Tag: ontario

08 Mar

Harper Lee’s Will

Rebecca Rauws Estate & Trust, In the News Tags: , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

I recently read this article from the New York Times, which discusses the Will of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as well as some of the events that occurred several years prior to Harper Lee’s death. Harper Lee died in 2016, at the age of 89. In the years leading up to her death, there was some question as to her capacity, and possible vulnerability to coercion or undue influence.

The New York Times article states that Ms. Lee had had a stroke in 2007 and also had severe vision and hearing problems. Ms. Lee resided in an assisted living facility before her death. The article also describes the position taken by counsel for Ms. Lee as part of a copyright dispute in 2013, where counsel stated that Ms. Lee had been taken advantage of and coerced into signing away her copyright because she was “an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.”

A couple of years ago, in 2015, Ms. Lee published her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman”. It turned out that this novel had been an earlier draft of her extremely popular book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is purported to have been discovered by Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, in 2014. There was some controversy surrounding the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” on the basis that Ms. Lee had not actually consented to the manuscript being published, and may have been manipulated into doing so. The publication of a new book was particularly remarkable given that Ms. Lee had only ever published one book prior to “Go Set a Watchman”—namely, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which was published in 1960. However, an investigation was performed, and a determination made that there had been no elder abuse of Ms. Lee.

After Ms. Lee’s death, her Will had not been made a matter of public record, as a result of the successful efforts by Ms. Carter (named in the Will as executor) to have the Will sealed on the basis that Ms. Lee, who was a very private person, would have wanted her Will to remain private. It was only unsealed recently after litigation by the New York Times, and after Ms. Lee’s estate withdrew its opposition to the Will being unsealed.

The Will was signed only 8 days before Ms. Lee’s death, and apparently directs that the bulk of her assets be transferred into a trust formed by Ms. Lee in 2011. Ms. Carter is one of the trustees of this trust. Further documents relating to the trust are not public, and accordingly, very few details are known about it.

Given the questions surrounding Ms. Lee’s potential vulnerability in the years leading up to her death, it will be interesting to see whether anything further develops in relation to her estate, or the trust which apparently will hold most of the assets of Ms. Lee’s estate.

Thanks for reading.

Rebecca Rauws


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06 Mar

B.C.’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act: Claims May be Pursued by Beneficiaries

Rebecca Rauws Executors and Trustees, Litigation Tags: , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

In Ontario, if there is a claim to be made or continued by a deceased person or their estate, any such claim must be brought by the executor or administrator of his or her estate. If there is no executor or administrator, under Rule 9.02 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, RRO 1990, Reg 194, the court may appoint a litigation administrator, who will represent the estate for the purpose of the proceeding. A beneficiary or other person may also represent the interests of an estate, under Rule 10.02, where it appears that an estate has an interest in a matter in question in a proceeding.

In British Columbia, section 151 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, SBC 2009, c. 13  (“WESA”) provides an alternative way of pursuing a claim by an estate. Section 151 states that a beneficiary of an estate may, with leave of the court, commence proceedings in the name and on  behalf of the personal representative of a deceased person, either to recover property or enforce a right, duty or obligation owed to the deceased person that could be recovered or enforced by the personal representative, or to obtain damages for breach of a right, duty or obligation owed to the deceased person. Section 151(3) outlines the circumstances in which the court may grant leave in this regard:

(3) The court may grant leave under this section if

(a) the court determines the beneficiary or intestate successor seeking leave

(i) has made reasonable efforts to cause the personal representative to commence or defend the proceeding,

(ii) has given notice of the application for leave to

(A) the personal representative,

(B) any other beneficiaries or intestate successors, and

(C) any additional person the court directs that notice is to be given, and

(iii) is acting in good faith, and

(b) it appears to the court that it is necessary or expedient for the protection of the estate or the interests of a beneficiary or an intestate successor for the proceeding to be brought or defended

In a document produced by the Government of British Columbia entitled “The Wills, Estates and Succession Act Explained” (“WESA Explained”), section 151 is described as overcoming a gap in the law. Previously, if a beneficiary wished for an action to be brought on behalf of an estate, and the personal representative refused to do so, the beneficiary’s sole recourse would be to apply for removal of the personal representative.

However, removal may not always be necessary or convenient. As described in WESA Explained, such a situation could arise in the event that the personal representative’s main concern (as is often the case with executors, generally) is to preserve and distribute the estate. The personal representative is therefore likely more risk adverse and conservative in assessing the potential success of pursuing an action. The  beneficiary may have differing views on the merits of the claim, and in his or her assessment of the risk and return.

