Tag: separation agreement
The recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision in F.K. v. E.A. addresses limitation periods and discoverability in the context of setting aside a marriage contract.
By way of background, husband and wife began their relationship in 2000, cohabitating in June of 2004, and marrying on July 20, 2005. Shortly before marriage, on July 14, 2005, the (soon to be) husband and wife entered into a marriage contract. The marriage contract was prepared by the wife who obtained a template off the internet. The husband and wife eventually separated on August 13, 2012. A dispute arose over certain terms of the marriage contract. The husband thereafter brought a claim on August 24, 2017 for spousal support, equalization, as well as setting aside the marriage contract. Two of the issues that the Court addressed included whether (i) the relief sought to set aside the marriage contract is subject to the two year limitation period and, if so, (2) whether the husband brought his claim in time.
Regarding the first issue, the Court found that the husband’s claim to set aside the marriage contract is a claim as defined in section 1 of the Limitations Act and therefore subject to the two year limitation period.
As it relates to the second issue of discoverability, evidence was adduced that the husband met with a lawyer in October 2012 to discuss the dispute with his wife and certain legal issues arising with respect to the marriage contract. Based on this evidence, the Court established that by that date at the latest, he first knew: that the injury, loss or damage had occurred; that the injury, loss or damage was caused by or contributed to by an act or omission; and, that the act or omission was that of the person against whom the claim is made. The Court dismissed the husband’s claim finding that the two years began running the date he met with his lawyer.
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As an estate planning tool, legal and financial advisors often impress upon their clients the benefits of designating beneficiaries of certain instruments such as RRSPs, TFSAs, and life insurance policies. In the absence of a beneficiary designation, the proceeds will fall into the estate and attract Estate Administration Tax and be available to creditors of the Deceased, possibly thwarting the objectives of the estate plan.
Pensions, however, are a special case. Like Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, section 48(7) of the Pension Benefits Act is remedial in nature and contemplates the necessity to provide safeguards for surviving spouses, including common law spouses. In short, if a beneficiary is not designated on the death of a member of a pension plan, the proceeds do not fall into the estate; rather, the surviving spouse is entitled to the asset.
But what if the spouses have entered into a cohabitation agreement prior to the relationship? What kind of language will suffice to contract out of this statutory entitlement if the pension plan member had not designated a beneficiary during his or her lifetime?
In Burgess v. Burgess Estate, the Ontario Court of Appeal considered whether a former wife of the deceased was entitled to receive all of the benefit available under the deceased’s deferred profit sharing plan for which she was the sole designated beneficiary, or whether she was entitled only to one-half of the benefit in accordance with the parties’ separation agreement, which read as follows:
“Except as specifically provided, neither the Husband nor the Wife will make a claim to a share in any pension of the other, including but not limited to any company pension plans, registered retirement savings plans and registered home ownership plans, provided that the Wife shall be entitled to one-half of the benefits under the Husband’s deferred profit sharing plan.” (emphasis added)
As a result of the express and specific wording of the separation agreement, the Court concluded that the former wife was restricted to receiving half of the benefit.
Following the principle in Burgess, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Conway v. Conway Estate, concluded that the separated spouse in similar circumstances was entitled to receive the pension benefit when there was no express reference in the Separation Agreement precluding her entitlement:
“…there is no provision like the one in Burgess. There is no express term which has the effect of revoking the designation of [the separated spouse] as beneficiary of the pension benefit or precluding her from receiving the benefit as beneficiary.” (emphasis added) (at para. 26)
Accordingly, having regard to the foregoing authorities, in order for a spouse to contract out of a benefit, the Court would appear to require specific and express language to such effect. A general release will not be sufficient.
It is a nice question whether a statutory entitlement under the Pension Benefits Act is to be considered as being in exactly the same category as a beneficiary designation. Certainly the plan which passes to the recipient is the same in either case and, arguably, the hurdle for contracting out of a statutory entitlement may be higher as compared to a beneficiary designation. In any event, the caselaw should be equally applicable to either situation
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The recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision of Zecha v Zecha Estate, 2017 ONSC 1972, 2017 CarswellOnt 4882, raises the issue of how separation agreements ought to be interpreted in circumstances where one party to the contract has predeceased the other.
