In Marsden Estate (Re),  N.B.J. No. 295, upheld on appeal at  N.B.J. No. 304, the deceased was seen by a solicitor and gave instructions for the preparation of a will on September 19, 2016. She died the next day, before the will could be signed.
The estate trustee under the impugned will brought an application to prove the will. She relied on s. 35.1 of New Brunswick’s Wills Act. This section provides:
35.1 Where a court of competent jurisdiction is satisfied that a document or any writing on a document embodies
(a) the testamentary intentions of the deceased, or
(b) the intention of the deceased to revoke, alter or revive a will of the deceased or the testamentary intentions of the deceased embodied in a document other than a will,
the court may, notwithstanding that the document or writing was not executed in compliance with the formal requirements imposed by this Act, order that the document or writing is valid and fully effective as if it had been executed in compliance with the formal requirements imposed by this Act.
The matter was contentious, as two of the testator’s children were essentially excluded from the will. The testator told the solicitor that she had been estranged from them for some time.
The court relied on affidavit evidence, including the affidavit of the drafting solicitor. The court concluded that the unsigned will reflected the testator’s “deliberate, fixed and final expression as to the disposal of her property upon her death”. Further, the court was satisfied that the testator had testamentary capacity, and was not being unduly influenced.
In earlier blogs, we reported on similar applications under similar “substantial compliance” legislation. An Alberta court considered the legislation but declined to apply it where there was an absence of clear and convincing evidence that the deceased failed to execute the will by inadvertence or mistake. An Australian court went as far as admitting an unsent text message to probate.
In Ontario, the doctrine of strict compliance continues to apply. As stated by Nick Esterbauer in his blog of December 11, 2017, it will be interesting to see if Ontario legislation opens the door to substantial compliance in the future. To date, it has not.
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Ante-Mortem Probate, or Pre-Death Probate, is a process of probate which validates the Will of a testator during his or her lifetime and may be particularly useful for testators who fear that their Will may be subject to a challenge following their death.
Various models of Ante-Mortem Probate have been explored in the past by American scholars and include the following proposed models:
- The “Contest Model”, reviewed by Professor Howard Fink, is where each of the beneficiaries are identified, including those that would benefit on an intestacy and the testator essentially becomes the moving party in his or her own suit against all possible beneficiaries of his or her Estate. [Antemortem Probate Revisited: Can an Idea Have a Life After Death? (1976) 37 Ohio St LJ 264]
- The “Conservatorship Model”, explored by Professor John H. Langbein, is where the testator is required to apply to the Court in a manner similar to the “Contest Model”, however, instead of each of the specific beneficiaries being involved, a Guardian Ad Litem (Conservator) represents the interest of all potential beneficiaries, including any unborn or unascertained beneficiaries. [Living Probate: the Conservatorship Model (1980)]
- The “Administrative Model”, set out by Professor Gregory S. Alexander and Albert M. Pearson is neither judicial nor adversarial. There is no requirement of notice to the beneficiaries or in fact “interested parties” as one of the significant concerns with the other models of Ante-Mortem Probate is the confidentiality of the testator. [Alternative Models of Antemortem Probate and Procedural Process Limitations on Succession (1979-1980) 78 Mich L Rev 89]
Only certain American States allow Ante-Mortem Probate, whereas Canada does not have any provinces or territories with a similar arrangement.
Given the number of suits that are commenced following the death of testators across Canada, such an arrangement could be beneficial in that at the very least, a testator who expects that there will be a challenge to his or her Estate plan could take an active part in adjudicating whether his or her Will is indeed, valid.
Considering the complicated familial arrangements that are often present in our society today, perhaps addressing challenges of things like capacity of the testator, undue influence or the presence of suspicious circumstances would make more sense before the testator’s death. This is particularly an issue where a testator’s capacity had been in question for a while and the Will being challenged was executed a decade or more before death.
There are, of course, certain potential negative effects of any Ante-Mortem Probate regime, particularly the possibility that it would encourage litigation that would not otherwise arise, following the death of the testator.
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One of the consequences of having to probate a Will (now referred to in Ontario as applying for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee) is that the Will, along with the assets covered by the Will, are made public.