Section 151 of WESA differs from the process for litigation administrators and representation orders in Ontario in that s. 151 allows the executor and beneficiary appointed to bring a claim on behalf of the estate to co-exist simultaneously.

The concept of s. 151 is similar to a derivative action, in which a shareholder or other person is permitted to bring an action on behalf of a corporation, where the corporation refuses to do so.

Thanks for reading.

Rebecca Rauws


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05 Mar

Who Holds the Copyright to an Obituary?

Rebecca Rauws Estate & Trust, News & Events Tags: , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

When someone composes an obituary for a loved one who has passed away, carefully selecting the photograph to go along with it, one would suppose that the last thing on their mind is the copyright they may hold in that obituary and photograph. Of course, few people expect that an obituary could be the subject of republication or possible copyright infringement.

However, one website has been reproducing obituaries in their “database of deceased people”, leading to questions about ownership of the obituaries themselves, as well as the photographs accompanying them. The website reproduces obituaries and photographs, apparently without permission from the individuals who originally created and posted the obituaries. As reported in this Global News article, one family even states that an obituary for their loved one, which had not been written by their family and contained a number of errors, was posted on the website less than a day after their loved one passed away. The family did not know who wrote the obituary, although the website released a statement that all of the obituaries they re-post are already on the internet.

A recent article in The Lawyer’s Daily discusses an application for certification of a class action copyright claim against this obituary database website. The application claims that the website is infringing copyright and moral rights in respect of the obituaries and photographs. The moral rights claim relates to the website’s monetization of the obituaries by offering options to purchase flowers, gifts, or virtual candles, through affiliate retailers. Some funeral homes offer a similar service, but the article notes that the unsavoury nature of the website’s business model, which consists of “scraping” obituaries from elsewhere on the internet, without permission or notice, and making money by doing so through advertisements or the selling of flowers or virtual candles, could provide some support for the moral rights claim.

In relation to the copyright infringement claims, there may be some obstacles to overcome, particularly in relation to ownership of the copyright. According to The Lawyer’s Daily article, under the Copyright Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42, the person claiming a copyright infringement must be the owner, assignee or exclusive licensee of the work in question. An assignment of copyright must be in writing. As mentioned in the article, this could create an issue if the photograph used in the obituary was taken, for instance, by a stranger.

Damages in the event of liability are also uncertain. In a recent case with similar facts, where the defendants were found to have infringed on the plaintiff’s copyright, the court awarded statutory damages of only $2.00 per image because the cost of capturing the images in that case was low. However, given the emotional aspect of obituaries, it is possible that the facts in this case could lead to a larger damages award.

Thanks for reading,

Rebecca Rauws


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01 Mar

Impact of Physician-Assisted Death on Estate and Insurance Planning

Nick Esterbauer Beneficiary Designations, Elder Law Insurance Issues, Estate Planning, Ethical Issues, Health / Medical, RRSPs/Insurance Policies Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

For many Canadians, one or more life insurance policies represent an important component of an estate plan.  If a policy cannot be honoured as a result of the cause of the insured’s death, this may completely frustrate his or her testamentary wishes.

The terms of life insurance policies typically address the issue of whether a beneficiary will be entitled to the insurance proceeds in the event that an individual commits suicide.  Policy terms typically include a restriction as to the payout of the policy if the insured dies by his or her own hands within a certain of number of years from the date on which the policy is taken out (most often two years).

With the decriminalization of physician-assisted death, there was initially some concern regarding whether medical assistance in dying would be distinguished from suicide for the purposes of life insurance.  The preamble to the related federal legislation, however, distinguishes between the act of suicide and obtaining medical assistance in dying.

As mentioned by Suzana Popovic-Montag in a recent blog entry, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association suggested in 2016 that, if a Canadian follows the legislated process for obtaining medial assistance in dying, life insurance providers will pay out on policies that are less than two years old.  Since then, the Medical Assistance in Dying Statute Law Amendment Act, 2017 has come into force to provide protection and clarity for Ontario patients and their families.  This legislation has resulted in amendments to various provincial legislation, including the Excellent Care for All Act, 2010, a new section of which now reads as follows:

…the fact that a person received medical assistance in dying may not be invoked as a reason to deny a right or refuse a benefit or any other sum which would otherwise be provided under a contract or statute…unless an express contrary intention appears in the statute.

