Tag: In the News

20 Apr

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: The Ultimate Insurance Policy

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), also known as the Doomsday Vault, is a secure seedbank located on a Norwegian island far within the Arctic Circle. The purpose of the SGSV is ‘to provide insurance against both incremental and catastrophic loss of crop diversity held in traditional seed banks around the world.’

The safety of the world’s 1,400 crop diversity collections has been a concern for many years due to risks including poor agricultural management, equipment failures, war, underfunding and natural disasters. The SGSV provides a duplication of seed samples stored in genebanks worldwide, acting as a sort of agricultural ‘spare tire’, if you will.

The SGSV was entirely funded and built by the Norwegian government and took its first delivery of seeds just over a year ago. The vault is situated 390 feet inside ‘Platåberget’, a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen Island chosen based on its tectonic inactivity. Inside the vault, the seeds are sealed in specially designed four-ply foil packages, which are then placed inside sealed boxes and stored on shelves inside storage rooms. Refrigeration units (powered by locally mined coal) cool the seeds to –18 degrees Celsius, and in the event of equipment failure, it would take weeks for the temperature to even reach that of the surrounding sandstone. The area’s natural permafrost would further prevent the samples from thawing. Even in worst-case climate change modeling, the vault rooms will remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years. Estimates suggest that the SGSV has the ability to conserve a capacity of over 2 billion seeds for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Now, how’s that for global estate planning?

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger

15 Apr

The Millionaire, His Mistress, His Will & the ex-Governor

Hull & Hull LLP Capacity, Estate & Trust, In the News, Litigation Tags: , , , , , , , 0 Comments

A current Georgia case vividly illustrates the legal, emotional and moral complexity often involved in estates litigation.  According to the reports, Harvey Strother died at age 78, having succumbed to progressively severe alcoholism brought on by the tragic death of his daughter at age 23.  Strother had built up a formidable nest of car dealerships around Georgia, dying with a net worth of about US$37 million.  And a mistress 30 years his junior. 

At issue are 3 amendments to Strother’s 1988 will in favour of his mistress.  The will had left the bulk of his estate to his wife, their children and grandchildren.  But one amendment gave his mistress a $7,900 monthly allowance, a second gave her health insurance and an island condo in Florida.   The third – signed about a month before Strother’s death – gave her a Cape Cod cottage, a Florida boat slip and a Florida condo to her son.  By that time Strother was drinking 1.5 gallons of wine a day (about 6.8 liters, or 9 bottles of wine).

At trial, the jury upheld the first two amendments, worth about $4.5 million to the mistress.  However, the third one was invalid.  Strother, was allegedly drinking even before he signed it and brought to the lawyer’s office by his mistress, and his signature was illegible. 

The family is appealing the two amendments that were upheld, one on the basis that the witnesses were not even present (the mistress is appealing the third amendment struck out by the jury).  Interestingly, the family is represented by Georgia’s ex-Governor Roy Barnes, who points out that the requirement for two witnesses "is an elementary part of the law that has been there since the time of Edward II."  FYI, King Edward II, 1284 – 1327: yes, we deal with old law in estates litigation. 

Have a great day,

Chris Graham

13 Apr

Ouch! It hurts…

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…but every recession has lucky people too.  To save you hours of watching cable news and reading, here’s a snapshot of good news and bad news on the legal profession in Canada and around the Common Law world:

