What is a solicitor’s duty when preparing a Will?

Those seeking to answer this question should start their journey with the BC Court of Appeal decision of Chalmers v Uzelac.  Here, Madam Justice Southin noted that, “every solicitor who, as part of his or her practice, draws wills should read, mark and inwardly digest at least once each year the judgment of Sir John Alexander Boyd, C. in Murphy v. Lamphier (1914), 31 O.L.R. 287, the Canadian locus classicus on a solicitor’s duty in taking instructions”.

Murphy is a seminal case.  The Court found that it was wrong to assume that because a person can understand a question put to them, and give a rational answer, that they are of sound mind and capable of making a Will.  Instead, the Court emphasized that capacity must be judged in light of the nature of the act and all of the circumstances:

“A solicitor is usually called in to prepare a will because he is a skilled professional man. He has duties to perform which vary with the situation and condition of the testator. In the case of a person greatly enfeebled by old age or with faculties impaired by disease, and particularly in the case of one labouring under both disabilities, the solicitor does not discharge his duty by simply taking down and giving legal expression to the words of the client, without being satisfied by all available means that testable capacity exists and is being freely and intelligently exercised in the disposition of the property. The solicitor is brought in for the very purpose of ascertaining the mind and will of the testator touching his worldly substance and his comprehension of its extent and character and of those who may be considered proper and natural objects of his bounty. The Court reprobates the conduct of a solicitor who needlessly draws a will without getting personal instructions from the testator, and, for one reason, that the business of the solicitor is to see that the will represents the intelligent act of a free and competent person.”

Expanding on this, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Hall v Bennett Estate references an article by M.M. Litman & G.B. Robertson which identifies common errors that have been either the subject of criticism by the courts or the basis of liability for professional negligence in the preparation of a Will, including failing to: obtain a mental status examination; interview the testator in sufficient depth;  properly record/maintain notes; test for capacity; and, provide proper interview conditions.

Read, mark, and inwardly digest this blog at least once a year accordingly.

Noah Weisberg

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