When a marriage breaks down, spouses often have an overwhelming amount of issues to consider. For many, all they want to do is figure out how to split up the assets (and kids) and move on with their lives. Sometimes, spouses will separate without formally divorcing. Although life after marriage may be the key consideration for most, separated spouses should also take time to consider what happens on their death and whether or not they want their spouse to share in their estate.
Draft a Will
The most obvious way of ensuring that your separated spouse doesn’t benefit from your death is to draft a Will. By setting out one’s intended disposition of assets, a testator will avoid the provisions of Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, which provides for a share of the Estate to pass to the legally married spouse of a person who dies intestate. But remember, including a provision in the will that the spouse is to be excluded from inheriting is not sufficient to keep a surviving spouse from inheriting on an intestacy (see our recent blog on this topic here).
Of course, if property rights between the spouses have not been settled following separation, the surviving spouse may still be at liberty to elect in favour of equalization of net family property pursuant to the Family Law Act.
Separation Agreements and Release of Intestacy Rights
If the parties have consulted lawyers and formally settled all of the issues surrounding their marriage, they are likely to have entered into a separation agreement. Often, parties to such agreements will walk away thinking that they have fully separated out their lives and settled all issues arising as a result of marriage, cohabitation, or the breakdown of the relationship. However, solicitors drafting such agreements should be careful to properly release each spouse’s interest in the estate of the other, in case of an intestacy. In particular, while no one likes to think of it, cases have occurred where a spouse dies only days after entering into a separation agreement and before they have had the opportunity to draft a Will.
In order to properly release a spouse’s intestate interests in the other spouse’s estate, there must be a specific release of such rights using clear, direct and cogent words (see the leading case in Ontario of Re Winter,  DLR 134 (Ont H Ct)). In Re Winter, the wife released the husband as follows:
The wife of the second part covenants and agrees and does hereby release the husband of the first part from all claims present, past or future against the husband for maintenance, alimony or separation allowance and acknowledges that she has no further claims against the husband nor against the estate of the husband of the first part.
The Court found that although there was a release against the husband’s estate, the release only dealt with claims for “maintenance, alimony or separation allowance” and was not sufficiently clear and cogent for the wife to have released her intestacy rights against the husband’s estate. As a result, the wife inherited on the husband’s intestacy (a result likely to have displeased the other intestate heirs and the husband, had he been alive).
Change Your Beneficiary Designations
Finally, in addition to thinking of the potential intestacy rights of a surviving spouse, don’t forget assets passing outside of the estate. Make sure to have all beneficiary designations on insurance policies, registered accounts (RRSPs and TFSAs), and pensions updated following separation.
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In Biancaniello, Romano, Prinova Technologies Inc. v. DMCT LLP, Collins Barrow, a recent decision by the Divisional Court, the dismissal of a motion for summary judgment was upheld despite the presence of a Release that appeared to bar the action in question. The Defendants sought summary judgment on the basis that the action was barred by execution of a broadly-worded Release as part of the settlement of a prior action between the same parties.
Under the Release previously signed by the Plaintiffs in 2008, they agreed to release and discharge the Defendants:
“of and from all manner of actions, causes of actions, suits, debts, duties, accounts, bonds, covenants, contracts, claims and demands which against each other they had, now have or hereafter may, can or shall have for or by reason of any cause, manner or thing whatsoever existing to the present time with respect to any and all claims arising from any and all services provided by [the Defendants] to [the Plaintiffs] through to and including December 31, 2007 and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, with respect to any and all claims, counterclaims or defences that were pleaded or could have been pleaded in the action commenced in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, as court file No. 08-CV-349246 PD3” (para 7).
The motions judge determined that the Release did not bar a negligence claim that had arisen in 2011, three years after the Release had been executed, notwithstanding its broad language and seemingly all-encompassing nature. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice had noted that the alleged negligence of the Defendants had not yet been adjudicated and should not have been subject to the Release that referred to claims “existing to the present time“, being 2008.
The Divisional Court recognized that a negligence claim may have been contemplated by the parties at the time that the Release was executed. However, the nature of the negligence claim (and the significant tax liabilities resulting from same, in the approximate amount of $1,200,000.00) was unknown by the parties at the time of the 2008 settlement. Justices Wilton-Siegel, Corbett, and Baltman found that the negligence claim was not barred by the Release, as it lacked any reference to the relevant transaction, language specifically releasing against claims resulting from “potential or undiscovered negligence”, and was limited in its scope through the reference to causes existing only at present, when the damages, in fact, resulted at a later time.
Although the motion for summary judgment and subsequent appeal did not involve an estate or trust, this decision is nevertheless relevant within the context of estate litigation, in which so many disputes are settled outside of court and settlements formalized by execution of Minutes of Settlement and Full and Final Mutual Releases. When assisting clients in settling disputes, it is important to adequately consider claims that could potentially arise in the future and whether the terms of the release should explicitly refer to and waive such causes of action.
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Today on Hull on Estates, Noah Weisberg and Moira Visoiu discuss the reliance and use of releases.
If you have any questions, please email us at email@example.com or leave a comment on our blog page.
Click here for more information on Moira Visoiu.
Listen to Accounting
This week on Hull on Estate and Succession Planning, Ian and Suzana discuss how to prepare for review by the beneficiaries of the estate by keeping all accounts in order.
To open this week’s show, they remind listeners that they did this week’s episode of Hull on Estates (#110). They also extend their congratulations to Terry Fallis for winning the Stephen Leacock Medal for his book, The Best Laid Plans.
If you have any comments that you would like to share, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a message on our comment line: 206-457-1985. You can also find our blog at hullandhull.com.
One final note of caution arises from the Rooney (2007), CarswellOnt 6560 decision – a decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that I have referred to in my blogs earlier this week. This caution refers to the release that the Estate Trustee seeks from the beneficiaries.
In Rooney, the beneficiary was provided with a form of accounts, and was told that if she signed a release, she could receive a distribution from the estate. (The court was critical of this practice.) The beneficiary did so.
Later, the beneficiary sought to compel a passing of accounts. The court allowed the Application.
The trustee had asserted that because of the release, the beneficiary could not compel a passing. The court stated “It is not an answer to say that the beneficiary approved of the accounts and gave a release. One of the obligations of the solicitor acting for the trustee is to ensure that all beneficiaries have competent, independent advice in reviewing the accounts. There is no suggestion by the solicitor that he advised the [beneficiary] to obtain independent legal advice when reviewing the trustee’s accounts which he had prepared.”
Additionally, the court noted that the account rendered by the solicitor to the estate was a blended account, and included both solicitor’s work and trustee work. “The solicitor was in the best position to know what charges related to which services. He was also in the best position to know what portions of his fee account should be paid by the trustee out of her compensation or by the estate. There is no evidence that he gave any advice about these distinctions to the beneficiary so that she could consider them.”
The court concluded by stating that “There is no evidence that the beneficiary executed the release knowing that double charges for the trustee’s work had been made against the estate. There is no evidence that the beneficiary knew the solicitor charged the estate more for legal and trustee’s services than would arguably be allowed on quantum meruit basis. In these circumstances, the release was not a fully informed one; it cannot be enforced against the beneficiary.”
What is an Estate Trustee to do to protect himself or herself? The Estate Trustee might send out accounts that are as complete and informative as possible, so that the release can truly said to be an informed one. Solicitor’s accounts might be included, and these accounts could specify the nature of the services provided. Beneficiaries should be advised to obtain independent legal advice.
In many cases, an Estate Trustee may wish to obtain a court passing in any event.
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