Natalia Angelini recently blogged about some helpful tips from LawPRO on how to minimize the risk when virtually witnessing Wills and powers of attorney. On April 24, LawPRO posted another helpful article about the risks of “renting out” your signature as a virtual witness.
The emergency legislation requires that one of the witnesses to a Will that is executed by means of audio-visual communication technology (which now temporarily meets the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 requirement that the testator and witnesses be “in the presence of” each other), be a Law Society licensee. This means that some of us may be asked to be witnesses to a Will or power of attorney that we did not prepare ourselves. However, as LawPRO points out, simply being a witness does not necessarily mean that we will not be held responsible if there are problems with the Will or power of attorney.
Some of the issues that may arise could include the following:
- Problems with the Will or power of attorney not being executed properly, in accordance with the requirements for due execution and the specific requirements of virtual execution pursuant to the temporary legislation.
- The Will or power of attorney not reflecting the testator or grantor’s wishes. This may arise if a testator or grantor prepares their own Will or power of attorney from an online service or kit, resulting in a document that is likely not tailored to the testator or grantor’s particular situation, financial circumstances, and wishes.
- Technical errors in the document, such as the omission of a residue clause, which can drastically impact the distribution of the testator’s assets.
LawPRO has provided some tips for how to protect yourself if you are asked to be a witness to a Will or power of attorney that you did not prepare (although the tips seem equally applicable if you did prepare the document in question):
- Take detailed notes.
- Send a reporting letter following the execution of the document and confirm the scope of your retainer.
- Record the signing (with the client’s permission).
You may also consider having the testator or grantor sign a limited retainer agreement, before you witness the Will or power of attorney, which explicitly sets out that you have been engaged only for the purpose of witnessing the document, and not to review it or provide any legal advice.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe!
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It is not uncommon for the lawyer who drafted a testator’s will or codicil to subsequently be retained by the Estate Trustees after the testator’s death to assist with the administration of the estate. The rationale behind the drafting lawyer being retained to assist with the administration of the estate appears fairly self-evident, for as the drafting lawyer likely has an intimate knowledge of the testator’s estate plan and assets they may be in a better position than most to assist with the administration of the estate.
While retaining the drafting lawyer to assist with the administration of the estate is fairly uncontroversial in most situations, circumstances could become more complicated if there has been a challenge to the validity of the testamentary document prepared by the drafting lawyer. If a proceeding has been commenced challenging the validity of the testamentary document, there is an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer’s notes and records will be produced as evidence, and that the drafting lawyer will be called as a non-party witness as part of the discovery process. If the matter should proceed all the way to trial, there is also an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer would be called as a witness at trial. As the drafting lawyer would personally have a role to play in any court process challenging the validity of the will, questions emerge regarding whether it would be proper for the drafting lawyer to continue to represent any party in the will challenge, or would doing so place the drafting lawyer in a conflict of interest?
Rule 3.4-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not act or continue to act where there is a conflict of interest. In the case of a drafting lawyer representing a party in a will challenge for a will that they prepared, an argument could be raised that the drafting lawyer is in an inherent position of conflict, as the drafting lawyer may be unable to look out for the best interests of their client while at the same time looking out for their own interests when being called as a witness or producing their file. There is also the potentially awkward situation of the drafting lawyer having to call themselves as a witness, and the associated logistical quagmire of how the lawyer would put questions to themselves.
The issue of whether a drafting lawyer would be in a conflict of interest in representing a party in a will challenge was dealt with in Dale v. Prentice, 2015 ONSC 1611. In such a decision, the party challenging the validity of the will brought a motion to remove the drafting lawyer as the lawyer of record for the propounder of the will, alleging they were in a conflict of interest. The court ultimately agreed that the drafting lawyer was in a conflict of interest, and ordered that the drafting lawyer be removed as the lawyer of record. In coming to such a conclusion, the court states:
“There is a significant likelihood of a real conflict arising. Counsel for the estate is propounding a Will prepared by his office. The preparation and execution of Wills are legal services, reserved to those who are properly licensed to practise law. Counsel’s ability to objectively and independently assess the evidence will necessarily be affected by his interest in having his firm’s legal services found to have been properly provided.” [emphasis added]
Decisions such as Dale v. Prentice suggest that a lawyer may be unable to represent any party in a will challenge for a will that was prepared by their office as they may be in a conflict of interest. Should the circumstance arise where the drafting lawyer is retained to assist with the administration of the estate, and subsequent to being retained someone challenges the validity of the Will, it may be in the best interest of all parties for the drafting lawyer to indicate that they are no longer able to act in the matter due to the potential conflict, and suggest to their clients that they retain a new lawyer to represent them in the will challenge.
Thank you for reading.
Is an Estate Trustee allowed to withhold an inheritance? What if the inheritance is a specific bequest and the Estate has claims against the beneficiary? These questions were considered in June Brayford v Brayford.
I will do my best to simplify the facts. The testator named his two sons as Estate Trustees. His Last Will left a specific bequest, the proceeds of a CIBC account, to his wife (from a second marriage). The residue passed to the Estate Trustees. While the testator was still alive, a joint account was set up with his wife (an investment account with Desjardins Financial and Edward Jones).
After the testator‘s passing, the Estate Trustees took issue when the wife withdrew funds from the joint account, believing that the funds should have fallen into the residue. They alleged that the testator lacked the capacity to set up a joint account, and that the wife (who was also the testator’s guardian for property and personal care) breached her fiduciary duty by the setting up of the joint account. In response, the Estate Trustees refused to pay the specific bequest.
Two claims arose – the wife demanded payment of the specific bequest and the Estate Trustees claimed an equitable set off of the specific bequest pending the resolution of the joint account assets.
The Court first considered the right of retainer as set out in Cherry v. Boultbee (41 ER 171), which sets out the right that an estate trustee has of keeping out of the share of an inheritance, a debt owing to the estate by the beneficiary. The court noted an exception to this right though – when the inheritance is a specific bequest. It is this exception that the wife relied on to compel the payment of the specific bequest.
The Estate Trustees claimed an equitable set-off. They wanted to withhold the payment of the specific bequest until the claim against the wife regarding the joint account was heard.
The Court looked to Olympia for the procedure to be followed when considering a claim for both right of retainer and set-off. It was held that given that the two claims were so closely connected, that it would be unjust to allow the wife to enforce the payment of the specific bequest without taking into account the claim by the Estate Trustees regarding the joint account. So, the Estate Trustees were allowed to hold off on paying the specific bequest, pending the outcome of their claim regarding the joint account.
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