Our blog has been following Britney Spears’ conservatorship proceeding closely in the recent months. So far, the #FreeBritney movement has seen significant progress through the appointment of a new lawyer for Britney, and very recently through Jamie Spears’ petition to end the conservatorship. Even though Britney is still under a conservatorship of property and of person, the iconic popstar surprised the world with her engagement to long-time boyfriend, Sam Asghari.
This fantastic news follows Britney’s stunning court testimony back in June that she wanted to be able to get married and have a baby but that she was told that she could not do so because of the conservatorship.
To celebrate Britney’s engagement, I wanted to share Justice Benotto’s words in Calvert (Litigation Guardian of) v. Calvert, 1997 CanLii 12096, as affirmed by the Court of Appeal in 1998 CanLii 3001, with leave to the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed:
“A person’s right of self-determination is an important philosophical and legal principle. A person can be capable of making a basic decision and not capable of making a complex decision. Dr. Molloy, the director of the Geriatric Research Group and Memory Centre and associate professor of geriatrics at McMaster University, said:
Different aspects of daily living and decision-making are now viewed separately. The ability to manage finances, consent to treatment, stand trial, manage personal care, make personal care or health decisions, all require separate decision- making capabilities and assessments.
The contract of marriage has been described as the essence of simplicity, not requiring a high degree of intelligence to comprehend: Park, supra, at p. 1427.”
While the foregoing passage may not sound particularly romantic, the notion that marriage is the essence of simplicity seems rather befitting to the intimate decision that was made between Britney and Sam.
Britney is not yet a “freed” woman, but as her song goes,
”All I need is time (is all I need)
A moment that is mine
While I’m in between”.
Thanks for sharing your engagement moment with us Britney! Click here for the video of “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”.
The transfer of inter-generational wealth has long been a way for families to grow from one generation to the next. Many parents plan the transfer of their wealth at a time when their children are adults, and may be married with families of their own. And while in many respects the saying “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine” is true when it comes to marriage; it may not always be true when it comes to divorce. This is a key consideration for parents who wish to exclusively benefit their child with a gift or inheritance in the event of divorce.
The Family Law Act (“FLA”) provides guidance on how assets may be divided in the event of divorce. Section 4(2) states that property (outside of a matrimonial home) that was acquired by gift or inheritance from a third person after the date of marriage does not form part of that spouse’s net family property. Donors and/or testators may also expressly provide that income from said property is to be excluded from the spouse’s net family property. The FLA further provides that property (other than the matrimonial home) into which the gift or inheritance can be traced will also be excluded.
If a donor or testator’s intention is to have these assets excluded from a net family property calculation, it is encouraged that they formalize their intentions through proper deeds and/or wills.
Moreover, it is equally important for recipients of gifts and/or an inheritance to be mindful of where those assets are allocated upon receipt. For example, a recipient of a gift of money may want to be cautious of placing these funds in a joint bank account, where the assets may become commingled and difficult to trace.
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In Ontario, by reason of s. 17(2) of the Succession Law Reform Act, if a testator’s marriage is terminated by a judgment absolute of divorce or is declared a nullity, any devise or bequest to his or her former spouse, any appointment of his or her former spouse as estate trustee, or any grant of a power of appointment to his or her former spouse is revoked, and the will is to be construed as if the former spouse had predeceased the testator.
This is subject to a contrary intention appearing in the will.
This provision was enacted in 1974. Prior to that, bequests to a former spouse remained valid until the testator made a new will, revoked the will, or remarried. (S. 16 of the SLRA provides that a will is revoked by marriage, subject to certain exceptions.)
In Page Estate v. Sachs (H.C.J.), 1990 CanLII 6903, the court had to grapple with the question of the retrospective application of this section. There, the testator made a will in 1968. The will gave the estate to the testator’s spouse. The testator and his spouse were divorced in 1974. The testator died in 1986. The question for the court was whether s. 17(2) would apply in those circumstances.
The court found that s. 17(2) has retrospective application. The gift to the spouse was revoked. The testator’s estate was distributed as if the former spouse had predeceased.
