Tag: succession law reform act
In January 2021, a decision was made by the Ontario Superior Court regarding a motion in the ongoing Cohen v. Cohen Estate matter. This case involves a widow making a claim against the estate of her late husband on several grounds, including a decades-old marriage contract, an application for equalization of net family property, and a claim for dependent support.
As this matter demonstrates, a surviving spouse who believes themselves to have been unfairly left out of the will of their late spouse has several options in terms of litigation against the deceased’s estate. If a marriage contract existed between the spouses previously, providing for one spouse in the event of the death of the other, then the surviving spouse could move to enforce the marriage contract and make an appropriate claim upon the estate.
In the alternative, the surviving spouse can bring an application under the Family Law Act (“FLA”) to effect an equalization of net family property. This would be functionally similar to the process of asset equalization after a divorce or separation, only that the claim would be against the estate of the deceased spouse, rather than against their living person.
Also in the alternative, the surviving spouse can also bring an application under the Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”) for dependent support. Essentially, if the surviving spouse were to sufficiently prove to the Court that he or she was financially dependent upon the deceased while they were still living, then the surviving spouse could be entitled to an appropriate amount of cash to support their former lifestyle with their late spouse.
Finally, a surviving spouse can also make equitable claims of unjust enrichment, promissory estoppel, or proprietary estoppel. The essence of all three of these claims is that the deceased benefitted disproportionately from work that their spouse contributed to their relationship, and that the surviving spouse is therefore entitled to financial compensation, as a result.
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In Ontario, the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 allows a deceased person’s dependants, to whom the deceased has not made adequate provision for his or her proper support, to seek an order for support to be made to the dependant out of the deceased’s estate. In order to qualify as a “dependant”, a person must be a spouse, parent, child, or sibling of the deceased “to whom the deceased was providing support or was under a legal obligation to provide support immediately before his or her death.” There are therefore several conditions for a person to be able to obtain an order for dependant’s support:
- they must have one of the required relationships with the deceased (spouse, parent, child, or sibling);
- the deceased must have been providing them with support, or have a legal obligation to provide support, immediately before the deceased’s death; and
- any provision made for the person in the deceased’s Will (if any) must be inadequate.
British Columbia deals with dependant’s support differently than Ontario. In B.C.’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c 13, s. 60 provides that if a testator does not make adequate provision for the proper maintenance and support of his or her spouse or children in his or her Will, the court may order the provision that it thinks adequate, just, and equitable in the circumstances for the spouse or children out of the testator’s estate. Unlike the Ontario law, it is not a requirement that the testator had been providing support to his or her spouse or children prior to death. This difference is significant because in Ontario, independent adult children are typically not able to obtain dependant’s relief as they do not meet the requirements of a “dependant”. In BC case law, there is also a greater emphasis on a testator’s moral duty to his or her dependant’s than there is in Ontario.
The BC Supreme Court decision in Jung v Poole Estate, 2021 BCSC 623 provides an example of how the difference in the law in Ontario vs. B.C. can result in vastly different outcomes. In Jung v Poole, the testator was survived by his two twin daughters, Courtney and Chelsea. Courtney and Chelsea’s mother had been dating the testator when she became pregnant. The testator suggested an abortion but the mother chose to keep the twins, and raised them as a single mother without any involvement or financial assistance from the testator. The mother died when the twins were 4 years old, and a custody battle ensued between the testator and the twins’ grandmother on their mother’s side, on the one hand, and a couple who were friends of the mother’s and whom the mother had named in her Will to be the twins’ joint guardians, on the other hand. The testator expressed a desire to be involved in raising the twins at that time.
Ultimately, the court determined that the couple chosen by the mother to be the twins’ guardians would become the twins’ custodial parents. The testator and the grandmother were allowed specific and generous parenting time, access, and consultations regarding major areas of the twins’ lives. However, the testator never exercised any of these rights and, with the exception of one attempt to contact the twins the year after the custody decision, ceased to have any involvement in their lives.
The testator executed two Wills after the custody decision, both of which disinherited the twins. In one Will the testator referred to the twins as his illegitimate children, and in the other he explained that one of his reasons for disinheriting them was that they had not made efforts to contact him.
As stated by the court, if the court concludes that the testator owed a moral obligation to the twins and did not make adequate provision for their proper maintenance and support, the court has the authority to vary the testator’s Will to make the provision for them that, in its view, is adequate, just and equitable in the circumstances.
