Tag: Testamentary Capacity
This past weekend I had the great pleasure of seeing the movie Knives Out by Rian Johnson. For those of you who have not yet seen it I would highly recommend it, especially for those interested in estate law. Although I will try my best to avoid any significant spoilers for those who have not yet seen it, if you don’t want to know anything about the movie before seeing it you should stop reading this blog now.
The plot of Knives Out offers some interesting considerations for those interested in estate law, as it centers around the possible murder of the patriarch of an affluent family, with the alleged motive for many of those accused being that he was going to cut them off and write them out of his Will. While I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but analyze the cases of some of those accused, and whether there were estate law related options that would have been available to them that would not require them to commit murder (I promise that I am fun at parties and that this job has not ruined me).
Knives Out gets into a surprising amount of detail regarding certain estate law concepts, discussing such concepts as “undue influence” in relation to those who would have benefited from the new Will, as well as the “slayer rule” which would result in any individual who was involved in the murder not being entitled to receive a benefit from the estate for public policy reasons. The movie also gets into the concept of “testamentary capacity“, and whether the deceased would have had the capacity to draft the new Will which would have cut the various individuals off.
While watching the movie the one thing that kept running through my mind was that most of the accused family members would appear to have fairly strong arguments that they were dependants of the deceased even if they were cut out of his Will. The movie makes it fairly clear that the deceased was financially supporting a majority of his family members, with his threats to cut them off financially forming the foundation of the motivation for why they may or may not have killed him.
If the deceased had indeed cut these family members out of his Will, and this matter took place in Ontario, there would appear to be a fairly strong argument that those family members that were cut out of the Will were dependants of the deceased under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, insofar as the deceased was providing support to them immediately prior to his death and he did not make adequate provision for them in his Will. If these family members were found to be dependants of the deceased, the court could make an order providing for their support from the deceased’s estate regardless of whether they were left anything in his Will. Although I will concede that a long and drawn out court case where various family members assert they are dependants of the deceased is probably a less interesting film than an Agatha Christie style murder-mystery, if Knives Out were real life it is unlikely that many of the family members would ultimately receive nothing from his estate (assuming, of course, they were not involved in his death).
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In Banks v Goodfellow, the English High Court laid out the benchmark test for assessing testamentary capacity. To this day, it has stood the test of time. Subsequent cases have served to focus and clarify aspects of it. The recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Kay v Kay Sr. is such a case. In Kay v Kay Sr., the court provides a helpful review of the law regarding testamentary capacity, specifically the weight that is to be given to the drafting lawyer’s assessment and a posthumous testamentary capacity assessment.
The deceased, Annie Wotton, died on August 26, 2019, at the age of 95. Mrs. Wotton created a will in 1992 which essentially left everything to her son, John. It also provided that John, along with her husband, Jack, were to be appointed as joint executors.
Medical assessments conducted in November 2009, September 2010 and October 2010 noted that Mrs. Wotton had a mild to moderate form of dementia. The assessments stated that Mrs. Wotton’s memory was moderately impaired and that her cognitive abilities were progressively declining.
In November 2010, another will was prepared by Mrs. Wotton. The drafting lawyer, Mark Ouimet-McPherson, met with Mrs. Wotton and assessed her capacity. Mr. Ouimet-McPherson believed that Mrs. Wotton had testamentary capacity so he took her instructions and prepared and executed the documents. The new will stipulated that the residue of the estate was to be divided equally amongst John and two of Mrs. Wotton’s three grandchildren: Cindy and John Jr. It also named John as estate trustee, with Cindy as the alternate.
At the time of Mrs. Wotton’s death, John had advanced dementia and was incapable of acting as estate trustee. John’s wife, Rosemary, acted as his litigation guardian and filed a Notice of Objection to Cindy’s application for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee. Rosemary’s objection was based on the fact that the November 2010 will should be declared invalid as Mrs. Wotton lacked testamentary capacity at that time.
In 2019, a posthumous testamentary capacity assessment was conducted by Dr. Francine Sarazin. Dr. Sarazin found that “there [was] reasonable evidence in support of a determination of incapacity when Mrs. Wotton gave instructions to draw up a last will and testament.”
The court relied on O’Neil v. Royal Trust Co. and Vout v. Hay to summarize the legal principle regarding the onus of testamentary capacity: A presumption of capacity exists until it is shown that suspicious circumstances existed regarding the preparation of the will. If suspicious circumstances exist, that presumption is no longer in effect and the onus then shifts to the party propounding the will to prove that the testator had testamentary capacity.
Since medical evidence found that Mrs. Wotton suffered with a form of mild to moderate Alzheimer dementia at the time of signing the 2010 will, and due to Mrs. Wotton’s age and the changes between the two wills, the court determined that the onus should shift to the propounder of the November 2010 will to show capacity.
The court accepted the posthumous assessment of Dr. Sarazin, but the assessment was only afforded a modest degree of weight for the following reasons:
- Since it was a retrospective capacity assessment which went back nine years, the court thought that it was not very reliable;
- The assessment was not an exhaustive review of Mrs. Wotton’s life in and around the time she signed the will; and
- Cindy’s material was not provided to or reviewed by the assessor.
