The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown much of what we take for granted on its head. If recent reports are accurate we can potentially add to that list an individual’s right to control their own medical treatment as codified in the Health Care Consent Act (the “HCCA”).
There have been reports in the news recently about advanced planning currently underway about what would happen to the provision of health care if the worst case scenario for COVID-19 should occur and the hospitals are overwhelmed. Included amongst these reports are discussions that certain provisions of the HCCA may temporarily be suspended as part of a new triage system which would allow medical professionals to prioritize who received treatment.
Section 10 of the HCCA codifies that a health care practitioner shall not carry out any “treatment” for a patient unless the patient, or someone authorized on behalf of the patient, has consented to the treatment. The Supreme Court of Canada in Cuthbertson v. Rasouli, 2013 SCC 53, confirmed that “treatment” included the right not to be removed from life support without the patient’s consent even if health practitioners believed that keeping the patient on life support was not in the patient’s best interest. In coming to such a decision the Supreme Court of Canada notes:
“The patient’s autonomy interest — the right to decide what happens to one’s body and one’s life — has historically been viewed as trumping all other interests, including what physicians may think is in the patient’s best interests.”
The proposed changes to the HCCA would appear to be in direct contradiction to the spirit of this statement, allowing health care practitioners to potentially determine treatment without a patient’s consent based off of the triage criteria that may be developed. This “treatment” could potentially include whether to keep a patient on a lifesaving ventilator.
Hopefully the recent downward trend for COVID-19 cases holds and the discussion about any changes to the HCCA remains purely academic. If not however, and changes are made to the HCCA which could remove the requirement to obtain a patient’s consent before implementing “treatment”, you can be certain that litigation would follow. If this should occur it will be interesting to see how the court reconciles any changes to the HCCA with the historic jurisprudence, for as Rasouli notes beginning at paragraph 18 many of the rights that were codified in the HCCA previously existed under the common law, such that any changes to the HCCA alone may not necessarily take these rights away for a patient.
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Re Crowley Estate, 2021 ONSC 582, raises an interesting question surrounding the potential impact of counsel missing a procedural deadline in association with a Notice of Objection to the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment (i.e. probate), and whether missing such a deadline is fatal to the Objector’s ability to generally proceed with a challenge to the Will.
The Notice of Objection process is governed by rule 75.03 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. It generally provides that at any time before the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment any individual who appears to have a financial in the estate may file a “Notice of Objection” to the issuance of a Certificate of Appointment. The impact of filing of the Certificate of Appointment is to in effect to pause the probate process, with the applicant Estate Trustee being required to vacate and/or deal with the Notice of Objection before probate can be issued. The process by which the Notice of Objection is generally dealt with is that upon being advised of the Notice of Objection the Estate Trustee is to serve a “Notice to Objector” upon the Objector in accordance with rule 75.03(4), which then provides the Objector with 20 days from the date on which they are served with the Notice to Objector to serve and file a “Notice of Appearance”. If the Notice of Appearance is served by the deadline, the matter proceeds to a motion for directions in accordance with rule 75.03(6), where the court would be asked to provide directions regarding how the objections that were raised are to be adjudicated before the court. If no “Notice of Appearance” is filed by the deadline the Notice of Objection is automatically vacated, and the probate application may proceed as if no Notice of Objection had been filed.
In Re Crowley Estate, the Objector filed a Notice of Objection to the issuance of probate, and was in turn served with a Notice to Objector by the Applicant. The date on which the Objector was served with the Notice to Objector was November 20, 2020, which would have resulted in a deadline of December 10, 2020 for the Objector to serve the Notice of Appearance. The Notice of Appearance was not served however by the Objector until December 15, 2020. The matter was directed by the Registrar to a Judge, who in turn asked the parties to make written submissions regarding the matter. The Applicant’s lawyer took the position that rule 75.03 was “unforgiving” with respect to its deadlines, and that as the Objector had missed the deadline to serve the Notice of Appearance the court was now required to proceed with the probate application as if no Notice of Objection had been filed. Objector’s counsel advised that the reason for the missed deadline was due to health related concerns surrounding COVID-19, appearing to note in any event that even if the Notice of Objection was vacated the Objector would be proceeding with a challenge to the validity of the Will, noting that the Objector had subsequently commenced a separate Application to address the concerns surrounding the validity of the Will on January 7, 2021.