The amendments provided for within the legislation introduced by the Ontario government represent an important step in the recognition of physician-assisted death as a right that is distinguishable from the act of suicide.  They also confirm the right of individuals who access medical assistance in dying to benefit their survivors with life insurance policies or other benefits.

Thank you for reading,

Nick Esterbauer


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27 Feb

Is interest payable on legacies?

Nick Esterbauer Estate & Trust, Executors and Trustees, Litigation, Wills Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

An Ontario Court of Appeal decision released yesterday provides clarity regarding the situations in which beneficiaries of legacies will be entitled to interest on the sum payable to them under a Last Will and Testament.

In Rivard v Morris, the testator had held farmland of significant value.  A prior Will left a farm of comparable value to each of his daughters (as the testator had previously gifted a farm property to his son), and divided the residue of the estate equally between the three children.  In the months preceding his death, however, the deceased amended his estate plan to provide for a greater benefit to his son, leaving him the residue of his estate (inclusive of the farm properties) after distributions to each daughter in the amount of $530,000.00.

After the testator died, the daughters challenged his Last Will on the basis of alleged undue influence.  The will challenge was unsuccessful.  The daughters subsequently commenced another proceeding after their brother (the sole remaining estate trustee after their previous resignations) refused to pay to the sisters interest with respect to the legacies of $530,000.00.  They argued that they were entitled to interest commencing one year after the date of their father’s death, notwithstanding that the payment had been delayed in part because of the will challenge initiated by the daughters.  Any interest would have been payable out of the assets to which their brother was otherwise entitled as sole residuary beneficiary of the estate.

The daughters were unsuccessful at the hearing of their application and appealed.  The Court of Appeal found in their favour.  Justice Paciocco ordered the payment to each daughter interest in the amount of $53,000.00 out of the residue of the estate.  In doing so, Justice Paciocco relied upon the “executor’s year” and the “rule of convenience”.  In describing the rule of convenience, Justice Paciocco stated as follows (at paragraphs 24, 25):

The “rule of convenience” can be easily explained, in my view.  One of the maxims of equity is that it presumes as being done that which ought to be done. Since the beneficiaries should be enjoying the earning power of their legacies by at least the anniversary date of the testator’s death, where that enjoyment is postponed and the testator has not provided an alternative date for payment of the legacy, interest is to be paid…This general rule has been adopted in Ontario.

The rule of convenience was considered by the Court of Appeal to promote certainty and predictability, and the lower court’s decision to deny the daughters’ interest on the basis that they had commenced litigation against the estate was said to be contrary to principle, as this would have the impact of discouraging “even meritorious litigation”.  While the Court of Appeal did neither confirmed nor denied whether judges are able to exercise discretion to deny interest to beneficiaries of legacies, it found that it had been inappropriate for the application judge to do so in this case.

Thank you for reading,

Nick Esterbauer


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26 Feb

An Update on U.S. Inheritance Tax

Nick Esterbauer Estate Planning, In the News, Wills Tags: , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

A recent article featured in the New York Times highlights the need to reconsider estate planning strategies in light of developments in the law of inheritance taxation.

As our blog has previously reported, during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump vowed to eliminate inheritance taxes, then payable on the value of American estates exceeding $5.45 million, altogether.  To the disappointment of many wealthy citizens of the United States, President Trump has not carried out his promise and, while the exemption has been increased, inheritance tax remains payable in the United States in respect of estates of a size greater than $10 million.

The New York Times reports that these changes to the exemption in respect of inheritance taxation are temporary in nature and that the measures currently in effect will expire in 2026.  At that time, Americans (and individuals who hold property of significant value in the United States) may need to amend their estate plans with a view to tax efficiency.

Gifts, including testamentary gifts, are not typically subject to taxation in Canada.  While there is no Canadian estate or inheritance tax, assets that are distributed in accordance with a Canadian Last Will and Testament or Codicil that is admitted to probate will be subject to an estate administration tax (also known as “probate fees”).  Many of our readers will already be aware of the relatively new requirement (as of 2015) that estate trustees in Ontario file an Estate Information Return with the Ontario Ministry of Finance within 90 days of the processing of a probate application.  In some circumstances, details regarding both traditional estate assets and assets typically considered to pass outside of the estate are required, notwithstanding that the latter category may nevertheless be exempt from probate fees.  Some anticipate that the law in Ontario may at some point be amended to require further details regarding assets passing outside of an estate in Estate Information Returns and/or the payment of estate administration tax or other fees in respect of these assets.  Like variations in the exemptions to American inheritance tax, changes to estate administration taxes may in the future necessitate amendments to existing estate plans with a view to limiting the taxes payable on the transfer of wealth.