In this case, a separation agreement was entered into by the plaintiff and her husband, who had since died. With respect to the sale of the couple’s matrimonial home, the separation agreement, dated May 31, 2012, stipulated as follows:
- The plaintiff and the deceased would advise one another of all offers to purchase the matrimonial property;
- If the plaintiff received an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00, the deceased could require that the plaintiff accept the offer, but, upon compelling her to do so, would be responsible for paying any shortfall between the sale amount and $1,500,000.00;
- If the property had not been sold within 18 months of the date of the agreement (and the plaintiff had not declined an unconditional offer to purchase the property for a price higher than $1,500,000.00):
- The deceased would assume carriage of the sale;
- The plaintiff would cooperate with the sale process and sign any documents to give effect to the sale; and
- If the property sold for less than $1,500,000.00, the deceased would be responsible for any shortfall between the purchase price and $1,500,000.00.
The plaintiff listed the matrimonial property for sale on October 29, 2012. On April 30, 2014 (23 months after the execution of the separation agreement), the plaintiff entered into an agreement of purchase and sale, and sold the property for $1,180,000.00. There was no evidence before the Court that the plaintiff had advised the deceased that she had received or accepted an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00. The deceased died on November 28, 2014, and the plaintiff commenced proceedings against the deceased’s estate for the difference between the sale price of $1,180,000.00 and $1,500,000.00, relying upon the terms of the separation agreement.
At trial, the plaintiff submitted that, pursuant to the terms of the separation agreement, she was entitled to $320,000.00, representing the difference between the sale price of the property and $1,500,000.00, because the property had been sold more than 18 months from the date of the separation agreement. The deceased’s estate asserted that the plaintiff could not enforce the terms of the separation agreement, as she had not complied with its terms as to which party would control the sale of the property if it took place more than 18 months after execution of the separation agreement. Pursuant to the separation agreement, the deceased was only responsible for paying the shortfall if (a) he had compelled the plaintiff to accept an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00 within 18 months of the date of the separation agreement, or (b) he had assumed control of the sale of the property 18 months after the date of the separation agreement and accepted an offer to purchase the property for less than $150,000.00.
The Court found that the separation agreement was a properly executed contract and should be interpreted as a whole, giving meaning to all of its terms and avoiding an alternative interpretation that would render a term ineffective (in a manner consistent with commercial law principles). Accordingly, the Court dismissed the action, declining to order payment of the $320,000.00 shortfall by the estate to the plaintiff. The Court stated that the plaintiff had interpreted the terms of the contract too narrowly, in an attempt to obtain a greater payout from the proceeds of sale of the matrimonial property. The Court found that, pursuant to the separation agreement, the deceased had a clear right to decide if an offer to purchase the property for less than $1,500,000.00 would be accepted at the time of its sale, being more than 18 months after the execution of the separation agreement, and the plaintiff could not rely upon the corresponding provisions of the separation agreement.
Circumstances like these, in which one party to a separation agreement has died and the assistance of the Court is required in interpreting the contract for the purposes of considering a claim made (or if an entitlement is apparently limited) under the contract, are not uncommon. It can be important for estate lawyers who may encounter this issue to understand how separation agreements are most likely to be interpreted by the courts.
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In King v. King, an ex-husband brought an application for a declaration that his former wife waived her entitlement to his survivor’s pension by way of a separation agreement that contained a release by the wife of any claim or interest in the pension.
Section 24 of the Pension Benefits Act establishes a joint and survivor pension in the case where a former member has a spouse on the day that the first instalment of the pension is due to be paid. Because the first instalment of the pension was due at the time that the ex-husband was married to his second wife, the pension became a joint and survivor pension.
However, the separation agreement does not resemble the statutorily required Form 3. As such, the ex-husband cannot rely on the Act’s exception that would have been grounds for a declaration that there was a waiver of the wife’s entitlement to the pension. Justice Cornell remarked that “given the mandatory requirement that in order for the waiver to be valid, the prescribed form must be used, Mr. King has found himself in the unfortunate position of being caught in a trap for the unwary”.
To avoid such problems, those drafting separation agreements should be aware of the specific legal requirements regarding particular types of pensions.
Note also that Form 3 was revoked in 2000, so going forward, this is not likely a restriction.
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