I was intrigued to read about the estate of the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. In addition to Allen’s Last Will being made public, multiple news articles have published a list of some of the amazing properties owned by him, including a:
- condominium in Portland, Oregon ($700,000 to &850,000)
- 20-acre property in Santa Fee purchased from Georgia O’Keefe’s estate ($15 million)
- 2,066-acre ranch in Utah ($25 million)
- Silicon Valley 22,005 square foot house ($30 million)
- New York City penthouse on 4 East 66th Street ($50 million)
- double property in Idaho totalling 3,600 acres ($50 million)
- 3 acre compound on the Big Island in Hawaii ($50 million)
- 18 bedroom mansion in the South of France ($100 million)
- 387 acre camp in Lopez Island, Washington ($150 million)
- 8 acres of land on Mercer Island, Washington ($130 million)
- 400 foot Octopus Yacht (up to $130 million)
While I have no intention to address the efficacy of Allen’s estate plan, I thought the publicity of his estate provides a reminder that careful estate planning can ensure that privacy is maintained, and the payment of probate tax be avoided. In Ontario, there are numerous options available including preparing a secondary (or tertiary) Will, placing assets in joint ownership with the right of survivorship, or simply gifting assets prior to death. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and each option carries certain advantages and disadvantages.
While I expect that few people have the impressive catalogue of properties that Allen had, it should by no means preclude careful estate planning.
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A recent decision of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench highlights the importance of “going big or going home” when challenging a Will.
In the decision of Kot v. Kot, 2018 SKQB 338 (CanLII), an application to revoke probate and allow a will challenge to proceed by the spouse of the deceased was dismissed on the basis of a lack of credible evidence sufficient to raise a triable issue.
There, the deceased died on September 15, 2015. He died leaving a will dated August 4, 2014. In his will, the deceased appointed his spouse and two of his brothers as estate trustees. He gave one of his brothers a right of first refusal to purchase some of the deceased’s farm land upon his death.
Probate of the will was granted, and the three estate trustees proceeded to administer the estate.
The spouse then commenced her application to challenge the will. She said that the deceased tore up his will (actually, a copy of it: the spouse had switched the original will with a copy, and gave evidence that the deceased thought he was tearing up and therefore revoking the original). She said that she told the estate lawyer of the revocation, but the estate lawyer told her that it was better to have a will than no will, and that the estate lawyer did not tell her that if there was no will, she would inherit the entire estate. She also later alleged that the will was the result of undue influence from the brothers.
The court dismissed the spouse’s application.
The court held that the delay in seeking to challenge the validity of the will was not fatal to the application. However, while the delay did not defeat the application, it was a relevant consideration, and suggested that her claims had little credibility. Further, the evidence of the estate lawyer did not support her claim that the will was torn up by the deceased.
The court also found that there was no evidence of undue influence.
Interestingly, the court did not discuss the application of any limitation period. The court relied upon the Ontario Court of Appeal decision of Neuberger Estate v. York in concluding that mere delay did not preclude the challenge. However, in Neuberger, the will challenge was brought within the two year limitation period. In Kot, the challenge was brought 4 ½ years after the deceased’s death.
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The recent decision of Re Milne, 2018 ONSC 4174, has caused a lot of discussion among estate planners and litigators. As a recap, in that decision, Justice Dunphy of the Superior Court found that multiple Wills were invalid where so-called “basket clauses” in the Wills provided the Estate Trustees with the discretion to determine which estate assets fell under which Will. The Court found the Wills to be invalid on the basis that Wills are a form of trust and therefore must meet the requisite three certainties of a valid trust (see our blog on the decision here). The decision is now under appeal and many are eagerly awaiting the outcome.
In the interim, estate planners and litigators should be aware of the recent decision of Re Panda, 2018 ONSC 6734, which directly addresses and declines to follow Re Milne.
Like in Re Milne, probate was sought for a Primary Will where a Secondary Will was executed which contained a different, but substantively similar, basket clause allowing the Estate Trustee of the Will to essentially determine which assets fell under the Primary Will and which assets fell under the Secondary Will. The application for probate came before Justice Dunphy who refused to grant probate. A motion for directions was then heard by Justice Penny who carefully analyzed the decision of Re Milne before granting probate.
The Issues in Re Panda
Justice Penny analyzed one procedural issue and two substantive issues, being:
- whether, on an unopposed application for a certificate of appointment as estate trustee, it is appropriate to inquire into substantive questions of construction of the will or whether the inquiry is limited to “formal” validity of the will for purposes of probate [the procedural issue];
- whether the validity of a will depends upon the testamentary instrument satisfying the “three certainties” which govern the test for the valid creation of a trust; and
- whether, apart from the questions of the validity of the will itself, a testator can confer on his or her personal representatives the ability to decide those assets in respect of which they will seek probate and those in respect of which they will not.