Thank you for reading,

Nick Esterbauer


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04 Jan

Saunders v. Vautier – What does it mean?

Stuart Clark Estate & Trust Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

Over the holidays I had a great nostalgia trip watching the recent Netflix series “The toys that made us” about the history of toys. One of the episodes focused on “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe“. For those of you who did not grow up in the 1980s, the titular character had a habit of loudly proclaiming “I have the power” right before getting down to business and saving the day. I feel like loudly proclaiming “I have the power” is as good a segue as any to discuss the general principles surrounding the rule in Saunders v. Vautier.

The term “Saunders v. Vautier” is often thrown around by estates lawyers as if it is a foregone conclusion that everyone in the room, including clients, should instinctively know what is meant by the phrase. This, of course, is not always the case. For those needing a general refresher look no further.

When lawyers mention the rule in “Saunders v. Vautier” it is often done in reference to a scenario wherein a beneficiary is not to receive certain property until a specific age, however as the provision providing for the gift does not contain a “gift-over” to another beneficiary should the originally named beneficiary not reach the specified age, the beneficiary immediately demands receipt of the gift upon attaining 18 years of age thereby collapsing the trust. While the rule in Saunders v. Vautier can be utilized in such a scenario, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the only scenario in which the rule in Saunders v. Vautier may be utilized, as the potential applications of the rule are much more expansive than this.

At its most expansive the rule in Saunders v. Vautier can be thought of as the rule which allows a beneficiary(s) to ignore the testator’s/settlor’s intentions and vary the terms of a trust. It stands for the proposition that if all potential beneficiaries of a trust, collectively representing 100% of the potential “ownership” of the assets of the trust, unanimously direct that the trust is to be wound up and/or varied, the trustee(s) must act in accordance with the beneficiaries’ direction regardless of whether such direction goes against the testator’s/settlor’s “intention” in establishing the trust. As summarized by the Supreme Court of Canada in Buschau v. Rogers Communications Inc.:

The common law rule in Saunders v. Vautier can be concisely stated as allowing beneficiaries of a trust to depart from the settlor’s original intentions provided that they are of full legal capacity and are together entitled to all the rights of beneficial ownership in the trust property. More formally, the rule is stated as follows in Underhill and Hayton: Law of Trusts and Trustees (14th ed. 1987), at p. 628:

If there is only one beneficiary, or if there are several (whether entitled concurrently or successively) and they are all of one mind, and he or they are not under any disability, the specific performance of the trust may be arrested, and the trust modified or extinguished by him or them without reference to the wishes of the settlor or trustees.

If even one beneficiary of the trust, however remote their interest may be, should refuse to consent to the proposed variation, the rule in Saunders v. Vautier may not be utilized and the trust must continue to be administered as settled. If one of the potential beneficiaries of the trust is under a legal disability, whether as a result of being a minor or otherwise, the principles from Saunders v. Vautier may still be utilized, however the consent of the beneficiary under a legal disability must be obtained under the Variation of Trusts Act which allows the court to consent to the proposed variation on behalf of the beneficiary under a legal disability. Should the court ultimately provide such a consent, and assuming all remaining “sui juris” beneficiaries have already consented to the proposed variation, all potential beneficiaries would have consented to the proposed variation and the rule in Saunders v. Vautier would be invoked.

Thank you for reading. Wield that power wisely.

Stuart Clark

19 Dec

When does a Beneficiary have a Specific Interest in Trust Assets?

Rebecca Rauws Estate & Trust Tags: , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

A beneficiary of a trust can have either a vested or a contingent interest in the trust’s assets. For example, if a trustee holds an asset in trust for another person, with no further conditions attached, the beneficiary’s interest in that asset will be vested. However, if the trustee holds the same asset in trust for a beneficiary, subject to the condition that the beneficiary attain the age of 30, that beneficiary’s interest depends on them reaching the age of 30, and is therefore contingent. Whether a beneficiary’s interest is vested or contingent can have different consequences depending on the particular circumstances.

In Spencer v Riesberry, 2011 ONSC 3222 (affirmed in Spencer v Riesberry, 2012 ONCA 418), the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered the nature of a beneficiary’s interest in a trust. Specifically, in the context of matrimonial litigation, the court considered whether a spouse’s beneficial interest in real property held by a trust could be considered as “property in which a person has an interest” for the purpose of s. 18(1) of the Family Law Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F.3, such that the property in question could be considered the matrimonial home. If a property is considered to be a matrimonial home, pursuant to s. 4 of the Family Law Act, it cannot be deducted or excluded from the calculation of net family property and can contribute to increasing the owner spouse’s net family property.