The court then turned to Mr. Ouimet-McPherson’s evidence. In his meeting with Mrs. Wotton, Mr. Ouimet-McPherson filled out a checklist for her. Based upon Mrs. Wotton’s answers to Mr. Ouimet–McPherson’s questions, her knowledge of her family and her assets, he was satisfied that Mrs. Wotton had testamentary capacity.
The court also took other evidence into consideration, such as the medical assessments conducted in November 2009, September 2010 and October 2010. While the assessments provisionally diagnosed Mrs. Wotton with a mild to moderate form of dementia, they noted that she was able to manage daily living on her own as well as her finances.
The court took this evidence and applied it the Banks v Goodfellow test:
- Understanding the nature of the act of making a will and its consequences: At the meeting with Mr. Ouimet-McPherson, Mrs. Wotton commented that she wanted to be fair and avoid disputes. This demonstrated that she likely understood the consequences of what she was doing.
- Understanding the extent of one’s assets: In general terms, Mrs. Wotton knew the assets she owned. Although she could not recall specific details such as knowing whether her life insurance lapsed or the last statement of her bank account, Mr. Ouimet-McPherson felt that Mrs. Wotton responded appropriately for someone her age.
- Understanding the claims of those who might expect to benefit from the will, both of those to be included and excluded: From Mrs. Wotton’s instructions, it seems as if she knew she was changing her 1992 will to divide her assets three ways as opposed to leaving everything to John.
- Any disorder of the mind or delusions: Mr. Ouimet-McPherson’s evidence seems to suggest that Mrs. Wotton knew what she was doing at the time the will was executed and was not suffering from any delusions or disorders of the mind that impacted her intentions.
After considering all of the above, the court ultimately concluded that, at the time the November 2010 will was executed, it was more likely than not that Mrs. Wotton had testamentary capacity. As such, Cindy was named as the Estate Trustee.
Kay v Kay Sr. provides a helpful review of the test for testamentary capacity as set out in Banks v Goodfellow. It emphasizes that testamentary capacity is to be determined based on the facts and circumstances of each case. The drafting lawyer’s assessment plays a major role in assessing capacity. A posthumous testamentary capacity assessment may also be given considerable weight if it is conducted around the time the deceased’s capacity was in question and if the assessor’s review of the deceased’s life around the time they signed the will is fairly extensive.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
The mysterious death of Jeffrey Epstein is generating a hubbub across the world. It reads like the beginning of an Agatha Christie detective novel and has a central figure who is reminiscent of a James Bond villain: a wealthy financier who is accused of operating a pedophilic sex trafficking ring. He has connections with scores of famous people: politicians, celebrities, royalty … In the early stages of his prosecution, he attempts to commit suicide; then, shortly afterwards, he is taken off suicide watch, the guards purportedly sleep through their checkups on him, and he is found dead.
In the aftermath, there have been conspiracy theories and much controversy, including an FBI investigation. The case has also prompted some questions regarding succession law, for it has just been reported that Epstein signed a new Will two days prior to his death. For the purposes of this post, we shall posit what would happen to the Will and the estate if this had all occurred in Ontario.
Validity of the Will
If Epstein indeed committed suicide, his suicidal mind would be considered in determining whether he had testamentary capacity, but it would not be conclusive (Topp Estate, 1983 CanLII 2329 (SKSU)). The applicable test is still the contextual factors set out in Banks v. Goodfellow.
If it comes to light that Epstein was murdered, then the Will could be attacked on the basis of undue influence. To achieve this, the objector would have to meet a fairly high evidentiary threshold, establishing “that what appears to be the testator’s will is not his or her will” (Kozak Estate (Re), 2018 ABQB 185).
As Epstein’s brother is named the sole beneficiary of the estate, if he is found to have murdered his brother, then public policy would likely bar him from benefiting from the estate (Papasotiriou, 2012 ONSC 6473).
It has been reported that the alleged victims’ lawyers are seeking to continue their action against the Epstein estate. One of these lawyers, Lisa Bloom, is demanding a freeze of the assets in the meantime. In Ontario, if the deceased dies during the time in which he or she is a defendant in litigation, Rule 11.02 of the Rules of Civil Procedure may allow for an action to be continued against the deceased’s estate.
If the alleged victims win their lawsuit against the Epstein estate, it is uncertain whether they will obtain their damages awards, for Epstein likely sheltered many of his assets. In Ontario, the claimants could launch claims of unjust enrichment and constructive trust in order to gain access to funds which have been sheltered amongst Epstein’s friends, family, and offshore accounts. Sadly for the accusers, the same dark cunning which enabled Epstein to evade justice was likely employed in securing his assets in inaccessible vaults. Just a little something to think about.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently made an important ruling on a voir dire in respect of Dr. Kenneth Shulman’s proposed expert testimony.
This ruling will be of particular interest to estate litigators as it addresses the inherent admissibility of retrospective capacity assessments, amongst other things.