The court ultimately extended the deadline for the Objector to file the Notice of Appearance under rule 3.02, which allows the court to extend any time prescribed by the rules on such terms as are just. In extending the deadline, Justice Boswell notes that the Objector clearly always intended to pursue the objection, and that there is no clear prejudice to allowing the extension. Perhaps interestingly however, although the comment does not appear to have played a decisive role in the final ruling, Justice Boswell references that even if the Certificate of Appointment was issued the Objector would likely have been at liberty to seek the return the Certificate of Appointment under rule 75.05, appearing to give credence to the Objector’s position that they would have been at liberty to proceed with their challenge to the validity of the Will regardless of the missed deadline for the Notice of Objection.
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The commencement of an Application for support as a dependant under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”) can be an extremely stressful event for the Applicant. Not only is the Applicant likely commencing court proceedings against fellow family members and/or close friends of the deceased, but there may also be a sense of urgency to the Application to ensure that steps are taken before the estate has otherwise been administered and/or distributed to those who would be entitled to the estate but for the support Application. As a result of these concerns it is not uncommon for the Applicant in the early stages of the Application to seek some form of court intervention to stop and/or stay the administration of the estate until the Application has been adjudicated, thereby ensuring that there are assets remaining in the estate to satisfy any support award should it ultimately be made. But is such court intervention actually necessary?
Under section 67 of the SLRA, once an Estate Trustee has been served with an Application for support under Part V they are automatically required to cease all distributions from the estate unless certain conditions are met. Specifically, section 67(1) provides:
“Where an application is made and notice thereof is served on the personal representative of the deceased, he or she shall not, after service of the notice upon him or her, unless all persons entitled to apply consent or the court otherwise orders, proceed with the distribution of the estate until the court has disposed of the application.”
Section 67(3) provides that any Estate Trustee that makes a distribution in violation of section 67(1) once they have been served with an Application under Part V of the SLRA is personally liable to pay any shortfall should a support order ultimately be made. As a result, any distribution made by the Estate Trustee once an Application for support has been commenced would be at great potential personal liability, as they could personally be required to pay any support order.
Although section 67 of the SLRA automatically stops any external distributions being made once an Application for support has been commenced, it does not stop the internal administration of the estate itself. As a result, the Estate Trustee would, for example, still be at liberty to collect and/or liquidate any estate assets, including any real estate. They just could not distribute those funds to the beneficiaries once the assets had been liquidated. In the event the Applicant should seek a particular asset as part of their support order, such as the transfer and/or use of particular real property, additional steps would need to be taken by the Applicant to ensure that the Estate Trustee did not dispose of the asset while the Application remained before the court. These additional steps would likely be in the form of an order under section 59 of the SLRA, while allows the court to issue an order “suspending” the administration of the estate either in whole or in relation to a particular asset (i.e. the real estate) for such time as the court may decide.
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Something that surely no testator or beneficiary wants to see is the failure of a gift made in a Will. Unfortunately, circumstances can arise where the language of a Will may be ambiguous, or where events occurring during the estate administration expose uncertainty in a term of the Will that wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time of drafting or execution.
In Barsoski v Wesley, 2020 ONSC 7407, the estate trustee sought directions from the court regarding a clause in the deceased’s Will that allowed the deceased’s friend (the “Respondent”) to live in the deceased’s home during his lifetime, or such shorter period as the Respondent desires. Upon the earlier of the Respondent advising that he no longer wished to live in the home, or the Respondent “no longer living” in the home, the house and its contents are to be sold, and the proceeds added to a gift to another beneficiary of the Deceased’s Will, a charity, St. Stephens House of London (“St. Stephens”).
The deceased died in June 2017. Confusion arose when it became apparent that the Respondent was not actually living in the home on a full-time basis. This first came up around December 2017 and continued for a couple of years. The home was in London, but the Respondent continued living and working full-time in Toronto following the deceased’s death, and seemingly up until 2019. He then started a full-time job in Sault Ste. Marie in 2019.
The Respondent’s evidence was that he was using the home as his primary residence in that he spent time at the home on weekends 1-2 times per month, and used it as his address for his driver’s license and for CRA purposes. He stated that he planned to live in the home full-time after he retired around July 2021.
St. Stephens, as the gift-over beneficiary of the home, took the position that the Respondent had not been living in the home, and therefore it should be sold pursuant to the terms of the Will.
The court first considered whether the Will gave the Respondent a life estate or a licence to use the home subject to a condition subsequent, concluding that the proper interpretation was that it was a licence with a condition subsequent. The condition subsequent in question was when the Respondent was “no longer living” in the home. The court outlined that a “condition subsequent is void for uncertainty if the condition is ‘far too indefinite and uncertain to enable the Court to say what it was that the testator meant should be the event on which the estate was to determine’”. Accordingly, the court concluded that it was impossible to define, on the terms of the deceased’s Will, what it meant to “live” in the home.