In this case, a married couple, Sandra and Derek, had been residing, with their children, in their family home on Riverside Drive. In 1993, Sandra’s mother, Linda, had purchased the Riverside Drive property and settled it in a trust (the “Trust”). Sandra and Derek resided in the residence prior to their marriage in 1994, as well as during the marriage. The couple separated in 2010.

The beneficiaries of the Trust were Sandra, Linda, and Linda’s three other children. Three other properties were added, by gift, to the Trust over subsequent years, and each of these other properties were occupied by one of the other three children and their families.

The terms of the Trust provided that the trustee was to hold the trust property, subject to a life interest in favour of Linda. Upon Linda’s death, the trustee was to divide the trust property into equal parts so that there is one part for each beneficiary living at the date of Linda’s death.

The court considered the nature of Sandra’s interest in the Riverside Drive property in the context of her net family property and whether it could be characterized as a matrimonial home. Due to the terms of the Trust, the court held that Sandra did not have a specific interest in the Riverside Drive property. Although she was a beneficiary of the Trust, which owned the Riverside Drive property, it does not follow that Sandra was specifically entitled to that property in particular. Sandra’s interest in the Trust was characterized as a contingent beneficial interest, as her ultimate entitlement under the Trust depended on various factors. For instance, as the division of Trust property amongst beneficiaries would happen only upon Linda’s death, the assets to be distributed would consist of whatever is held by the Trust at that time. Additionally, the beneficiaries must be alive at the time of Linda’s death in order to receive their share.

On this basis, the Court concluded that Sandra did not have a specific interest in the Riverside Drive property such that it could be considered a matrimonial home. As Sandra was a contingent beneficiary of the Trust, the Court did find that she held an interest in the Trust’s assets generally, which was required to be valued and included as part of the equalization calculations. However, as the interest is not subject to the special treatment given to the matrimonial home, it can be deducted or excluded from net family property, as applicable. Overall, as Sandra’s interest in the Trust’s assets was contingent and not vested, it had a significant effect on the matrimonial proceedings with her spouse.


Thanks for reading and happy holidays!

Rebecca Rauws


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18 Dec

Grosseth Estate v Grosseth: Presumptions of Resulting Trust & Undue Influence

Rebecca Rauws Estate & Trust Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

In the spirit of the holidays, today I thought I would write about a recent decision related to gifting. In Grosseth Estate v Grosseth, 2017 BCSC 2055, the British Columbia Supreme Court considered whether the presumptions of resulting trust and undue influence were applicable to various inter vivos gifts made by a deceased uncle to one of his nephews. Ultimately, the court concluded that both presumptions were rebutted, and the gifts were valid.

In Grosseth Estate, the deceased, Mort, left a Will providing that the residue of his estate was to be distributed equally amongst his 11 nieces and nephews. However, most of his estate had been gifted to one particular nephew, Brian, and his wife, Helen, prior to Mort’s death. This left only about $60,000.00 to be distributed in accordance with Mort’s Will. One of Mort’s other nephews, Myles, who was the executor of Mort’s estate, brought a claim against Brian and Helen following Mort’s death, seeking to have the money that had been gifted to them by Mort, returned to the estate.

About 10 years prior to Mort’s death, he moved from Alberta, where he had lived most of his life, to British Columbia, where he moved into Brian and Helen’s basement suite. Mort became a full participant in the family; he was included on family outings, attended family dinners every night, and became like a grandfather to Brian and Helen’s children.

For the first couple of years after Mort moved in, he gave Brian and Helen money each month, on an informal basis, as contribution to household costs. Around 2 years after Mort had been living with them, Brian and Helen had decided to purchase a commercial property for Helen’s chiropractic practice. Mort insisted on gifting $100,000.00 towards the purchase price, making it clear that he did not want anything in return. Following this payment, Mort did not make further contributions to the monthly household expenses. The court concluded that there was a tacit agreement amongst Mort, Brian, and Helen that Mort’s generous gift had cancelled any notion that further payments would be required. Several years later, Mort also gifted $57,000.00 to Brian and Helen to pay off the balance of their mortgage.

The court found that the nature of the relationship between Mort, Brian, and Helen gave rise to the presumption of resulting trust as well as the presumption of undue influence. However, both of these presumptions are rebuttable.