  • IN THE CROSS-HAIRS: with companies trying to pare their legal budgets between 6% and 35%, the #1 target for general counsels is… 
  • THANKS BERNIE: a freakish confluence of circumstances, including the Madoff scandal, is allowing top rates for UK regulatory lawyers to hit a stunning USD1,440/hour.  That’s professional athlete territory, only now it’s being paid to people with minds. 
  • FAMINE IN IRELAND: hundreds of unemployed solicitors.  Bleak prospects.  All that remains is for the potato harvest to fail.
  • TRANSACTIONS: law firm mergers up 33% in the US.  This, though, is an indication of nothing definite.  Mergers ideally result in "efficiencies of scale", with a real-world meaning of fewer bodies doing the same work (we each had 2 doing the work of 1.5.  Now we can have 3 doing the work of 3) or "economies of scope" (you do this, we do that, let’s merge and cross-refer).
  • RED SKY AT NIGHT OR IN THE MORNING?: major US law firm posts record revenue of $668 million for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2009, up 2.2%.
  • SALARY FREEZES: by a major US law firm.
  • PAY CUTS NOT TERMINATIONS: a major US law firm institutes $17,500 pay cuts, others may follow.   Required measure for the entire US economy?
  • THE COLD EQUATIONS: the problem simplified. (apologies to Tom Godwin)
  • "DEFERRED EMPLOYMENT" IS NOT DEFEAT: a peptalk to grads facing an economic wasteland. 
  • LAW FIRMS FIRING: especially US firms, unsurprisingly.
  • BUT LAW FIRMS HIRING: in Canada, apparently mostly in bankruptcy and litigation.
  • AND BLACKBERRY DEFIES RECESSION: attaboy!  Any good news is very good news.

Times are always interesting. 

Have a great week,

Chris Graham

06 Apr

The Third Man Factor

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Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

I just finished reading a fascinating book authored by John Geiger called The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments. When faced with edge-of-death circumstances, numerous people throughout history have encountered what is commonly referred to as ‘the Third Man’. Confronted by life at its extremes, these people have had the sense that they were suddenly joined by a friendly, trusted presence – a guardian, if you will, who “led them out of the impossible”. The Third Man Factor details many of these remarkable experiences, highlights the common threads of extreme physical and mental distress, monotony and isolation, and explores the domains of physiology, sociology, religion, neurology and psychology to flesh out the meaning of the appearance of the Third Man.

In 1895, while attempting to complete the first solo circumnavigation of the world, Joshua Slocum’s sloop-rigged fishing boat Spray was caught in a violent storm. Slocum became convinced of another on board who steered the boat through the gale while Slocum huddled in the boat’s cabin, sick with food poisoning, but unworried. Slocum had experienced the Third Man phenomenon, someone to whom he referred as his ‘invisible helmsman’. An account of Slocum’s surreal encounter was published in the Boston Globe on October 14, 1895, under the headline “Spook on Spray”.

Other Third Man experiences include:

· Reinhold Messner, legendary Italian mountaineer and the first man to summit Everest solo and without supplementary oxygen. In 1970, after having summited Pakistan’s 8,126 metre Nanga Parbat with his younger brother Günther, the two became separated on the precarious descent, and Messner soon came to the horrific realization that Günther had been swept down in an avalanche. It was then that Messner encountered a lone phantom climber calling out to him, comforting him and eventually guiding him down the mountain to safety.
· Ernest Shackleton, British explorer, and head of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916. After his ship Endurance became trapped in ice and was destroyed, Shackleton (pictured below) set off on a perilous 36-hour trek across the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia in an attempt to seek rescue. In his book, South: The Endurance Expedition, Shackleton wrote that “…it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” He referred to this fourth man as a ‘Divine Companion’. It was Shackleton’s experience that actually inspired T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land.

· Charles Lindbergh, early aviator. In 1927, during the first solo, non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris, Lindbergh encountered ‘vague outlined forms, disembodied beings’ aboard the Spirit of St. Louis while desperately trying to stave off profound exhaustion. These forms not only reassured Lindbergh, but discussed navigational problems and advised him on his flight.

Hallucination? Divine intervention? Sensory illusion? Visit www.thirdmanfactor.com to join a forum for a more in-depth discussion of this phenomenon.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger

27 Mar

Houdini’s Final Escape?

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Following up on Jennifer Hartman’s excellent blog on Harry Houdini’s life and death, I came across information relating to the proposed exhumation of Harry Houdini.

