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.
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In Ontario, a Continuing Power of Attorney for Property or a Power of Attorney for Personal Care must be signed by two witnesses. As our readers also know, as a result of COVID-19, witnessing and execution requirements for Powers of Attorney in Ontario have been relaxed to facilitate access to incapacity planning during the pandemic. These provisions have recently been extended to November 21, 2020. Provided that one witness to a Continuing Power of Attorney for Property or Power of Attorney for Personal Care is a licensee under Ontario’s Law Society Act, the document may be witnessed using audiovisual communication technology and signed in counterpart. The document does not otherwise need to be witnessed by a lawyer (although, where a lawyer has assisted in the preparation of Powers of Attorney, it will often be most practical for the lawyer and one of his or her staff to witness the client’s execution of the document).
Especially in light of social distancing measures, it is important to keep in mind the restrictions on who can witness incapacity planning documents. In Ontario, neither a Continuing Power of Attorney for Property nor a Power of Attorney for Personal Care can be witnessed by:
- the attorney or the attorney’s spouse;
- the grantor’s spouse;
- a child of the grantor;
- a person whose property/personal care is under guardianship; or
- an individual of less than eighteen years old.
If the lawyer him or herself is being appointed under the document, which is not an uncommon practice, the involvement of a second lawyer or a paralegal in the virtual execution and witnessing of the document(s) may be necessary.
In the Yukon, the witnessing requirements for Powers of Attorney are somewhat different. As it currently stands, in order for a Continuing Power of Attorney for Property (there referred to as an Enduring Power of Attorney) to be effective, a Certificate of Legal Advice must be provided by a lawyer. As a result, the lawyer typically witnesses the Power of Attorney, which is not otherwise valid. While only one witness is required, the lawyer providing the Certificate cannot be the attorney or the attorney’s spouse.
A recent article from Canadian Lawyer reviews proposed changes to Yukon’s Enduring Power of Attorney Act. One of the key amendments is the replacement of the requirement that a lawyer be involved in witnessing the execution of Continuing Powers of Attorney for Property with the option of the witnessing of such documents by two other individuals. Similar to the requirements in Ontario, a witness must be an adult and cannot be the spouse of the donor, the attorney, or the spouse of the attorney.
If approved, the recent Yukon Bill will eliminate the necessity that a lawyer be involved in the witnessing of Powers of Attorney to increase access to incapacity planning throughout the territory.
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Corporations and Estates – What happens when a Will gifts an asset that is actually corporately owned?
The use of privately held corporations to manage an individual’s assets or business interests seems to be an increasingly common strategy and tool. Although the use of privately held corporations offer a number of potential advantages to the individual both during their lifetime and as part of their estate planning, it does raise a number of novel issues for the administration of the estate which may not exist if these assets had been directly owned by the individual. Such potential issues manifested themselves before the Ontario Court of Appeal in the relatively recent decision of Trezzi v. Trezzi, 2019 ONCA 978, where the court was asked to determine the potential validity of a bequest in a Will of property that was not directly owned by the testator personally but rather owned by them through a wholly owned private corporation.
As privately held corporations are often wholly owned by a single individual owner the individual in question would be forgiven for thinking that any assets that are actually owned by the corporation are their own. Such a misconception could carry with it some significant legal issues however, as it ignores the important fact that at law the corporation and the individual owner are two distinctly separate legal entities, and that although the individual owner of the corporation can exercise almost absolute control over the corporation as the sole shareholder, and could through such control likely direct the corporation to take any action regarding any asset the corporation may own (subject to any obligations of the corporation), they do not personally “own” any asset that is in fact owned by the corporation. Such a distinction is potentially important to keep in mind when a person who owns assets through a private corporation is creating their estate plan, as they should be mindful of whether any specific asset which they wish to bequest is owned by them personally or through the corporation.
In Trezzi the testator left a bequest in their Will to one his children of all equipment and chattels that were owned by a construction company that was wholly owned by the testator. This bequest was challenged by certain of the residuary beneficiaries, who argued that as the equipment and chattels in question were not actually directly owned by the testator, but rather the corporation, the testator’s bequest of such items had failed and that the items in question should instead continue to form part of the corporation and be distributed in accordance with the residue clause to their potential benefit.