Probate vs. Construction
Unlike Justice Dunphy in Re Milne, Justice Penny found that at the stage of determining whether to grant or deny probate, a Court must determine only whether the document presented is a Last Will and Testament. The formal requirements under the SLRA must be met and it must be determined whether the document is testamentary in nature (i.e. disclosing an intention to make a disposition of the testator’s assets on death). Beyond that, Justice Penny found that broader questions of interpretation, including the validity of the conferral of authority to decide under which Will property will fall, should be addressed separately as matters of construction, not on probate applications.
A Will is Not a Trust
Justice Penny also disagreed that a Will was a form of trust such that a Will requires certainty of intention, object, and subject-matter. As stated by Justice Penny, “A will is a unique instrument. A will shares some of the attributes of a contract and some of the attributes of a trust but it is neither; a will is its own, unique creature of law.”
Validity of Estate Trustees’ Authority to Determine Which Assets Fall Under Which Will
With respect to the final issue, Justice Penny found that such a question involves the issue of the construction of a particular instruction to or power conferred in the Wills to the estate trustees. Justice Penny therefore found that it would be inappropriate to make any determination as to the scope and validity of the basket clause found in the Wills as such issues were not before him on the Application for Probate; however, in obiter, Justice Penny went on to note that it was not clear how the basket clauses in issue were “any more extreme or ‘uncertain’ than other, well-established discretionary choices frequently conferred on and exercised by estate trustees.”
Until the determination of the appeal of Re Milne is in, the decision in Re Panda may provide some comfort to practitioners worried about the implication of Re Milne.
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In Milne Estate (Re), 2018 ONSC 4174 (CanLII), the court refused to grant probate to a will where there was uncertainty as to the subject matter governed by the will. We blogged and podcasted on this case here and here.
Historically, probate has been granted to wills that have not disposed of property. For example:
- In Brownrigg v. Pike (1882), 7 P.D. 61 (Eng. P.D.A.), the court probated a Will that did no more than appoint an executor;
- In Jordan, Re (1868), L.R. 1 P.& D. 555 (P.D.), the court probated a will that only appointed an executor, even though the executor had renounced;
- In Re Blow, 1977 CanLII 1274 (ON SC), the court stated that “In my view, it is not an essential element of a testamentary instrument that it have dispositive effect (although the fact that an instrument does not purport to dispose of property may be a factor to be taken into account in determining whether it was intended to have testamentary effect”. There, however, a precatory memorandum of advice to executors was not admitted to probate;
- In Tatnall v. Hankey (1838), 2 Moo. P.C. 342, 12 E.R. 1036, a will that merely executed a power of appointment was entitled to probate;
- In Barnes v. Vincent (1846) 5. Moo. P.C. 201, 13 E.R. 468, the Privy Council held that a grant of probate could be made without an inquiry into the validity of an exercise of the power of appointment, or even whether the alleged power of appointment in fact existed;
- Section 12 of the Estates Act allows for probate to be granted even if the will does not purport to dispose of any property in Ontario.
For a further and more extensive commentary on the Milne decision, see Professor Oosterhoff’s article, “What is a Will and What is the Role of a Court of Probate?”.
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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.
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I recently read an article that features a discussion of issues relating to seniors living in the “Little Tokyo” neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles. In the context of North America’s aging population, the residents of Little Tokyo are becoming increasingly isolated, both socially and linguistically.
Nearly half of L.A.’s senior population was born outside of the United States, with almost one-third unable to communicate well in English. Over half of the inhabitants of Little Tokyo are “linguistically isolated” and live alone, factors which have the potential to create barriers to accessing healthcare and other services, including legal assistance.
In multicultural cities like L.A. or Toronto, lawyers often encounter clients, both young and old, whose first languages are not English. It can be helpful to obtain the assistance of an interpreter when we are not fluent in the same language as our clients. Below, I briefly summarize a couple of points relating to language barriers that may be important for estate lawyers to keep in mind:
- In Ontario, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice will normally process Certificates of Appointment of Estate Trustee only in respect of wills that are written in one of Canada’s official languages. Section 125(2)(b) of the Courts of Justice Act otherwise specifies that documents filed in courts written in another language, including wills being admitted to probate, must be accompanied by a certified translation. Especially if a will can be prepared in English and translated to the client at the time of its execution, this may represent an unnecessary expense and cause for delay in obtaining probate.
