Estate litigation involves risk and reward, heartbreak and vindication. Costs and other consequences often flow from the strength of litigants’ positions. Delay, however, is shared equally. In a protracted legal battle, the symptoms of delay – stress, distraction, gloomy foreboding – linger around like a shadow or a bad cold. Wary of these tribulations, the courts are increasingly focused upon smoothing and straightening, and thereby shortening, the road to decisions.
In today’s blog we explore how this shift has affected the granting of adjournments in estate litigation.
Judicial economy is not always served by the refusal of an adjournment. For example, if two proceedings are interrelated, the preliminary matter should be heard first. If an appeal is scheduled before an associated lower court motion, the appeal should be adjourned until the other has been settled, lest the courts “waste limited judicial resources and increase expense for all of the parties” (Mancinelli v. Royal Bank of Canada,  O.N.S.C. 1526 at para. 5).
Reasons for granting adjournments include the ill health of a party, the emergence of new issues, and “to permit the appellants to file fresh evidence” (Morin v. Canada,  F.C.T. 1420 at para. 11). Courts are also more inclined to adjourn when the other party is not prejudiced by such a request. If there is an urgent need for resolution of the dispute – in the estates context, for instance, when an estate has been tied up for years, to the detriment of the beneficiaries – an adjournment could be denied. Other factors which may lead to the denial of a request for an adjournment consist of “a lack of compliance with prior court orders, previous adjournments … the desirability of having the matter decided and a finding that the applicant is seeking to manipulate the system by orchestrating delay” (The Law Society of Upper Canada v. Igbinosun,  O.N.C.A. 484 at para. 37).
Long waits and swollen court bookings have influenced today’s judicial decision-making. Judges are more inclined, progressively, to punish vexatious litigants, encourage parties to settle, and employ other strategies that are conducive to easing the strain on the courts. Much as the courts have emphasized the need to expedite decisions, however, the adjournment is still a mainstay in the judicial tool belt:
Perhaps to the chagrin of those opposing adjournments and indulgences, courts should tend to be generous rather than overly strict in granting indulgences, particularly where the request would promote a decision on the merits. (Ariston Realty Corp. v. Elcarim Inc.,  CanLII 13360 (O.N.S.C.) at para. 38).
In other words, fast adjudication should not compromise fair adjudication.
Enjoy the rest of your day, and thanks for reading.
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry
Occasionally in litigation, an innocent party will get caught in the crossfire between two litigants that have made competing claims to property held by the innocent party. The classic case is that of an insurance company in possession of the proceeds of an insurance policy, the benefit of which is claimed by two parties.
The insurer may not necessarily be a party to the litigation between the two claimants, but they are nonetheless implicated given that they hold the coveted payout. What is the insurer to do? Enter the interpleader motion.
The interpleader motion is a powerful yet rarely utilized tool that can be used by an innocent party to essentially extricate itself from a proceeding in which competing claims have been made against property held by that party. Rule 43.02 of the Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a party may seek an interpleader order in respect of personal property if,
(a) two or more other persons have made adverse claims in respect of the property; and
(b) the first-named person (being the “innocent” party),
(i) claims no beneficial interest in the property, other than a lien for costs, fees, or expenses; and
(ii) is willing to deposit the property with the court or dispose of it as the court directs.
In other words, the interpleader motion permits a party to seek an order from the court allowing that party to deposit, with the Accountant of the Superior Court of Justice, the property against which the adverse claims are being made. However, that party must not have any beneficial interest in the property being deposited, although they are entitled to have any legal fees in bringing the motion, and other reasonable expenses, paid out of that property.
Some cases have opined on whether the court hearing the interpleader motion has an obligation to assess the likelihood of success of one or both of the claims to the property at issue. In Porter v Scotia Life Insurance Co, for example, the court considered whether, notwithstanding that one of the competing claims was “without strong foundation and built upon hearsay and suspicion”, it nonetheless held that the claim was “not frivolous” and granted the interpleader order.
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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.