The Court of Appeal in Trezzi ultimately upheld the bequest in question; however, in doing so, noted that the language was potentially problematic and encouraged counsel to be more careful when drafting in similar circumstances (even including potential precedent language to follow from the Annotated Will program). In upholding the bequest the Court of Appeal was in effect required to do an interpretation application for the Will, noting that they placed themselves in the position of the testator and considered what his intention would have been when including the provision in question. The court ultimately concluded that it would have been the testator’s intention with such a provision that the executor was to wind up the corporation in question, with the assets being distributed to the beneficiary in question as part of such a process. In coming to such a conclusion the court states:
“While it is true that Peter, as the sole shareholder of Trezzi Construction, did not directly own the corporation’s assets, that does not complete the analysis. In substance, Peter’s shares in Trezzi Construction became part of the estate, and Peter effectively directed his executors to wind-up the company and to distribute its assets in accordance with his will, even though he did not own those assets directly. As already noted, the key question thus boils down to whether this was indeed Peter’s subjective intention in his will…” [emphasis added]
Although cases like Trezzi show that under certain circumstances a bequest of assets which are not directly owned by the testator but rather through a corporation can be upheld such a result cannot be guaranteed, as the Court of Appeal in Trezzi was required to resort to the rules of construction and place themselves in the position of the testator to uphold the bequest in question. As a result, a testator would be wise to take extra care when dealing with an estate plan that includes the potential bequest of assets that are corporately owned to ensure that the ownership of such assets is properly described and the executor is provided with any necessary authority and direction to deal with the corporately held assets on behalf of the estate.
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You would be forgiven for thinking that the entire process for an Application to Pass Accounts is set out in rule 74.18 of the Rules of Civil Procedure as the rule appears to provide a comprehensive step by step guide to how an Application to Pass Accounts is to proceed before the court. Although rule 74.18 likely contains the most cited to and fundamental steps and principles for how an Application to Pass Accounts is to proceed, you would be wise to remember and consider the applicable provisions of section 49 of the Estates Act as they may offer additional insights and tools for a passing of accounts beyond those found in the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Yesterday I blogged in part about section 49(4) of the Estates Act, and the general availability to convert more complex objections that are raised in the Notice of Objection into a separate triable issue thereby potentially opening up more typical litigation processes such as discovery and the calling of witnesses at the eventual hearing of the matter. Although the ability to direct certain complex objections to a separate trial is an important tool under section 49(4) of the Estates Act, it is not the only potential tool or thing to consider under section 49 of the Estates Act when involved in an Application to Pass Accounts.
These additional tools and considerations for an Application to Pass Accounts as found in section 49 of the Estates Act include section 49(3), which provides the court with the ability to consider any “misconduct, neglect, or default” on the part of the executor or trustee in administering the estate or trust within the Application to Pass Accounts itself, and may make any damages award against the executor or trustee for such misconduct within the Application to Pass Accounts itself without a separate proceeding being required. As a result, if, for example, a beneficiary should raise an allegation of negligence in the Notice of Objection against the executor for something such as a complaint that certain real property that was owned by the estate was sold undervalue, the court under section 49(3) of the Estates Act has the power to consider such an allegation and, if ultimately proven true, may order damages against the executor for any loss to the estate within the Application to Pass Accounts process itself. Without section 49(3) the beneficiary may otherwise have been required to commence a new and separate Action against the executor to advance these claims and/or be awarded damages.
Section 49 also contains answers to numerous procedural questions which may come up in an Application to Pass Accounts which otherwise are not mentioned in the Rules of Civil Procedure, including section 49(9) which provides what the executor is to do when an individual has died intestate and you are unable to locate any next of kin to serve, and section 49(10) which provides the court with the ability to appoint an expert to review and opine on the accounts on behalf of the court when the accounts are particularly complex.
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The Application to Pass Accounts serves an important function in the administration of estates and trusts, providing the beneficiaries with the ability to audit the administration of the estate or trust and raise any concerns through their Notice of Objection.
The procedure that is followed for the Application to Pass Accounts is somewhat distinct from any other court process, with the process being governed by rule 74.18 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. These procedural steps include the filing of the “Notice of Objection” and the “Reply” to the Notice of Objection, processes and documents which are distinct to the Application to Pass Accounts. Although the Application to Pass Accounts process differs in certain ways from a more traditional Application, at its core the Application to Pass Accounts is still an “Application” and not an “Action”, with the process designed to be more summary in process as compared to the typical Action.
I have previously blogged about the procedural differences between an “Application” and an “Action”, and how things like Discovery and Affidavits of Documents, as well as calling witnesses to give oral evidence, are generally not available in an Application. The same generally holds true for an Application to Pass Accounts, with there generally being no Discovery process or witnesses called at the eventual hearing for the passing of accounts, with the summary process designed to be adjudicated on the paper record of the documents contemplated under rule 74.18.
