The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in temporary changes to the way that lawyers are able to practice law. For the time being, many of us and our staff are working remotely, avoiding in-person meetings whenever possible, and access to assistance through the courts is limited.
Processes such as examinations for discovery and mediations may not necessarily be postponed with the availability of online platforms through which they can be hosted, such as Zoom. However, an issue remains in how best to address procedural issues for which we would normally seek directions from the court.
For the time being, court dates are available only to provide assistance in respect of truly urgent matters. While some clients may consider the appointment of an estate trustee during litigation or timetabling issues to be urgent, it is unlikely that a judge will share this viewpoint absent compelling circumstances. While the scope of matters that can be heard by teleconference may expand after April 6, 2020, the ability of the courts to keep up with demand can be expected to be limited. Furthermore, once the courts resume operations, one can only expect schedules to fill up quickly as lawyers and clients try to make up for lost time.
Lawyers and our clients have a common interest in moving matters forward during this period of instability. To assist in this regard, I am spearheading an initiative that I have called Estates Arbitration Litigation Management (“EALM“).
What I see as being the key features of EALM can be summarized as follows:
- parties will enter into an EALM agreement that sets out the matters to be arbitrated, primarily being procedural and interim relief;
- senior members of the Bar will assist the parties as arbitrators in determining those issues agreed upon at a reduced hourly rate;
- if the decision of the arbitrator requires a court order to be effective (for example, the appointment of an estate trustee during litigation), the parties agree to file a consent motion in writing to obtain the necessary order; and
- the parties may return to court to address substantive issues once normal operations are restored or may elect to proceed to arbitration or mediation.
These measures have already been successfully employed by the Family Law Bar and we are grateful to Aaron Franks, Judith Nicoll, Martha McCarthy, and Gary Joseph for sharing their experiences in that regard. A link to a precedent draft agreement specific to EALM, as well as an information sheet that lawyers will be able to share with clients, will be added to the resources section of our website within the next couple of days, which will be the result of continued consultations with senior members of the Estates Bar.
Despite the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, it is important that we employ new measures to continue to move matters forward for the benefit of our clients and colleagues throughout the Estates Bar, and I am hopeful that EALM will become a timely and cost-effective tool in limiting the disruption to our practices in the coming weeks. If you have any comments regarding EALM, or are interested in introducing this into your own practice, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading and be safe.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Noah Weisberg and I did a podcast about the recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision Re Vaudrey, 2019 ONSC 7551. But for those who prefer to read rather than listen, I thought I would provide a brief summary on the blog as well.
The testator in Re Vaudrey died in September 2018. Prior to his death, he had been married to Ethel Vaudrey. The testator and Ethel had been separated for a number of years, but had not divorced. Ethel predeceased the testator, passing away in 2007.
The testator and Ethel had two daughters, Sheila and Kristin. Sheila also predeceased the testator in 2013. She had never married and had no children. After the testator and Ethel separated, Kristin became estranged from the testator. The decision notes that Kristin described the testator as emotionally and verbally abusive.
Kristin was the only surviving family member of the testator.
The testator left a Will executed in 2005. The court was of the view that, based on its format and content, the Will did not appear to have been prepared by a lawyer.
The Will provided that Sheila was to be appointed as estate trustee, and inherit the residue of the testator’s estate, provided that she survived the testator by 30 days. If Sheila did not survive the testator for 30 days, the Will provided that Ethel was to be appointed as estate trustee, and inherit the residue. Again, however, this was conditional on Ethel surviving the testator by 30 days. As mentioned above, both Sheila and Ethel predeceased the testator.
The Will was witnessed by Sheila and another witness.
Lastly, the Will also specifically stated that “under no circumstances is any part of [the testator’s] estate to be transferred to [his] estranged daughter, Kristin P. Vaudrey, or to any of her descendants.”
Unfortunately for the testator, he had not set out in his Will how the residue of his estate was to be distributed in the event that both Sheila and Ethel predeceased him, as they did. The court found that the residue of the estate was to be distributed pursuant to the intestacy rules set out in s. 47 of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 (the “SLRA”). On this basis, Kristin was determined to be the sole heir-at-law of the residue. Accordingly, despite the testator’s wish that Kristin not inherit any part of his estate, his failure to include a gift-over clause with respect to the residue resulted in her inheriting the entire residue.
It is also interesting that Sheila was a witness to the Will. Pursuant to s. 12 of the SLRA, where a beneficiary witnesses the execution of a Will, the bequest to that beneficiary will be void. Even if Sheila had survived the testator, the gift of the residue to her would have been void in any event.
Thanks for reading,
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Today’s blog is Part 2 in my discussion of a New Yorker article by Arthur Krystal that seeks to present a realistic view of aging. Yesterday I reviewed some of the factors in the article that pointed towards the idea that we improve as we age. Today I will review the points raised in support of what the author considers to be the “truth” about aging.
I think the following sentence really sums up an important (but somewhat bleak) point that the author is making: “There is, of course, a chance that you may be happier at eighty than you were at twenty or forty, but you’re going to feel much worse.”
The article considers the physical effects of aging, as well as mental ones, namely dementia. Although we continue to explore ways of detecting, predicting, and treating dementia, we do not yet have a cure for the disease.
The New Yorker article also summarizes a (possibly even more bleak) argument made in an essay published in The Atlantic in 2014, with the title “Why I Hope to Die at 75”. The author of that article, Ezekial J. Emanuel, argues that by age 75, most people will have a difficult time generating creative and original thoughts, or being productive. Emanual doesn’t plan on killing himself at 75, but states that he won’t take steps towards actively prolonging his life, such as cancer-screening tests.