Thank you for reading.
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.
Thank you for reading.
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.
Thank you for reading.
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.
Thank you for reading.
In the estates regime, mediations occur regularly, particularly in Toronto, where mediations are a mandatory part of the litigation, in accordance with Rule 75.1.02(1)(a)(i) of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
A mediation is always an opportunity to attempt to settle a matter without resorting to costly and time consuming litigation. At mediation, the parties will each stay in separate rooms and the mediator (that is usually chosen by the parties to the litigation), will shuttle between the rooms seeking a more in-depth understanding of the parties’ positions as well as probing opportunities for settlement. Sometimes, before the mediation begins, the mediator will do an introduction to all the parties before they break off into separate rooms, explaining how the day will go.
An important aspect of mediation is the fact that a mediator has no decision-making power. He or she cannot force the parties to settle but can provide his or her opinion on the issues. As such, settlement at mediation can only be reached upon the agreement of the parties themselves.
Another means of dispute resolution (other than litigation) that is not often resorted to in estate litigation, is arbitration. Before agreeing to attend an arbitration, however, it is important to consider whether this form of dispute resolution would be helpful in the particular circumstances of the matter.
Arbitration, unlike mediation, is an adversarial dispute resolution process (similar to litigation) determined and controlled by a neutral third party. The arbitrator can make a final decision, called an “award”, contrary to a mediator, who cannot. The most significant aspect of arbitration, however, is that the courts generally do not interfere in a dispute that is subject to an arbitration agreement. As such, there is a risk that should a decision be made by an arbitrator, the court would then refuse to hear the matter further, leaving arbitration as the ultimate medium of resolving the particular matter.
Why is that so important?
In a situation where the parties have already engaged in settlement negotiations and there appears to be a gap between their respective positions, an arbitration may be worthwhile to pursue, particularly should litigation be untenable to the parties given the cost involved and/or if the matter in dispute does not involve a lot of money. In such a situation, a final arbitral award may bring finality and allow the parties to move on, particularly if the gap between the parties’ positions is not significant.
If, however, the parties had not yet engaged in negotiations and no offers to settle were made, pursuing arbitration may be a serious gamble. That is so because the issues to be arbitrated are set out by the parties and though the arbitration process is similar to traditional litigation, the arbitrator will not have an opportunity to hear all the relevant evidence. As a result, agreeing to arbitrate in a situation like that may cause prejudice to a client who may then not be able to appeal the “award” made by an arbitrator, outside of the regime put in place by the Arbitration Act, 1991, SO 1991, c 17.
Thanks for reading!
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This weekend marks the end of the 105th Tour de France. This year’s race has been full of controversies, first as a result of allegations of doping by pre-race favourite and four-time winner Chris Froome (and a related threatened cyclist strike) and subsequently ranging from disqualification of one cyclist for punching another to the inadvertent tear-gassing of cyclists by French police.
This spring, news surfaced regarding a settlement negotiated in respect of the claims against controversial cycling figure Lance Armstrong. Armstrong’s former teammate, Floyd Landis, had commenced proceedings against him in 2010 under the False Claims Act. The United States government became involved in the fraud proceedings in 2013 after Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs after years of public denial.
The litigation commenced by Landis was settled earlier this year. Terms of settlement were reported to involve a payment by Armstrong of $5 million (of the $100 million claimed against him), as well as a payment to Landis of $1.65 million in legal fees. Accordingly, Landis’ one-quarter share in the settlement payment is less than what he will receive in legal fees.
It is not unusual in our work to see settlement terms involving the payment of one or more party’s legal fees as part of or in addition to a settlement payment. Especially where litigation spans the better part of a decade, the legal fees incurred can rival or exceed the quantum of the settlement payment itself and may form an important part of negotiations.
Have a great weekend,
The notes and records of the lawyer who assisted the deceased with their estate planning can play an important role in any estate litigation. As a result, it is not uncommon for a drafting lawyer to receive a request from individuals involved in estate litigation to provide them with a copy of their notes and files relating to the deceased’s estate planning. But can the lawyer comply with such a request?