In the decision, the judge quoted from the “Report On The Impact of Divorce on Existing Wills” by the Ontario Law Reform Commission. It was said that s. 17(2) “represents remedial reform legislation in aid of those former spouses who neglect to alter their wills following a divorce and thereby bestowed upon their former spouse unintended windfall benefits.” The judge went on to observe that the section “simply asserts the finality which a decree absolute renders to the relationship and status of the former spouses and ties up any inadvertent loose ends which could resurrect the spousal status.”
Note that the provision only comes into play where there is a divorce or the marriage is declared a nullity. Separated spouses should “tie up any loose ends” and ensure that they consider revising their will upon separation. My first exposure to estates law involved a matter where a wife moved to divorce her husband. The husband was so irate that he vowed that she would not get anything from him in the divorce, and committed suicide. He did not revise his will. As a divorce had not yet been granted, his entire estate passed to his wife, which was clearly contrary to his intentions.
Don’t leave your ends loose.
We sometimes hear about an elderly person marrying a much younger person. What we often do not consider, however, is the possibility that such a marriage is entered into by a “predatory” spouse in order to take advantage of an elderly victim with the ultimate goal of assuming control of his or her finances.
The “predator” is often a caregiver or a family friend or neighbour. In most cases, it is a person who uses a position of trust to cause an elderly victim to change a Will, a power of attorney, an insurance policy designation or other documents. It is also not uncommon for inter vivos transfers to be made while the senior is alive.
According to Ontario law, the act of marriage grants the new spouse certain property rights, specifically with respect to the matrimonial home and spousal support. The most significant effect of a marriage, however, is the fact that the Succession Law Reform Act, revokes any Will executed prior to the marriage. To make matters worse, predatory marriages often occur in private such that the senior’s family members are not aware that he or she has married.
The evidentiary burden imposed upon the elderly victim’s adult family members to prove that a marriage should be declared void as it is a marriage of a “predatory” nature is significant.
Why is it so tough to show that a marriage is void?
Capacity is a fluid concept. It means that a person could have capacity for one task and no capacity for another, as capacity is time and situation specific. Capacity to enter into a marriage, is the lowest threshold of capacity. As such, a person can be entirely capable to enter into a marriage but may be incapable of managing his or her own financial affairs.
In addition, a person likely does not just lose capacity in a day; it is a gradual process such that there is a “grey zone” between having capacity and having no capacity at all. It is in that “grey zone” that a predator will take advantage because a person may start forgetting things but is otherwise capable for all intents and purposes.
Because of that, many are of the opinion that Ontario laws make seniors an easy target for “predatory marriages”. Will there be a change in the law coming our way, in light of the growing phenomenon of such marriages? Only time will tell.
For more information regarding this growing concern and the manner in which this issue has been treated by the courts, please see a paper by Kimberly Whaley of WEL Partners on Predatory Marriages.
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Today I wanted to discuss a basic, but important concept when it comes to Wills: revocation. There are a number of ways in which a Will can be revoked, and it is crucial that everyone with a Will, or who will make a Will in the future, understands what those methods are, and the requirements that must be met in order to successfully revoke a Will. An incomplete understanding of revocation can lead to unintended consequences if a testator mistakenly believes either that a prior Will has been revoked, or that a prior Will that he or she believed to have been revoked, remained valid and operative.
According to section 15 of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26,
15 A will or part of a will is revoked only by,
(a) marriage, subject to section 16;
(b) another will made in accordance with the provisions of this Part;
(c) a writing,
(i) declaring an intention to revoke, and
(ii) made in accordance with the provisions of this Part governing making of a will; or
(d) burning, tearing or otherwise destroying it by the testator or by some person in his or her presence and by his or her direction with the intention of revoking it.
Ontario has a strict compliance regime, meaning that the statutory requirements for actions such as executing and revoking a Will must be followed carefully, and that the courts do not have the discretion to declare a document valid that does not do so. Accordingly, if an attempted revocation of a Will does not strictly comply with the statute, it may not be valid.
For instance, one method of revoking a Will is by a writing declaring an intention to revoke and made in accordance with the requirements of the making of a Will. This means that, even if the document revoking the prior Will is not itself a Will, it must nonetheless comply with those requirements, whether it be a formal Will witnessed by two people, or a holograph Will. A testator who does not seek legal advice on revoking his or her Will may mistakenly believe that, for example, a typewritten signed statement would validly revoke a Will, when, in fact, it would not.
