Yesterday I blogged about the Notice of Contestation of Claim, which is a process that in essence provides the Estate Trustee with the ability to require individuals with a potential claim against the estate to commence such a claim within 30 days of being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim such that they can no longer pursue it before the court.
The power given to an Estate Trustee by the Notice of Contestation of Claim coupled with the relatively short timeframe by which the claimant must respond could appear attractive to an Estate Trustee, potentially enticing the Estate Trustee to use such a process to flush out all potential claims at the early stages of the administration of the estate. This is turn raises questions about the kinds of claims that the Notice of Contestation of Claim can be used for, and whether it can be used for all potential claims against an estate or whether the claims against which it can be used are more limited. Could you, for example, serve a possible dependant with a Notice of Contestation of Claim, and in doing so require the alleged dependant to bring their claim for support forward within 30 days failing which they are deemed to have abandoned their claim?
The issue of whether a Notice of Contestation of Claim can be used against a potential dependant of the estate was dealt with by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Omiciuolo v. Pasco, 2008 ONCA 241, wherein the court confirmed that the Notice of Contestation of Claim could not be used in relation to a potential claim for support by a dependant under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act. In coming to such a decision the Court of Appeal notes that historically the “claim or demand” referenced in sections 44 and 45 of the Estates Act had been interpreted to mean a “claim or demand against the estate by a ‘creditor’ for payment of money on demand“, and that it could not be used for claims such as declaratory relief or a claim for judicial sale or foreclosure.
From the Court of Appeal’s rationale in Omiciuolo v. Pasco it would appear that the “claims” against which a Notice of Contestation of Claim can be used are likely limited to claims of potential creditors of the estate (i.e. claims that the deceased owed an individual money), and that it cannot be used against other more nuanced or equitable claims such as a potential claim from a dependant for support or declaratory relief.
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What’s an Estate Trustee to do when faced with a situation in which an individual has threatened to bring a claim against the estate but has not yet actually taken any formal steps to advance the claim. As Estate Trustee you have certain obligations to the beneficiaries of the estate, including seeing to the administration in a timely manner. An Estate Trustee also has obligations to the creditors of the estate however, and needs to ensure to that all debts of the estate are paid prior to distributing the estate to the beneficiaries. If they fail to do so, the Estate Trustee could face potential personal liability to the creditors of the estate.
An active claim being commenced against the estate can significantly delay the amount of time it takes for an estate to be administered, as the Estate Trustee cannot see to the final administration of the estate while the claim remains active as they must ensure that there are requisite funds in the estate to satisfy any damages award should the estate ultimately not be successful in the claim. The same is also true for a claim that has been threatened against the estate, as the Estate Trustee may be apprehensive to distribute the estate in the face of a claim possibly being commenced for the same reason. When faced with a such a threatened claim the Estate Trustee could be put in a difficult dilemma, for on the one hand they wish to administer the estate in a timely fashion to the beneficiaries and there is no active claim that has been commenced that would otherwise stop them from doing so, yet because of the threatened claim they may be reluctant to do so for fear of their own potential liability should the claim later be commenced after the funds have been distributed. When faced with such a situation the “Notice of Contestation of Claim” could become the Estate Trustee’s new best friend.
At its most basic the Notice of Contestation of Claim provides a mechanism by which a Estate Trustee can require the potential claimant to formally advance their claim against the estate failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim. The “Notice of Contestation of Claim” process is governed by sections 44 and 45 of the Estates Act. If a potential claimant is served with a Notice of Contestation of Claim they are provided with 30 days to issue a “claim” pursuant to the Notice of Contestation of Claim, failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim. The 30 day deadline may be extended up to a maximum of three months by the court if the claimant should seek such an extension.
The process by which a Notice of Contestation of Claim is issued is governed by rule 75.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, providing the form (Form 75.13) that the Notice of Contestation of Claim must be in, as well as the steps that the claimant must follow to bring their claim before the court upon being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim should they intend to pursue the matter.
Through the Notice of Contestation of Claim an Estate Trustee can force a potential claimant to make a decision regarding whether they intend to bring a claim against the estate. If the potential claimant does not take the appropriate steps following being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim their potential claim is deemed to be abandoned and can no longer be pursued before the court, with the Estate Trustee being theoretically free to proceed with the administration of the estate.
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When most people reference a “limitation period” in Ontario, chances are that they are referencing the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act, 2002, which generally provides an individual with two years from the date on which a claim is “discovered” to commence a claim before it is statute barred. Although an individual is presumed under the Limitations Act to have “discovered” the claim on the date that the loss or injury occurred, if it can be shown that the individual did not “discover” the claim until some later date the limitation period will not begin to run until that later date, potentially extending the limitation period for the claim to be brought for many years beyond the second anniversary of the actual loss or damage.
Although the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act must be considered for situations in which an individual intends to commence a claim against someone who has died, individuals in such situations must also consider the much stricter limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act.