The court acknowledged that, with respect to undue influence, Mort did depend on Brian and Helen, but based on the evidence of a number of individuals, concluded that he remained independent and capable throughout. Accordingly, the presumption of undue influence was rebutted.

The presumption of resulting trust was also rebutted as the court was satisfied that Mort intended the transfers to be gifts motivated by “a natural and understandable gratitude to Brian and Helen for the happiness and comfort of his final years.”

It is not uncommon for this type of situation to come up. Where a deceased lived with one niece or nephew (or sibling), or where the niece/nephew/sibling is the primary caregiver prior to the deceased’s death, any gifting that was done in the context of this relationship may be vulnerable to challenge on the basis of resulting trust or undue influence. Unfortunately, in some instances, the relationship dynamics involved in these kinds of arrangements can result in suspect gifts or transfers. Transfers made without clear evidence of an intention to gift can also raise questions. In this case, the court did not find that there was any improper behaviour on the part of the giftees, did find evidence of an intention to gift, and the transfers were ultimately upheld.

Thanks for reading,

Rebecca Rauws


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26 Oct

Dependant’s Support – Do common law spouses have to live in the same residence?

Stuart Clark Support After Death Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

Paul Trudelle recently blogged about the Stajduhar v. Wolfe decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, wherein the court was faced with the question of whether two individuals who did not live together in the same residence could meet the definition of “spouse” for the purposes of seeking support after death pursuant to Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“). In ultimately concluding in such a decision that the two individuals did not meet the definition of “spouse”, such that the surviving individual could not seek support after death, much emphasis was placed on the fact that the two individuals did not “live” in the same residence. In coming to such a decision, the court stated:

In conclusion, I find that Branislava has failed to prove that she was a dependent spouse as defined by s. 57 of the SLRA at the time of Jeffrey’s death.  The evidence satisfies me that the couple never lived together and thus did not cohabit for any period of time.” [emphasis added]

But is such a finding in keeping with the previous case law on the subject? Do two individuals need to live in the same residence to be considered “spouses” within Part V of the SLRA?

The definition of “spouse” within Part V of the SLRA includes two people who have “cohabited” continuously for a period of not less than three years. “Cohabit” is in turn defined as “to live together in a conjugal relationship, whether within or outside marriage“. When read together, to meet the “common law” definition of spouse in Part V of the SLRA two people must live together in a conjugal relationship continuously for a period of not less than three years.

As the words “live together” are contained in the definition of spouse, when read in its literal sense it would appear self-evident that two individuals must “live together” in the same residence to be considered common law spouses. Importantly however, this is not how the court has historically interpreted the subject.

Prior to Stajduhar v. Wolfe, the leading authority on what was meant by two individuals “living together in a conjugal relationship” was the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision of M. v. H. In M. v. H., the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that in determining whether two individuals lived together in a conjugal relationship you are to look to the factors established by paragraph 16 of Molodowich v. Penttinen, which include:

  • Did the parties live under the same roof?
  • What were the sleeping arrangements?
  • Did they maintain an attitude of fidelity to each other?
  • Did they participate together or separately in neighbourhood and community activities?
  • What was the attitude and conduct of the community towards each of them and as a couple?

The Supreme Court of Canada was clear in M. v. H. that the factors established by Molodowich can be present in varying degrees, and that not all categories must be met for two individuals to be considered spouses. When the Ontario Court of Appeal in Stephen v. Stawecki applied the factors employed by M. v. H. specifically to the question of whether two individuals must live in the same residence to be considered spouses, the court concluded that they did not, and that living arrangements are only one of many factors to consider. In coming to such a conclusion, the Court of Appeal states:

We agree with the respondent that the jurisprudence interprets “live together in a conjugal relationship” as a unitary concept, and that the specific arrangements made for shelter are properly treated as only one of several factors in assessing whether or not the parties are cohabiting.  The fact that one party continues to maintain a separate residence does not preclude a finding that the parties are living together in a conjugal relationship.” [emphasis added]

The recent Stajduhar v. Wolfe decision notably does not contain any reference to Stephen v. Stawecki, nor to the Supreme Court of Canada’s previous consideration of the issue in M. v. H., such that it is not clear whether such cases were considered by the court before determining that the two individuals were not “spouses”. As a result, it is not clear whether M. v. H. and Stephen v. Stawecki will continue to be the leading authorities on the issue, such that Stajduhar v. Wolfe is an outlier decision, or whether Stajduhar v. Wolfe represents a new line of thinking for the court on whether two individuals must live in the same residence to be considered spouses.

Thank you for reading.

Stuart Clark


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