The court did ultimately conclude that the testator abandoned the twins from the outset, as well as after the custody battle, and had a strong moral obligation to them, which he failed to meet during his lifetime. As a result, the court varied the testator’s Will to provide 35% to each of Courtney and Chelsea, and 15% to each of the two friends of the testator who had been named as estate trustees and sole beneficiaries of his estate. The court was of the view that the testator had blamed the twins for the decision in the custody battle, even though that was beyond the twins’ control, and also blamed them for the lack of relationship, notwithstanding what the court found were valid and rational reasons given by the twins in this regard (including that they were hurt that the testator had wanted their mother to abort them, and the testator’s actions during their lives made it clear to them that he did not want them in his life).
It is unlikely that the same decision would have been reached had this situation occurred in Ontario. The fact that the twins were independent adults, and that the testator had not been providing them with support, nor under a legal obligation to provide them with support, immediately before his death, would likely have resulted in a decision that the twins were not entitled to support, regardless of the unfortunate circumstances between the twins and the testator.
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Our readers will already know about the recent approval of legislation providing for will validation in Ontario under Bill 245, the Accelerating Access to Justice Act, 2021. The act received Royal Assent in April 2021. The changes under Schedule 9, which addresses amendments of the Succession Law Reform Act, RSO 1990, c S.26 (the “SLRA”), come into effect on January 1, 2022 (other than the update to virtual will witnessing in counterpart, which has already been made permanent under the revised Section 4 of the SLRA).
As of January 1, 2022, a new Section 21.1 of the SLRA will read as follows:
(1) If the Superior Court of Justice is satisfied that a document or writing that was not properly executed or made under this Act sets out the testamentary intentions of a deceased or an intention of a deceased to revoke, alter or revive a will of the deceased, the Court may, on application, order that the document or writing is as valid and fully effective as the will of the deceased, or as the revocation, alteration or revival of the will of the deceased, as if it had been properly executed or made.
No electronic wills
(2) Subsection (1) is subject to section 31 of the Electronic Commerce Act, 2000.
(3)Subsection (1) applies if the deceased died on or after the day section 5 of Schedule 9 to the Accelerating Access to Justice Act, 2021 came into force.
We have seen Section 21.1 referred to as both a will-validation provision and as a “substantial compliance” provision. In fact, Section 21.1 does not specify that substantial compliance with the formal requirements for a valid will under the SLRA is required and it may, accordingly be more accurately referred to as a will-validation provision. Either way, this is a significant change to the law of validity of wills in Ontario and our province, as of January 1, 2022, will no longer be a strict compliance jurisdiction where some documents clearly intended to function as a valid will are rejected and deemed ineffective for technical reasons.
Notably, the legislation carves out the use of electronic signatures. Some estate practitioners had been hopeful that electronic signatures would be accepted under the proposed estate legislative reform, given the recent increased acceptance of electronic signatures in the swearing/commissioning of affidavits and other legal documents and options available to verify their authenticity. Section 31 of the Electronic Commerce Act, 2000, SO 2000, c 17, excludes the application of that act to wills, codicils, testamentary trusts, and powers of attorney.
Accordingly, it appears that a will signed by the testator or witnesses using electronic means cannot be validated by the Court, even after the new Section 21.1 is introduced to the SLRA. For now (including after January 1 of next year), all wills still require actual, “wet” signatures in order to be valid. Furthermore, even if a will may be validated by the Court under Section 21.1, the uncertainty, delay, and expense relating to applying for court-ordered validation of a will may still be best avoided by seeking an experienced estate planning lawyer’s assistance in the preparation of a Last Will and Testament.
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I came across an interesting report on Alberta’s succession law and what is perceived as a gap that has affected family maintenance and support in the province. The report was published by the Alberta Law Reform Institute (ALRI) and can be found here.
In accordance with the Family Law Act in Alberta, a child can apply for and may be entitled to support from a person standing in the place of a parent, when a couple separates. Under the Wills and Succession Act, however, which applies when a person dies, there is no provision addressing the distinction of a “person standing in the place of a parent”. What that means is that while a person who is characterized as a “person standing in the place of a parent” is alive, the child can apply for support under the Family Law Act but if this person dies, that same child has no ability to seek support from the Estate of this person “standing in the place of a parent”.