Although the simplified and summary process intended for the Application to Pass Accounts may present many benefits to the parties, including allowing the beneficiaries to pose questions and objections to the trustee without having to resort to potentially prolonged and expensive litigation as provided in a typical Action, it could present some challenges if the claims that are being advanced are complex or seek significant damages as the process may not allow for the full record to be adequately explored.
If the claims or issues which are being advanced in an Application to Pass Accounts are complex, such as for example claims that the trustee was negligent or committed a breach of trust, the summary process designed for the typical Application to Pass Accounts may not provide the depth of procedural process that the claims may deserve. Under such circumstances the parties may seek to direct and/or convert the complex objections into a separate triable issue, thereby potentially opening up the procedural processes more typically reserved for an “Action” such as Discovery or the calling of witnesses to the issue.
The process by which certain objections are directed and/or converted into a separate “triable issue” is governed by section 49(4) of the Estates Act, which provides:
“The judge may order the trial of an issue of any complaint or claim under subsection (3), and in such case the judge shall make all necessary directions as to pleadings, production of documents, discovery and otherwise in connection with the issue.”
Under section 49(4) of the Estates Act the court may direct any objection which fits under section 48(3) of the Estates Act, which includes allegations of breach of trust, to be separately tried before the court, with section 49(4) noting that the judge shall make necessary directions regarding pleadings, Discovery, and the production of documents for the objection.
If an individual wishes to direct an objection to be tried under section 49(4) of the Estates Act such an intention should be raised at the early stages of the Application to Pass Accounts, with an Order being sought which would specifically direct the objection(s) in question to be tried by way of Action. To the extent that such an Order cannot be obtained on consent a Motion may be brought regarding the issue, with the court also being asked to provide direction regarding the procedures to be followed for the triable issue.
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I have previously blogged about Vanier v Vanier, a decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal relating to a dispute amongst attorneys, in which the Court of Appeal agreed with a statement by the motion judge that the attorneys had “lost sight of the fact that it is [the incapable’s] best interests that must be served here, not their own pride, suspicions, authority or desires”. Unfortunately, it is often the case that in disputes amongst family members over the management of an incapable family member’s care or property, the incapable’s interests may be overshadowed by the fight amongst the other members of the family.
The recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision in Lockhart v Lockhart, 2020 ONSC 4667, appears to be another similar situation.
The applicant, Barbara, and the respondent, Robert, are children of Mrs. Lockhart. Mrs. Lockhart was 89 years old at the time of the decision. A number of years before, she had contracted bacterial meningitis and had suffered some long-lasting effects that impacted her cognition. Mrs. Lockhart’s husband predeceased her on October 2, 2018. Prior to his death, he had made personal care and treatment decisions for Mrs. Lockhart when she was not able to do so herself. After Mrs. Lockhart’s husband’s death, Barbara was unable to locate a power of attorney for personal care for Mrs. Lockhart; accordingly, Barbara and Robert proceeded to make personal care decisions on Mrs. Lockhart’s behalf, jointly.
However, in December 2018, Robert arranged to have Mrs. Lockhart sign a power of attorney for personal care and a power of attorney for property naming him as her sole attorney (the “2018 POAs”). Barbara was not aware of the 2018 POAs, and was not involved in their preparation or execution. Barbara did not even become aware of the 2018 POAs until April 2020 when Robert revealed them to her in the midst of a dispute between Barbara and Robert relating to Mrs. Lockhart’s care. Barbara subsequently challenged the validity of the 2018 POAs on the basis that, among other things, Mrs. Lockhart was not capable of granting them.
The court found that the 2018 POAs were of no force and effect, and were void ab initio. The court was also asked to determine which of Barbara and Robert would be authorized to make decisions on Mrs. Lockhart’s behalf under the Health Care Consent Act, 1996 (the “HCCA”). Each of Barbara and Robert took the position that they should have sole decision-making authority.
Notably, the court stated specifically that “[t]his dispute has less to do with Mrs. Lockhart’s interests and more to do with a power struggle between two siblings.” Given this outcome, and the facts leading to the litigation, I found the solution arrived at by the court interesting. The court determined that both Barbara and Robert are authorized to make personal care, health care, and treatment decisions under the HCCA, on behalf of Mrs. Lockhart, jointly. It appears that the court was satisfied that both of Barbara and Robert would exercise that authority in Mrs. Lockhart’s best interests, notwithstanding the dispute between them that lead to litigation. Other than the major disagreement between Barbara and Robert that lead to the litigation, the court found that “it appears that they have, in the main, come to decisions that have been in Mrs. Lockhart’s best interest and have kept her safe.” This historic ability to make joint decisions seems to have been sufficient for the court to decide that Barbara and Robert should continue doing so going forward.
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