In March 2007, his grandnephew announced that he was seeking to have Houdini’s body exhumed in order to determine the true cause of death. As noted by Jennifer in her blog, Houdini is said to have died accidentally after being punched in the stomach. However, no autopsy was ever performed.

In a 2006 biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, it is suggested that enemies of Houdini, possibly members of the Spiritualist movement, poisoned Houdini because he often debunked their claims of being able to talk to the dead. 

Alas, the proposed exhumation has not (yet) proceeded. It has been said that the plan may have been part of a publicity stunt for the biography.

Have a great weekend.

Paul Trudelle

24 Mar

Taking His Secret to the Grave

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I think that in a year I may retire. I cannot take my money with me when I die and I wish to enjoy it, with my family, while I live. – Harry Houdini, Magician and Escapologist

When I was around 6 or 7 years old, I was unequivocally obsessed with Harry Houdini.  My brother and I used to have contests at the local pool to see which of us could hold our breath the longest. He always won, and I’d end the day a few nickels lighter.

Born Ehrich Weisz on this day in 1874, Harry Houdini emigrated with his family from Budapest to the United States in 1878. As a young man, Houdini’s initial attempts to establish a career in magic were relatively unsuccessful; he even had to double as ‘a Wild Man’ carnival act. Harry met his kindred soul in Beatrice (Bess) Raymond, a teenager trying to succeed in show business as a singer and dancer. They married in 1894. After meeting manager Martin Beck, Houdini found his niche in escape acts: handcuffs, ropes, straitjackets, and chains. His most memorable act was to escape “The Chinese Water Torture Cell” (pictured below). To develop his breath-holding capabilities, Houdini even had an oversized bathtub installed in his house so he could practice regularly.


In the fall of 1926, after having broken his ankle while performing the Chinese Water Torture stunt, and after several sleepless nights caring for Bess after she suffered a bout of food poisoning, Houdini was in his Montreal dressing room chatting with a college student who also happened to be an amateur boxer. The student asked Houdini if it was true that Houdini could withstand any blow to his body above the waist. A weakened Houdini replied yes, and began to rise to his feet, but before he had time to tighten his abdominal muscles, the boxer punched him three times. Houdini suffered a burst appendix, and later, peritonitis. He died on the afternoon of October 31, 1926 at age 52, and was later buried in his bronze ‘buried alive casket’, his head resting on a black sack of letters his mother had written him while alive. No autopsy was performed. In his 23-clause-long will, which had been prepared in 1924 with a codicil added in 1925, Houdini left his collection of over 5,000 books (valued at $30,000) to the Library of Congress. His brother Theo received most of his magic equipment and memorabilia; however, Houdini stipulated that the magic apparatus be ‘burnt and destroyed’ upon Theo’s death. Two assistants received $500 each, while The Society of American Magicians received $1,000. His ‘hat rabbits’ reportedly were given to the children of friends. The balance of Houdini’s estate went to Bess, and it was enough to cover his extensive debts and to allow Bess to live comfortably. Bess also received $50,000 in life insurance money, since Houdini had remarkably purchased a double indemnity life insurance policy in the event of his accidental death.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell secret remains a mystery to this day, and my breath-holding record stands at 1:03.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger

23 Mar

Advance Directives: Do Not Resuscitate Orders

Hull & Hull LLP Estate & Trust, General Interest, In the News Tags: , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

One form of Advance Directive is the Do Not Resuscitate Order, commonly referred to as a DNR Order, or simply a DNR. It is a written order, signed by a medical professional, indicating one’s desire that lifesaving measures not be initiated if one were to stop breathing or if one’s heart has stopped. A DNR Order is generally only put in place when a person is suffering from a serious, often terminal condition, and when ‘CPR will almost certainly not benefit the patient and is not part of the plan of treatment’.