Consequently, the ALRI is of the view that there is a gap in the law that ought to be rectified on the basis of an equality argument, alone. This report was apparently recently sent to the province of Alberta but there has been no response, as of yet.
In comparing the provisions of the Succession Law Reform Act here in Ontario, it appears that the very issue raised by the ALRI is addressed by section 57(1) where the definition of a “child” includes a grandchild and a person whom the deceased has demonstrated a settled intention to treat as a child of his or her family, except under an arrangement where a child is placed for valuable consideration in a foster home by a person having lawful custody.” [emphasis added]
Certainly, it is important that children be able to bring a support claim against the estates of their parents, where not appropriately provided for out of the estate, even where not formally adopted but clearly treated as a child.
It will be interesting to see what happens and what the province of Alberta will do, if anything, in response to this report from the ALRI.
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With the new year approaching, it is customary to turn one’s attention to the year ahead in the making of resolutions. In today’s blog though, instead of looking forward, I thought that I would look back – waaaaaayyyyy back – to the oldest Last Will and Testament.
The oldest last will and testament was discovered in 1890 by William Petrie, an English Egyptologist. While exploring the pyramids in Kahun, Egypt, Petrie came across a parchment/papyrus from 1797 BC that was determined to be the last will of Ankr-ren. The will was written in hieroglyphics.
Ankr-ren’s will left all of his property to his brother, Uah (who was stated to be a priest).
Uah’s last will was also discovered. Uah’s will gifts the property he receives from Ankr-ren to his wife, Teta, forbids his wife from demolishing any house received by Ankr-ren, and names a guardian for his child. The last will also had two witnesses.
Remarkably, or perhaps not, the terms of these ancient wills bear so many resemblances to modern day wills requirements found in Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act. For instance, they include the ability to freely gift property, to appoint a custodian/guardian for a minor child, and include two witnesses.
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Most people know that if a person dies without a Will, the laws of intestacy govern the division of his or her estate. Specifically, it is Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, RSO 1990, c S.26 (the “SLRA“) that is titled “Intestate Succession” that comes into play.
The question of who inherits where there is no Will is easily answered in some of the following scenarios:
- Where there is a surviving spouse (limited to married spouses, by the way), said spouse is entitled to the entirety of the property of the deceased (section 45(1));
- Where there is a surviving spouse and one child, spouse receives a preferential share of the estate of the deceased (i.e. $200,000.00 as of today) and if anything is left over, it is divided equally between spouse and child (section 46(1));
- Where there is a surviving spouse and two or more children, the spouse is entitled to a preferential share of the estate of the deceased and 1/3 of what is left over. The remainder is then divided between the issue of the deceased (section 46(2)).
The SLRA further addresses how the division of assets is to take place where the only surviving relatives are parents, brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews (in respective order of preference). If the deceased has no surviving parents, brother/sisters or nieces/nephews, the next of kin provision (section 47(6)) applies.
Despite the fact that the SLRA attempts to bring clarity to the division of one’s intestate estate, it appears that certain situations may arise that would lead to confusion, absent case law that would provide some guidance.
In Farmer Estate v Karabin Estate, an executor of a niece who predeceased the deceased commenced an application in respect of her alleged share in the estate of the deceased. The Ontario Court of Appeal found that the SLRA is confined to nieces or nephews who do not predecease the deceased and does not extend to more remote issue. The Court of Appeal relied on section 47(4) of the SLRA which is worded as follows:
“Where a person dies intestate in respect of property and there is no surviving spouses, issue or parent, the property shall be distributed among the surviving brothers and sisters of the intestate equally, and if any brother or sister predeceases the intestate, the share of the deceased brother or sister shall be distributed among his or her children equally.” [emphasis added]
In interpreting this provision, the Court relied on the definitions of “child” and “issue” as defined in the SLRA, namely the definition of “child” includes a child conceived before and born alive after the parent’s death and the definition of “issue” includes a descendant conceived before and alive after the person’s death.
In another matter, Kiehn v Murdoch, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that grandnieces and grandnephews are excluded from sharing in the estate of a deceased by operation of section 47(4).
Unfortunately in the circumstances where a particular scenario arises that has not been clearly addressed by the SLRA and subsequent case law, an application for directions may need to be commenced to receive some clarity from the Court as to how a particular intestate estate is to be divided.