The question of whether, on the facts, the Respondent’s use of the home constituted him “living” there is an interesting one. However, due to the court’s conclusion that the terms granting the Respondent an interest in the home were void for uncertainty, it was unnecessary for the court to make any findings of fact on this particular question.
The estate trustee, who was also the drafting lawyer, gave evidence (that was ultimately inadmissible) that the deceased had been considering some changes to her Will prior to her death. The changes would put time restrictions on the Respondent’s use of the home, including that he would be required to move into the home within 90 days of her death, and not be absent from it for more than 120 days. These additional terms may have provided sufficient certainty for the beneficiary to know what he had to do in order to maintain his interest in the home, and for the estate trustee to administer the estate. Although this evidence had no impact on the court’s decision, it can serve as an important reminder that if one wants to change their Will, one should do so as soon as possible to ensure the Will reflects their wishes at the time of their death.
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As my colleague, Nick Esterbauer, blogged about last week (here and here), the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed all of us, including the courts and the legal profession, towards the increasing use of technology. This has included the use of video-conferencing for examinations of witnesses in the litigation context. As we adapt to this new world, there are inevitably going to be ‘hiccups’. It is crucial to maintain the integrity of the process and to ensure that virtual examinations are not abused.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dealt with just such a situation. In Kaushal v Vasudeva et al., 2021 ONSC 440, the cross-examination of the respondent to an application was held over Zoom. The respondent required an interpreter for his cross-examination, and the respondent, his lawyer, and the interpreter all attended at the lawyer’s boardroom for the examination. They were all in the same room together, but on separate devices. The respondent’s wife and son came to the lawyer’s office with him, but according to the respondent they remained in the reception area at all times. It was confirmed on the record by the respondent’s lawyer that the only people present with the respondent during the examination were the lawyer and the interpreter.
Following the examination, the applicant noticed that a microphone and camera in the respondent’s lawyer’s boardroom had been left on, and he could hear the respondent’s wife and son speaking. It appeared to the applicant that the wife and son had listened in on the examination.
The respondent denied that his wife and son were present in the boardroom during his cross-examination. His lawyer’s legal assistant also provided affidavit evidence that the wife and son were not in the boardroom during the examinations.
The interpreter, however, ultimately swore two affidavits that the wife and son were present in the boardroom throughout the respondent’s examination, and were prompting the respondent’s answers by hand and facial gestures. The court accepted the interpreter’s evidence in its entirety.
The court concluded that there was misconduct during the respondent’s cross-examination on the basis that his wife and son were present and made hand and facial gestures to assist him with his answers. The court further concluded that the respondent’s misconduct amounted to abuse of process and that his affidavit responding to the application must be struck. It was the court’s view that it “must send a strong message that interference in the fact-finding process by abusing or taking advantage of a virtual examination will not be tolerated. In a broader sense, this type of misconduct strikes at the very heard of the integrity of the fact-finding process such that general deterrence is also a factor.”
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In a recent decision from the British Columbia Court of Appeal, Mayer v Mayer Estate, 2020 BCCA 282, the court considered an application to reopen a trial to admit new evidence or to have a mistrial declared (the “post-trial application”). The post-trial application arose as a result of an email between the respondent’s daughter-in-law (who had been assisting the respondent with the litigation) and the respondent’s counsel. The appellant had obtained the email from the deceased’s computer. The deceased and the respondent had shared an email address, and when the appellant connected the computer to the internet some emails were downloaded from the shared account, including the email in question. The appellant took the position that the email that she had obtained impugned the respondent’s credibility by contradicting evidence she had given in the previous proceedings. The post-trial application was dismissed, and the appellant appealed the decision.
The Court of Appeal dealt with the question of the email fairly briefly. The post-trial application judge had concluded that the email was a communication that was subject to solicitor-client privilege. The Court of Appeal appears to have accepted that finding.
The content of the email is not specifically set out in the decision, but appears to have related to the purpose for which the respondent had made certain transfers to the deceased. It appears that, notwithstanding the finding that the email was privileged, the court still considered whether the contents of the email did impact the respondent’s credibility.