Destroying a Will, another method of revocation, must also be done in a particular way to satisfy the requirements of the Succession Law Reform Act. As discussed in Probate Practice (5th ed.), the two elements of destruction and intention to revoke must both be present. The destruction itself must also be done either by the testator personally, or by someone else in the testator’s presence and by his or her direction. Therefore, even if the testator directs another person to destroy his or her Will, if the testator is not present at the time of such destruction, it will be insufficient to revoke the Will in question.
Additionally, the requisite capacity to revoke a Will is the same as that required to execute a Will in the first place.
While this blog only briefly touches upon a few specific issues that may arise in relation to revoking Wills, it is clear that without a proper understanding of how to validly revoke a Will, a testator can easily stray offside of the statute, resulting in a potentially invalid revocation. As with the execution of a Will, revocation can also have significant effects on a testator’s testamentary dispositions, and it is important to seek advice from a trusted legal professional prior to taking any steps that may lead to unintended, and unfortunate, consequences.
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Marriage is commonly understood to have the effect of revoking a will. The public policy rationale is simple: legal obligations are imposed on spouses to provide support to one another. A will predating the marriage that does not reflect this obligation would force the surviving spouse to have recourse to statutory remedies. Better to simply start from scratch from the commencement of the marriage and make a will that (presumably and hopefully) adequately provides for the surviving spouse.
The Common Exception to Revocation by Marriage
Marriage does not, however, always have the effect of revoking a will. There is an exception which gives a nod to the possibility that the testator who is about to marry may have the foresight to make an appropriate will “in contemplation of marriage.” Accordingly, pursuant to s. 16(a) of the Succession Law Reform Act, if there is a declaration contained in the will to such effect, it will not be revoked and will remain in force on the death of the testator.
The Lesser-Known Exception to Revocation by Marriage
Just as the testator has the power to avoid revocation by marriage by advance planning, the surviving spouse is empowered by the statute as well. Although not so well known, Section 16(b) of the Succession Law Reform Act allows the surviving spouse to elect “to take under the will, by an instrument in writing signed by the spouse and filed within one year after the testator’s death in the office of the Estate Registrar for Ontario.”
Presumably, it is a somewhat rare circumstance for a surviving spouse to elect under s. 6(b). In most circumstances, a Will benefiting the surviving married spouse that is made in advance of the marriage would contain the “in contemplation of marriage” declaration, thereby negating the need to elect. However, by addressing the circumstance of a Will that does not include the declaration yet still benefits the surviving spouse to his or her satisfaction, unnecessary litigation and recourse to statutory remedies is avoided.
For the uninformed, s. 6(b) of the SLRA can result in unintended consequences. Consider a situation in which a testator, incorrectly assuming that his Will which solely benefits the woman who became his wife was automatically revoked by marriage, separates but does not divorce. He assumes he will die intestate, leaving his estate to his children from a prior marriage. However, on his death, his separated but not divorced wife is empowered under the SLRA to choose to benefit under a Will which the testator did not realize was open to be relieved from revocation by the surviving wife’s right of election.
As is usually the case, unintended consequences can be avoided by knowledge and information. In the context of a matrimonial dispute, all possible ramifications of an unexpected death should be considered.
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According to Statistics Canada, between 2006 and 2011 the number of common-law couples rose 13.9%, more than four times the 3.1% increase for married couples.
The trend is clear – more people are choosing to skip the formalities of a marriage and move in together. No cost, no ceremony, no family fights about who’s invited – plus, it’s really the same as marriage, isn’t it?
Not so fast…
Common law couples need to think very carefully about the what their union means from a financial perspective, especially as time passes, their assets grow, and children enter the picture. Because in many cases, it’s not the same as marriage.
Yes, from a tax perspective, the Canada Revenue Agency treats married couples and common-law couples the same. But looking beyond tax events to other life events, such as separation and eventually death, the treatment may be very different indeed.
This recent article provides an excellent summary of what can happen to assets when a common-law couple separates.
In terms of estate matters, the article below provides a clear overview of how estate laws differ across the country – and the impact of these differences on common law couples when one spouse dies.
In today’s world, it’s great to have a choice in how we form couple relationships. My only advice is that couples ensure they’re making an informed choice – and that they have a clear understanding of what their marriage or common law decision could mean in the future.
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