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Many of our readers will be aware that on an application for dependant’s support under Part V of Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act, certain property that may not be considered an asset of the deceased’s estate can be “clawed back” into the estate for the purposes of considering and funding an award of dependant’s support. Subsection 72(1)(d) provides that “a disposition of property made by a deceased whereby property is held at the date of his or her death by the deceased and another as joint tenants” shall be deemed to be part of the estate.
Whether jointly-held property is caught by s.72(1)(d) depends on whether there was a “disposition” into that joint tenancy. When a property is initially purchased by a deceased person and another in joint tenancy and remains as such at the time of death, it can not be said that there was a disposition into joint tenancy: s. 72(1)(d) would not appear to apply.
However, when the ownership arrangement of a property is more intricate, whether or not jointly-held property will be deemed to be an asset of the estate within the context of a dependant’s support application becomes less clear.
Consider the following scenario:
- At first instance, title to a property is taken as follows:
- 50% held solely by A; and
- 50% held jointly by A and B, who are common law spouses.
- Years later, A conveys the 50% held by her alone to herself and her common law spouse jointly.
- Therefore, immediately preceding A’s death, 100% of the property is held in joint tenancy by A and B.
Now, after A’s death, A’s minor children assert a dependant’s support claim. Does section 72(1)(d) apply, such that the property can be made available to fund a payment of dependant’s support?
The decision in Modopoulos v Breen Estate,  O.J. No. 2738 interpreted section 72(1)(d) of the Succession Law Reform Act to mean that, only if the property was owned solely by the deceased and later transferred into joint tenancy prior to death, would there be a “disposition” into joint tenancy.
In the unique set of circumstances described above, it could be argued that A never solely owned the property and, therefore, the later disposition is not captured by section 72(1)(d). However, another perspective is that the 50% interest held initially by A as a tenant in common (with A and B jointly as to the other 50%) would have formed part of her estate if the subsequent disposition to B as a joint tenant did not take place. This interpretation strongly supports that section 72(1)(d) of the Succession Law Reform Act would in fact apply to make the 50% interest in the property available in satisfaction of a dependant’s support claim. Certainly such an argument is consistent with the remedial intent of the legislation.
To our knowledge, there has yet to be a decision in Ontario that addresses whether section 72 would apply to a disposition out of a tenancy in common and into a joint tenancy, such as that featured in our hypothetical example. It will be interesting to see how a court would interpret similar transactions if encountered in the future.
Thank you for reading.
Other blog entries that you may enjoy reading:
- SLRA Dependant Awarded Entirety of Estate
- Priority of Claims for Dependant’s Support Over Other Claims Against an Estate
- The Risks of Joint Tenancy
- Joint Accounts Between Spouses
As anyone who has ever watched the show Friends can attest, “breaks” can happen in any relationship. For those attempting to claim common law spousal status however, what impact, if any, do such “breaks” have upon the length of time that the couple has to be together? Do you have to re-set the clock of the relationship after every “break”, or can the “breaks” be ignored?
Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act incorporates the definition of “spouse” from section 29 of the Family Law Act. Section 29 of the Family Law Act in turn defines “spouse” as including “two persons who are not married to each other and have cohabited continuously for a period of not less than three years“. This definition is often what is being referred to when someone says that a relationship is “common law”, with significant corresponding legal rights potentially being given to the two individuals if they are found to be “spouses”.
As the word “continuously” is included in the definition, one would be forgiven for thinking that there cannot be any “breaks” in the relationship, and that you must have a continuous three year period of “cohabitation” for two people to be considered spouses. As we will see below however, this may not necessarily be the case.
I have previously blogged about the factors that the court may look to in determining whether two people are “cohabitating”, with the Supreme Court of Canada in M. v. H. having confirmed that you look to the factors listed in Molodowich v. Penttinen to determine whether to individuals are “cohabitating” to the extent that their relationship becomes spousal. For the purpose of this blog however, the interesting question which follows is whether a couple who otherwise meets enough of the factors from Molodowich to be considered to be “cohabitating”, but had a “break” in their relationship during the three year period, could still be considered “spouses”.