The central concern involved for the lawyer is the duty of confidentiality which they owe to the deceased. This duty of confidentiality is codified by rule 3.3-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which provides:
“A lawyer at all times shall hold in strict confidence all information concerning the business and affairs of the client acquired in the course of the professional relationship and shall not divulge any such information unless expressly or impliedly authorized by the client or required by law to do so.”
The duty of confidentiality and privilege which is owed to the deceased by the lawyer survives the deceased’s death. This was confirmed by the court in Hicks Estate v. Hicks,  O.J. No. 1426, where, in citing the English authority of Bullivant v. A.G. Victoria,  A.C. 196, it was confirmed that privilege and the duty of confidentiality survive death, and continues to be owed from the lawyer to the deceased. With respect to the question of who may waive privilege on behalf of the deceased following their death, Hicks Estate v. Hicks confirmed that such a power falls to the Estate Trustee under normal circumstances, stating:
“It is clear, therefore, that privilege reposes in the personal representative of the deceased client who in this case is the plaintiff, the administrator of the estate of Mildred Hicks. The plaintiff can waive the privilege and call for disclosure of any material that the client, if living, would have been entitled to from the two solicitors.”
Simply put, the Estate Trustee may step into the shoes of the deceased individual and compel the release of the lawyer’s file to the same extent that the deceased individual could have during their lifetime.
In circumstances in which the validity of the Will has been challenged, the authority of the Estate Trustee is also being challenged by implication, as their authority to act as Estate Trustee is derived from the Will itself. In such circumstances, the named Estate Trustee may arguably no longer waive privilege and/or the duty of confidentiality on behalf of the deceased individual. Should the notes and/or records of the drafting lawyer still be required, a court order is often required waiving privilege and/or the duty of confidentiality before they may be produced.
Whether or not a lawyer can release their file following the death of a client will depend on the nature of the dispute in which such a request is being made, and who is making the request. If there is a challenge to the validity of the Will or the Estate Trustee’s authority, it is likely that a court Order will be required before the lawyer may produce their file regardless of who is requesting the file. If the dispute does not question the Estate Trustee’s authority, such as an Application for support under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, the lawyer should comply with the request to release their file so long as the requesting party is the Estate Trustee. If the requesting party is not the Estate Trustee, and the Estate Trustee should refuse to provide the lawyer with their authorization to release the file, matters become more complicated, and may require a court Order before the lawyer may release their file.
Thank you for reading.
The use of a protector to assist in the administration of a trust was traditionally limited to offshore trusts. However, a protector clause is garnering attention in the USA & Ontario, and is an important clause that estate planners should consider in preparing a will or trust.
Most people are familiar with the office of a trustee – they administer the trust, invest assets, and look out for the best interests of a beneficiary. But, the administration of a trust is no different than life itself – things do not always go as planned. Issues can arise between a beneficiary and a trustee and sometimes between trustees themselves. Before you know it, bickering ensues, litigation follows, and legal costs accrue.
A protector clause, properly drafted, may be useful in avoiding litigation.
A trust protector has been defined as a third party, independent from the trustee and beneficiary, who has the authority to perform certain duties with regard to a trust.
The protector oversees the administration of the trust, looking out for the interests of a beneficiary, and to intervene if necessary. The powers included in a protector clause can vary, but may include the ability to: remove/replace a trustee; oversee investment decisions; resolve deadlock between trustees and between trustees and beneficiaries; and, approve proposed distributions. While a beneficiary may have some of these same abilities, not all beneficiaries are sophisticated enough to know when to speak up or, if they do, end up in lingering and costly litigation.
The use of a protector is not without headaches – do they owe fiduciary obligations to a beneficiary? Do they destroy the role of a trustee?
Nonetheless, as discussed in our prior blog, a protector clause can be a worthwhile feature of a trust or will if litigation is a real possibility. Some have even proposed that every trust should include a protector clause.
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