Last year I blogged about another article that discussed aging, and the concept of how we can live better, now that we are living longer. That article considered the work being done related to anti-aging and the creation of products to make older people’s lives easier. I think this is a salient point given our aging population, and is also relevant to the points made in Krystal’s New Yorker piece. Although we can admit that there are physical challenges that arise with aging, there are also ways those challenges can be ameliorated, and work continues to be done in this area.
I admit that, at the present time, I have very little authority or personal experience with aging, as it is discussed in the article. While I certainly see the author’s point about the downsides of aging, I think I will choose to favour the more optimistic view as outlined in yesterday’s blog.
Thanks for reading,
The following other blog posts may also be of interest to you:
In late 2019, an article in The New Yorker asked the question: “Why can’t we tell the truth about aging?” The author, Arthur Krystal, considers several aspects of aging, with what appears to be the aim of presenting a realistic portrait of what it is truly like to get older. I thought there were a lot of interesting points mentioned, so in Part 1 of this blog (today) and Part 2 (tomorrow), I will be considering some of those points.
For today’s blog, I will review some of the author’s points relating to the idea that we improve as we age (although the author certainly does not appear to embrace this view). Tomorrow’s blog will consider some of the more negative views and aspects of aging.
The article starts off by listing a number of recent books about aging, and compares it to the more popular view from about 50 years ago that aging is something “we do not care to face”. These days, the trend has moved towards celebrating aging, and looking at it in a positive and optimistic light. The literature is clearly capturing this view, with titles such as “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging”.
Some of the authors of the books mentioned state that the older brain works “in a more synchronized way” and the structure of the brain is altered with aging in ways that boost creativity.
There is also an interesting discussion about whether we get happier as we age. This concept seems to make sense if we consider notions such as being more comfortable in our own skin, and experiencing less social anxiety as we get older. The article mentions a study indicating that happiness over the course of our lives follows a U-shaped curve where we are happiest as children and in old age (and least happy in the middle of our lives). Apparently, however, there has been some question as to the accuracy of this curve for several reasons, the simplest one being that happy older people may be more likely to participate in happiness surveys than seniors who feel miserable, unsatisfied, and apathetic.
I quite like the sentiment expressed by Helen Small, a professor at the University of Oxford, as summarized in the article, that “our lives accrue meaning over time, and therefore the story of the self is not complete until it experiences old age—the stage of life that helps us grasp who we are and what our life has meant.”
Thanks for reading and I hope you will join me for part 2 tomorrow!
Other blog posts that may be of interest:
Today’s blog is a continuation of yesterday’s discussion regarding the limitations analysis in Piekiut v. Romoli, 2019 ONSC 1190, 2020 ONCA 26. No limitation period was found to apply where an estate trustee was simply seeking a determination and declaration as to whether certain codicils were valid or not valid.
The testators in this case died in 2008. They had 3 children, Helen, Victor, and Krystyna. A meeting took place in 2008 between all 3 children and a lawyer to discuss the administration of the Estate. During this meeting, Krystyna revealed, for the first time, the existence of codicils and declarations of gift that provide her with an interest in certain properties. Helen refused to acknowledge the validity of these new documents.
In 2015, Helen brings a court application. Her application was later amended, on the consent of parties, in 2018 to reflect that Helen was only seeking a declaration in respect of the validity of the codicils. Thus in 2019, Justice Dietrich’s decision was made in the context of Krystyna’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss Helen’s application on the basis that it was statute barred and Helen’s cross-motion for summary judgment on her application. Justice Dietrich found that, since Helen did not ask the court to determine the ultimate beneficiaries of the properties that were subject to the Codicil or to vest such properties in any particular beneficiary or beneficiaries, her application was not barred by the Limitations Act, 2002.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Justice Dietrich. The panel was also of the view that this case is distinguishable from Leibel v. Leibel, 2014 ONSC 4516 and Birtzu v. McCron, 2017 ONSC 1420 because of the consequential relief that was pleaded in those cases. Since the Court of Appeal decision did not go into the details of the relief sought in Birtzu (unlike its description of Leibel), it is helpful to understand the breadth of the Statement of Claim in Birtzu, which sought the following:
- an Order setting aside the Will;
- an Order setting aside the Deceased’s Powers of Attorney;
- an accounting of the entire Estate, as well as all financial transactions undertaken by the Deceased, or on his behalf, or on behalf of his Estate, from the date that the Deceased’s matrimonial home was sold in 2003 to the date of trial;
- Orders for the production and release of financial and medical information;
- an Order reversing all transactions undertaken by the Defendant, either directly or indirectly, without authority or in breach of her authority, or in breach of her fiduciary duties to the Deceased and to his beneficiaries, including the Plaintiffs;
- an Order tracing the property of the Deceased into the property owned by the Defendant, including her home;
- Orders for injunctive relief, including the issuance of a certificate of pending litigation;
- a Declaration that all property held in the name of the Defendant, or part thereof, is held by her for the benefit of the Plaintiffs;
- damages against the Defendant in the amount of at least $400,000.00, for conversion of property, breach of statutory duty, and/or breach of fiduciary duty;
- pre- and post- judgment interest; and
- costs fixed on a substantial indemnity basis, plus H.S.T.
Thanks for reading!
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.
Thanks for reading.
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.