In Boothe v. Gore,  O.J. No. 4376, the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) provides the following commentary regarding the effect of a “break” on a relationship:
“The law in Ontario recognizes that a man and a woman are considered to have continuously cohabitated, despite that while living together, there might have been separations for varying periods of time before reconciling. Cohabitation does not terminate until either party regards it as being at an end, and, demonstrate convincingly that this is the party’s intent. A brief cooling off period does not convincingly show a settled state of mind that cohabitation has terminated…
The effects of temporary separations depends on the intention of the parties. When one party leaves the other and provides an objective basis to believe that they do not intend to resume cohabitation and the separation lasts for a meaningful period of time, the period of cohabitation could well have been interrupted.” [emphasis added]
As Boothe v. Gore suggests, a “break” in a relationship should not necessarily preclude a finding that two persons are common law spouses. Rather, the court is to attempt to ascertain the intentions of the parties at the time of the “break”, with the spousal status only coming to a close if either of the parties regards the relationship as being “at an end“, or the period of separation lasts for a “meaningful period of time“.
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Does an attorney, or guardian, have the power to change a grantor’s estate plan?
According to section 31(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act, a guardian of property (or attorney for property) has the power to do on the incapable person’s behalf anything in respect of property that the person could do if capable, except make a will.
The statute, however, is deceptively simple. Can a guardian transfer property into joint tenancy? Can a guardian sever a joint tenancy? Can a guardian change a beneficiary designation on a RRSP, RRIF or insurance policy? Can an inter vivos trust be established or an estate freeze undertaken to save taxes? There are numerous cases which have tested these issues.
For instance, in Banton v Banton, Justice Cullity found that although the grantor’s attorneys had the authority to create an irrevocable inter vivos trust, they nonetheless breached their fiduciary obligations owing to the grantor, in creating the trust.
The irrevocable trust provided for income and capital at the trustee’s discretion for the grantor’s benefit during his lifetime and a gift over of capital to the grantor’s children, who were also the attorneys. The scheme of distribution of the irrevocable trust was the same as provided for in the grantor’s will. However, the court found that the fact that the remainder interest passed automatically to the grantor’s issue defeated the grantor’s power to revoke his will by marriage and would deprive his common law spouse of potential rights under Parts II and V of the Succession Law Reform Act and Part I of the Family Law Act. The court found that the gift of the remainder of the interest went beyond what was required to protect the grantor’s assets.
Justice Cullity stated:
“I do not share the view that there is an inviolable rule that it is improper for attorneys under a continuing power of attorney to take title to the donor‘s assets either by themselves or jointly with the donor . This must depend upon whether it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so to protect or advance the interest, or otherwise benefit, the donor.”
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People change their mind all of the time. When someone changes their mind about the terms of their Will however, things can become more complicated. Going to a lawyer to formally make a change to the Will may seem daunting. If the change to the Will is relatively minor, an individual may be tempted to forgo meeting with a lawyer to draw up a new Will or Codicil, and simply make the change to the Will themselves by crossing out or inserting new language by hand on the face of the old Will. But would such handwritten changes be valid?
Although the advice to any individual thinking of changing their Will would always be to speak with a lawyer about the matter, people do not always adhere to such advice. If someone has made handwritten changes to their Will after the document was originally signed, such changes can under certain circumstances alter the terms of the Will.
Section 18(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“) provides that unless any alteration to a Will is made in accordance with the requirements of section 18(2) of the SLRA, such alterations have no effect upon the provisions of the Will itself unless such an alteration has had the effect that you can no longer read the original wording of the Will. Section 18(2) of the SLRA further provides:
“An alteration that is made in a will after the will has been made is validly made when the signature of the testator and subscription of witnesses to the signature of the testator to the alteration, or, in the case of a will that was made under section 5 or 6, the signature of the testator, are or is made,
(a) in the margin or in some other part of the will opposite or near to the alteration; or
(b) at the end of or opposite to a memorandum referring to the alteration and written in some part of the will.”
As a result of section 18(1) and 18(2) of the SLRA, any handwritten change to a Will does not validly alter the terms of the Will unless the testator and two witnesses sign in the margins of the Will near the alteration (subject to certain exceptions listed). If the handwritten change is not accompanied by such signatures it is not a valid alteration and has no impact upon the original terms of the Will, unless the handwritten change has had the effect of “obliterating” the original language of the Will by making it no longer readable.
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