- When working on matters involving the rights of an incapable person, a language barrier may skew the results of a capacity assessment. The Public Guardian and Trustee’s list of designated capacity assessors includes a number of professionals who are able to conduct assessments in languages other than English, for more accurate results. In the event that a person is determined to suffer from cognitive issues and the parties seek the appointment of counsel under Section 3 of the Substitute Decisions Act, it is best to propose the appointment of a lawyer who speaks the individual’s native language.
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The commencement of litigation requires a Plaintiff to have standing to sue; and Probate (or a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee With (or Without) a Will) is required if an Estate Trustee wishes to obtain Judgment against a Defendant.
While an action can technically be commenced without probate (see the remedial provisions of Rule 9 of the Rules of Civil Procedure discussed below), the Court will not grant Judgment in favour of an Estate unless the Estate Trustee has been granted authority to administer the Estate.
The rationale for this requirement is nicely explained by Professor Oosterhoof (in Oosterhoof on Wills and Succession Chapter 2):
The grant of probate is only evidence (really, the only evidence) which a court will recognize that a person has authority to administer the assets of the deceased. For this reason, while an executor can do many acts of office before obtaining a grant he or she cannot obtain judgment before that time, although he or she can commence an action. Similarly, no action can be maintained against a named executor unless he or she has obtained a grant of probate.
This position was supported by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Re Eurig Estate (appealed on other grounds to the Supreme Court of Canada) where Morden A.C.J.O. stated:
Further, apart from the general legal duty to administer the estate promptly and efficiently, which almost invariably requires the executor to obtain probate, the law imposes the requirement that an executor must have probate to prove his or her title when an estate matter is before the court. Letters probate are the only evidence of an executor’s title which a court will receive (see Hull and Hull, Macdonnell, Sheard and Hull, Probate Practice, 4th ed. (1996) at pp.185 and 188), even in a case where the defendant is willing to concede that the executor has title without evidence of probate: Re Crowhurst Park; Sims-Hilditch v. Simmons,  1 W.L.R. 583 (Ch), (at p. 792)
Moreover, the Estates Act ensures the estate trustees named in a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee have sole authority in respect of the estate:
- After a grant of administration, no person, other than the administrator or executor, has power to sue or prosecute any action or otherwise act as executor of the deceased as to the property comprised in or affected by such grant of administration until such administration has been recalled or revoked.
In the event that the Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee is obtained subsequent to the commencement of the Action, the Rules of Civil Procedure, contain a remedial provision:
9.03 (1) Where a proceeding is commenced by or against a person as executor or administrator before a grant of probate or administration has been made and the person subsequently receives a grant of probate or administration, the proceeding shall be deemed to have been properly constituted from its commencement.
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Not every estate requires probate, but it’s a near essential for many. And while lawyers retained to undertake the probate process on behalf of estate trustees are entitled to compensation, it must be fair and reasonable in the circumstances.
The main reason to seek probate is to gain the ability to deal with certain kinds of assets or certain kinds of third parties. In particular, if the estate includes real estate that is not held in joint tenancy, probate is usually necessary to transfer title to the property.
There can be a lot involved. The probate process involves a court application and the verification and valuation of estate assets, amongst other things. While it can be a straightforward process for many estates, it can be a complex undertaking in others. For example, the deceased may have owned property that needs an appraisal, or had multiple bank and investment accounts, or owned assets in foreign jurisdictions.
Legal fees will vary
For this reason, it’s never a “one size fits all” approach when determining a fair and reasonable legal fee for the probate process. Because it’s not always possible at the beginning of a matter to determine how long it’s going to take to do the job, many lawyers charge by the hour. However, others charge from 1.5% to 2% of the estate value to obtain probate. In Ontario, that can equal or exceed the probate fee (estate administration tax). While these amounts might also include fees for some of the estate trustee’s work, they don’t always. The courts have taken notice, and are requiring lawyers to have separate files: one for legal work and one for executor’s work. You can find an excellent discussion of these points and others relating to probate costs here: http://www.makeawillcanada.ca/truth-about-probate/.
Avoiding disagreements with beneficiaries over legal fees is important, not only for the administration of the estate but also as a matter of business – a solicitor would not wish to be seen as unfairly charging excessive fees. The way to avoid such allegation is through accurate docketing and providing a paper trail to justify actions taken – including a decision to incur professional fees in addition to any compensation for estate trustee work.
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