The respondent swore affidavit evidence in the original proceedings that she had made two transfers to the deceased to assist him in paying some tax debts. The email apparently indicated that at the time the respondent swore her affidavit, she knew that the deceased did not, in fact, have any tax debt. The post-trial application judge’s analysis stated that it appeared the deceased may have been untruthful with the respondent at the time the transfers were made, and probably used the funds for something other than tax debts, which he did not have. However, the respondent’s evidence in this regard was not a lie, because at the time of the transfer, all she knew was what the deceased had told her, namely that he intended to use the funds to pay his tax debts.
Additionally, the post-trial application judge had already addressed minor inconsistencies of this nature in the respondent’s evidence in his reasons from the original proceeding, noting that they were not consequential and fully explained by the respondent.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. In making this decision, the Court of Appeal notes that “it is apparent that the appellant is seeking largely to re-argue the case as originally tried before Justice Crossin, particularly as to credibility, which is not open to her.”
The Court of Appeal also awarded the respondent special costs (on a higher scale), based on its conclusion that the very serious allegations made and maintained by the appellant against the respondent constituted “sufficiently reprehensible conduct to merit rebuke in the form of an award of special costs”.
Although scenarios may exist where new evidence could have such an impact on credibility that it would warrant reopening a trial, one should be careful to fully assess the nature and strength of such evidence. The award of special costs also serves as further caution that serious allegations such as fraud and perjury should be made very selectively, when they are appropriate and fully supported by the evidence.
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When a party is incapable of instructing counsel, or his or her capacity is in question in a proceeding, there are safeguards in place in the Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194 (the “Rules”), and the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30 (the “SDA”) to ensure that the incapable party’s interests are protected. The Rules provide for the appointment of a litigation guardian for a party under disability, while the SDA provides for the appointment of “section 3 counsel” when the capacity of a person is in issue in a proceeding under the SDA and they do not have legal representation. While a litigation guardian and section 3 counsel may have a similar purpose, their roles are quite different. Situations may arise where one or the other is required, but there are also times when it may be difficult to determine which one is necessary in the circumstances. The recent decision of Dawson v Dawson, 2020 ONSC 6001 is one such instance.
In Dawson, one of the parties, Michael, was incapable of managing property or instructing counsel, and was the subject of a proceeding under the SDA. Michael’s wife, Josephine, sought to be appointed as his litigation guardian in that proceeding. The Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (the “PGT”) opposed the appointment of a litigation guardian, and took the position that the appointment of section 3 counsel would be appropriate in the circumstances.
Ultimately, the court appointed Josephine as litigation guardian for Michael, notwithstanding that section 3 counsel would typically be appointed in such a situation. Part of the court’s reasoning was that “[b]oth a litigation guardian and s. 3 counsel are responsible for protecting the interests of a vulnerable litigant, but they do so in significantly different ways.”
The court highlighted the limitations on section 3 counsel, being that they are counsel, not a party. If a lawyer is acting for a client with capacity issues, as may be the case with section 3 counsel, it may be difficult or impossible for the lawyer to ascertain the client’s wishes and instructions. Without instructions from his or her client, a lawyer cannot take a position in a proceeding, even if one assumes that the client would have agreed with that position, or that it is in the client’s best interests. Section 3 counsel cannot make decisions on behalf of his or her client.
A litigation guardian on the other hand, stands in the shoes of the party under disability, and is able to make decisions on behalf of the party. As stated by the court: “[a] litigation guardian therefore does precisely what s. 3 counsel cannot do, that is, make decisions on behalf of a vulnerable person.”
The role of section 3 counsel is very important in the context of proceedings under the SDA, given the significant impact that, for instance, a finding of incapacity, and the appointment of a guardian can have on an individual’s liberty. However, where section 3 counsel is unable to get instructions, the appointment of a litigation guardian may be necessary in order to protect the individual.
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Broadly speaking, a trustee cannot personally profit from his or her role as a trustee. “Profit” can mean a variety of things. One way in which a trustee could potentially profit from a trust is through the purchase of trust property.
A trustee may not purchase trust assets unless there is an express power in the Will or trust instrument allowing a trustee to do so, or if the purchase is approved by the court. Even where a trustee has the express power to purchase trust assets, he or she must still act in accordance with his or her fiduciary obligations to the beneficiaries of the trust or estate. Additionally, a trustee who has been authorized to purchase trust assets would be well-advised to obtain consents and releases from the beneficiaries, or to consider seeking court approval in any event, given that such a situation is ripe for claims that the trustee breached his or her fiduciary duty.
The court should only approve the sale of trust property to a trustee where the sale is clearly to the advantage of the beneficiaries. Demonstrating that a sale is clearly advantageous to the beneficiaries can be difficult, as it is not enough to just show that the purchase price is fair. For instance, even if a trustee has offered a fair price, if there is another purchaser who is willing to purchase the asset for a greater price, the trustee’s purchase will not be to the advantage of the beneficiaries.
