dependant’s support claim in the first place or he or she may need to do so without a lawyer’s assistance.
In 2016, it was reported that the numbers of self-represented litigants in Canada have increased over the last two decades and more significantly in recent years. The inability to afford a lawyer and ineligibility for legal aid assistance were cited as the primary reasons why a party is self-represented. Research suggests that parties who are self-represented are less likely to be successful in litigation (with success rates of only 4% in responding to motions for summary judgment, 12.5% for motions and applications, and 14% at trial) than represented parties.
While assistance with estate-related matters may be available to some from the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, the Queen’s University Elder Law Clinic, or other clinics (which are funded by Legal Aid Ontario and will be impacted by the recent budget cuts) in some circumstances, many individuals simply do not qualify for assistance or require assistance that is not provided by these clinics.
Our colleague, The Honourable R. Roy McMurtry, is a strong advocate for access to justice and has expressed the following sentiment: “[O]ur freedoms are at best fragile…they depend on the ability of every citizen to assert in a court or tribunal their rights under law as well as receiving sound legal advice as to their obligations. Indeed, our laws and freedoms will only be as strong as the protection that they afford to the most vulnerable members of society.”
Unfortunately, greater numbers of individuals than previously may struggle to access just resolutions of estates and other matters as a result of the recent changes to legal aid funding in Ontario.
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Typically, costs awards are not made until the conclusion of litigation. However, in rare circumstances, courts may order that costs are paid to a party at an earlier point during the litigation to assist them with the funding of the litigation itself, even if it is not yet known which of the party or parties will ultimately be successful at trial.
In what circumstances will a court order the payment of legal fees on an interim basis? The Supreme Court of Canada outlined the test for granting an order for interim costs to fund litigation in British Columbia (Minister of Forests) v. Okanagan Indian Band. The Court summarized the test as follows:
- the party seeking the order must be impecunious to the extent that, without such an order, that party would be deprived of the opportunity to proceed with the case;
- the claimant must establish a prima facie case of sufficient merit to warrant pursuit; and
- there must be special circumstances sufficient to satisfy the court that the case is within the narrow class of cases where this extraordinary exercise of its powers is appropriate.
In the Okanagan Indian Band decision, the Supreme Court considered family law disputes as one of the few unique exceptions to the general rule that the costs of an action or application only be awarded at the conclusion of litigation. One factor that the Court refers to as making interim costs awards suitable in family law matters is the presumption that the property in dispute is to be shared by the parties in some way. Ontario courts have acknowledged this presumption to be the basis of allowing interim payments to fund ongoing legal costs in estate litigation, suggesting that the payment of costs to fund the litigation can be accounted for in the final decision. However, a party to family or estate proceedings still needs to satisfy the above test before an interim costs award will normally be made.
In estate litigation, it is not uncommon for the Court to direct the payment of funds for use toward one or more party’s legal fees out of the assets of the estate while litigation is ongoing. Most often, the party to whom interim costs are paid will be entitled to a share of the assets of the estate whether he or she is successful in the litigation or not. The interim costs award can be deducted from the distributions that are ultimately made to that party. While rarely made within contexts other than family and estate litigation, interim costs orders can allow a party that may otherwise be unable to fund litigation to advance or respond to legal proceedings that affect his or her entitlements as the beneficiary of an estate.
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