Up until February 2008, an odd, but not insignificant loophole existed that prevented paramedics and firefighters from honouring any existing DNR while a person was being provided with emergency assistance on the scene, or while in transport to a medical facility. The Ambulance Act’s Basic Life Support Patient Care Standards, Version 2 meant that paramedics were legally obliged to initiate life support measures, including, but not limited to, chest compressions, artificial ventilation, and intubation. Perhaps 911 had been called in order for the person to be transported to a hospital to be rehydrated, or to be treated for an infection. Prior to February 2008, if something catastrophic were to thereafter unfold en route, emergency resuscitation measures would have been initiated, possibly with unimaginable consequences, even if a DNR order was provided to the paramedics or firefighters on-site.

In order to address this disconnect between personal wishes, best intentions and legal constraints, a DNR Task Force was struck in 2003. As a result, there is a new Do Not Resuscitate Confirmation Form that became the new standard in Ontario as of February 1, 2008. Once completed by a physician or nurse, the form authorizes paramedics and firefighters to withhold life support measures, as well as to provide palliative comfort care measures such as suctioning, oxygen, pain control (including morphine) and tranquilizers. This form can be viewed online here.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger


20 Mar

Will Manitoba Give Inheritance Rights to Posthumously Conceived Children?

Hull & Hull LLP In the News Tags: 0 Comments

The Manitoba Law Reform Commission has recently recommended that legislation be put into to place to give children who are artificially conceived after a parent’s death the same rights to the parent’s estate as children who were already living. 

The impetus behind the recommendation is the growing use of artificial conception techniques and the recently new possibility of conceiving a child after a partner’s death.  The objective is to deal with this in legislation, before cases start to appear in court. 

In several provinces, the law provides that children who have been conceived while a parent is living (but are born after death) can have an interest in the parent’s estate.  But so far, there are no laws that provide for children who are conceived after a parent’s death (for example, by in vitro fertilization).    

The commission is recommending that the law be limited to children who are conceived within two years of the deceased’s death and that a parent who anticipates conceiving must give notice within six months of the deceased’s death.  In the interim, the estate would remain frozen.  

It will be interesting to see what the law looks like if it comes to fruition.  Allowing a prospective parent to freeze an estate for eighteen months could create serious administrative problems, particularly with respect to the payment of debts owing to creditors.  In addition, I wonder what impact legislation like this would have on the deceased’s obligation to surviving family members, particularly dependants. 

Another issue that comes to mind is whether legislation would just result in people including provisions in their wills specifically limiting the class of beneficiaries to those alive at the individual’s death. 

In any event, reproductive technology is a rapidly advancing area of science and it seems inevitable that at some point this will become an issue.  It will be interesting to see if other provinces start to consider introducing similar legislation.

Have a great spring weekend!

Megan F. Connolly    

18 Mar

Feeling Young? You May Be Older than You Think

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I keep hearing from my mother and her friends that 60 is the new 40.  However, as it turns out, 27 might be the new 65 and those of you who have been thinking that you are getting smarter as you get older could well be mistaken. 

A study performed by researchers at the University of Virginia indicates that mental agility peaks around the age of 22 and starts to decline around the age of 27.  The areas that decline include speed of thought, visualization, and reasoning. 

Participants in the study were required to identify patterns, solve puzzles, and recall words and details and in nine out of twelve tests, 22 was the average age at which performance peaked.  Incidentally, the tests used in the study are the same types of tests that are used to spot signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

The results of the study might have important implications on research into the effects of ageing and, in particular, the neurological changes that occur as we grow older. 

The study indicates that tests employed to identify the onset of neurological disorders might need to start earlier and techniques used to counteract the neurological effects of ageing perhaps should also begin earlier. 

There is a silver lining to the study – for those of you troubled by the idea that you may have been at your mental peak during your college years, all is not lost.  The study also indicates that memory stays intact until your late 30s and that abilities based on accumulated knowledge continue to improve to about 60.    

Have a great day,

Megan F. Connolly


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