Section 38 of the Trustee Act imposes a hard two year limitation period from the date of death for any individual to commence a claim against a deceased individual in tort. Unlike the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act, the limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act is not subject to the “discoverability” principle, but is rather a hard limitation period that expires two years from death regardless of whether the individual has actually yet to “discover” the claim. If an individual starts a claim against a deceased individual in tort more than two years after the deceased’s individual’s death it is statute barred by section 38 of the Trustee Act regardless of when the claim was “discovered”.
The non-applicability of the “discoverability” principle to the two year limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act is confirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate, (2000) 47 O.R. (3d) 370, wherein the court states:
“As indicated earlier in these reasons, based on the language of the limitation provision, the discoverability principle does not apply to s. 38(3) of the Trustee Act. The effect of s. 38(3) is, in my view, that the state of actual or attributed knowledge of an injured person in a tort claim is not germane when a death has occurred. The only applicable limitation period is the two-year period found in s. 38(3) of the Trustee Act.” [emphasis added]
Although the Court of Appeal in Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate appears firm in their position that the court should not take when the claim was “discovered” into consideration when applying the limitation period from section 38 of the Trustee Act, it should be noted that in the recent decision of Estate of John Edward Graham v. Southlake Regional Health Centre, 2019 ONSC 392 (“Graham Estate“), the court allowed a claim to brought after the second anniversary of the deceased’s death citing “special circumstances”. Although the Graham Estate decision is from the lower court while the Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate decision is from the Court of Appeal, such that it is at least questionable whether it has established a new line of thinking or was correctly decided, the Graham Estate decision may suggest that the application of the limitation period from section 38 of the Trustee Act is not as harsh as it was once considered. More can be read about the Graham Estate decision in Garrett Horrocks’ previous blog found here.
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People can become upset when they find out that they have been written out of a Will. This frustration can often become multiplied when the individual in question received a significant bequest under a prior Will, believing the that the prior Will in which they received a more significant interest should govern the administration of the estate. In looking for recourse or answers, the “disappointed beneficiary” can often lash out against the drafting lawyer who was retained to prepare the new Will, believing that it was somehow improper or negligent for them to have prepared the Will, and that they have suffered damages in the form of the lost bequest. Some “disappointed beneficiaries” will even go as far as to commence a claim against the drafting lawyer for having seen to drafting the new Will. But can such claims be successful?
In order for the “disappointed beneficiary” to successfully have a claim against the drafting lawyer, the court must find that the drafting lawyer owed a “duty of care” to the beneficiaries under the prior Will. Generally speaking, the only individual to whom a drafting lawyer owes a duty of care when seeing to the preparation of a Will is the testator (and the beneficiaries listed in the new Will by extension). Although the court will sometimes in limited circumstances extend a duty of care to “disappointed beneficiaries”, such circumstances typically exist when the testator advised the drafting lawyer of an intention to benefit a certain individual, however as a result of the actions of the drafting lawyer such an individual did not end up receiving the intended bequest (see White v. Jones and Hall v. Bennett Estate). Such circumstances appear notably distinct from bequests to beneficiaries under a prior Will, for by creating a new Will the testator is in effect communicating to the drafting lawyer an intention to no longer benefit the individuals under the prior Will.
The Alberta Court of Appeal in Graham v. Bonnycastle succinctly summarizes why the court is typically not willing to extend a duty of care from the drafting lawyer to the beneficiaries listed in a prior Will, stating:
“There are strong public policy reasons why the solicitors’ duty should not be extended. The imposition of a duty to beneficiaries under a previous will would create inevitable conflicts of interest. A solicitor cannot have a duty to follow the instructions of his client to prepare a new will and, at the same time, have a duty to beneficiaries under previous wills whose interests are likely to be affected by the new will. The interests of a beneficiary under a previous will are inevitably in conflict with the interests of the testator who wishes to change the will by revoking or reducing a bequest to that beneficiary…” [emphasis added]
In noting that there are other avenues available to such “disappointed beneficiaries”, including challenging the validity of the new Will, the court in Graham v. Bonnycastle goes on to state:
“As noted above, several decisions have recognized the untenable situation that would be created by extending solicitors’ duty of care to include beneficiaries under a former will. Beneficiaries under a former will have other remedies available to them, and may block probate of the will where testamentary capacity is not established. The estate also has a remedy available where it suffers a loss as a result of solicitor negligence. There is no justification for imposing a duty on solicitors taking instruction from a testator for a new will to protect the interests of beneficiaries under a former will. There is not a sufficient relationship of proximity and there are strong policy reasons for refusing to recognize the existence of a duty. It is not fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty.” [emphasis added]
As cases such as Graham v. Bonnycastle suggest, the court appears unwilling to extend a duty of care from the drafting lawyer to a beneficiary listed under a prior Will. If no duty of care exists, no claim may now be advanced by the disappointed beneficiary against the drafting lawyer for any perceived “damages” they may have suffered on account of the new Will having been drafted. This appears true even if it is ultimately found that the testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time the new Will was signed.
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