The problem with a trustee purchasing trust assets is that in doing so, he or she is practically putting him or herself in an irreconcilable conflict of interest: the trustee has a duty to maximize the value of the trust assets for the beneficiaries, but in his or her personal capacity, will want to minimize the price paid for an asset. A trustee seeking to purchase trust property will need to ensure that he or she has taken sufficient steps to satisfy the court that he or she has maximized the value of the asset.
In Re Ballard Estate, (1993) 20 O.R. (3d) 189, a trustee, S, obtained certain option rights to purchase trust property. The trustees obtained two valuations of the property in question, and S and the other trustees negotiated a purchase price for the property in question at the upper end of the range of values pursuant to the valuations. However, the property was not offered for sale on the open market, and the trustees did not take steps to identify other potential purchasers. The court found that the trustees could have done more to ensure the maximum value was obtained for the asset, stating that the trustees should have taken “all reasonable positive steps to ferret out the best price”. Trustees cannot avoid their obligation to maximize the value of the assets by taking a passive stance and hoping that other potential purchasers will find them.
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We have previously blogged extensively on the issue of inaccessibility of digital assets and the absence of legislation in Canadian provinces, including Ontario, to clarify the rights of a fiduciary to access and administer digital assets on behalf of a deceased or incapable rights holder.
While the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, and Estates Administration Act provide that attorneys or guardians of properties and estate trustees, respectively, are authorized to manage the property of an incapable person or an estate, Ontario does not currently have any legislation that clarifies these rights by explicit reference to digital assets. While continuing powers of attorney for property and wills can be crafted to explicitly refer to digital assets and the authority of an attorney for property or estate trustee to access accounts and information in the same manner in which the user him or herself was able, access issues can still arise during incapacity or after death.
A recent CBC article highlights the inadequacy of legislation facilitating access to digital assets. A surviving wife of over forty years was the estate trustee and sole residuary beneficiary of her late husband’s estate. In seeking access to an Apple account that she shared with her husband, she was told that she would require a court order, even after providing Apple with a copy of her husband’s death certificate and will. Apple cited the United States’ Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which predates the prominence of computers and the internet in our daily lives, as prohibiting them from distributing personal electronic information. Four years after her husband’s death in 2016, the Ontario woman is now obtaining pro bono assistance in seeking a court order granting access to the shared account in the absence of any other options.
It is anticipated that the adoption of the Uniform Law Conference of Canada’s Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act would resolve some or all of the issues currently faced by Ontario residents in accessing and administering digital assets. However, now over four years since its release, only Saskatchewan has implemented provincial legislation mirroring the language of the uniform act.
It will be interesting to see in coming years whether legislative updates will address continued barriers to the access and administration of digital assets and the corresponding access to justice issue.
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Recent reports suggest that divorce and separation rates are on the rise during the pandemic (with rates of separation cited as having increased as much as 20% to 57% from last year, depending on the jurisdiction). This has been in part attributed to the stresses of lockdown and worsening financial situations.
Many Canadians may not be fully aware of the legal impact that separation and divorce have upon an estate plan, mistakenly believing that there is no real difference between marriage and a common-law partnership. However, the distinction in Ontario remains important from an estate planning perspective – for example:
- A common-law or divorced spouse does not have any automatic rights upon the death of a spouse who does not leave a will, whereas married spouses take a preferential share and additional percentage of a predeceasing married spouse’s estate on an intestacy;
- A married spouse has the right to elect for an equalization of net family property pursuant to the Family Law Act on death, whereas common-law spouses have no equalization rights on death;
- Marriage automatically revokes a will (unless executed in contemplation of the marriage), whereas entering into a common-law relationship has no such impact; and
- Separation (in the absence of a Separation Agreement dealing with such issues) does not revoke a will or any gifts made to a separated spouse, whereas gifts under a will to a divorced spouse are typically revoked and the divorced spouse treated as having predeceased the testator.
While top of mind for estate lawyers, lawyers practising in other areas of law and their clients may not necessarily turn their minds to the implications that separation and divorce may have on an estate plan, particularly soon after separation and prior to a formal divorce. With the potential for family law proceedings to be delayed while courts may not yet be operating at full capacity, combined with elevated mortality rates among certain parts of the population during the pandemic, it may be especially worthwhile in the current circumstances to remind our clients of the importance of updating an estate plan following any material change in family circumstances, including a separation or divorce.
Thank you for reading and stay safe,