The Court in this instance implemented a form of blended voir dire, wherein Dr. Shulman’s evidence would be received in its entirety and submissions would be made on the issue of admissibility of the expert testimony. In the event that the Court ruled that Dr. Shulman’s evidence was admissible, the evidence obtained during the voir dire would be incorporated as part of the trial record.
The Defendant, amongst other objections, took issue with Dr. Shulman’s testimony on the basis that his testimony was based on a retrospective capacity assessment which was problematic for the following reasons:
- The proposed opinion was based on hearsay evidence and must therefore be excluded; and
- Expert opinion evidence on retrospective testamentary capacity assessments constitutes novel or contested science and is therefore not reliable.
The Court did not accept that Dr. Shulman’s use of certain evidence that has not been proven, and has not been relied upon him for the truth of its contents, prevents the Court from admitting his expert opinion evidence at the threshold admissibility stage. In other words, any such issues could be addressed in reference to the weight of the proposed evidence.
Most interestingly, however, the Court noted that many of the types of medical and psychiatric opinions offered at trial are retrospective in nature and did not agree that retrospective capacity assessments are novel in Ontario courts. The Court specifically noted that the Defendant was unable to identify a single case, since retrospective testamentary capacity assessments were first considered by the courts, in which psychiatric expert opinion of retrospective testamentary capacity assessment has been ruled inadmissible.
In applying the admissibility test established in R v Abbey 2017 ONCA 640, the Court held that Dr. Shulman’s expert opinion satisfied the threshold requirement in the first step. In weighing the cost versus benefit of admitting Dr. Shulman’s report, the Court found that the evidence favoured the admission of Dr. Shulman’s evidence.
The Court made a ruling admitting Dr. Shulman as an expert geriatric psychiatrist to provide expert opinion evidence in the areas of geriatric psychiatry and retrospective testamentary capacity assessment.
This is an important ruling in the context of estate litigation given that in most instances, the capacity assessments that are usually relied on in the course of litigation are of a retrospective nature, since the subject of the assessment is most often deceased.
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A recent decision from the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Dujardin v Dujardin, 2018 ONCA 597, considers an appeal with respect to a Will challenge on the basis that the testator lacked testamentary capacity. The testator in this situation was a frequent consumer of alcohol. Despite what the trial judge called the testator’s “chronic alcoholism”, it seemed as though he was able to function normally on a day-to-day basis, including in business dealings relating to a family farm owned by the testator and his brother. Following the testator’s death, his wife disputed his Will, under which she received no benefit.
Recently, my colleagues, Noah Weisberg and Garrett Horrocks, discussed whether the classic test for testamentary capacity as set out in Banks v Goodfellow should be updated, and a new test as proposed in an article in the Canadian Bar Review, Vol 95 No. 1 (2017), Banks v Goodfellow (1870): Time to Update the Test for Testamentary Capacity.
The article opines that the context of the testator, including, for instance, family dynamics, should be incorporated explicitly into the test for testamentary capacity. This means that we would be asking the question: “can this particular person, with his or her particular mental abilities, in this particular situation, make this particular Will, at this particular time?”, rather than “can this testator make a Will?”
I thought the suggestions in the article were interesting when considering the facts of the Dujardin decision, and the findings of the trial judge. It seems as though the lower court took into account a number of contextual factors in applying the Banks v Goodfellow test, ultimately leading to a conclusion that the testator did possess the requisite testamentary capacity, a conclusion which was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
In particular, some of the interesting contextual factors included:
- the history of the testator and his brother’s ownership and operation of the family farm, and the brothers’ consistent desires to leave their respective shares of the farm to each other upon their death;
- prior mirror Wills executed by the brothers 13 years before the testator’s death, which reflected the same intention as the later Will that was being challenged (the testator’s prior will was revoked in 2000 when he married his wife); and
- the testator’s relationship dynamic with his wife, with whom it appeared he was not close, and the provision that he made for her outside of his Will.
In particular, the Court of Appeal commented that “[g]enerally, the manner in which [the testator] disposed of his property made sense in the context of his life and familial relationships.”
Had the trial judge not considered the various contextual factors, it’s possible she could have arrived at a different conclusion. Subject to the medical evidence, given that the testator suffered from alcoholism, it may have been open to the court to conclude that this condition had, in fact, affected the testator’s cognition.
In any event, it is interesting to see a practical example of the ideas put forth in the article mentioned above, and to consider how the suggestions of the authors may come into play in real-world situations.
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On a recent trip to Rochester, New York, my fiancée and I had the pleasure of touring the George Eastman Museum and came across an interesting piece of estates lore.
George Eastman, the founder of Kodak and a pioneer of bringing photography to the mainstream, died leaving a Will drawn in 1925. As his wife had predeceased him and they had no children, Mr. Eastman devised all of his real property and left a substantial cash legacy to his closest family member, his niece, Ellen Dryden. Mr. Eastman’s estate held significant assets, and the value of liquid assets alone was estimated as exceeding the equivalent of USD$35 million today.
However, on March 9, 1932, only five days before his death, Mr. Eastman had a change of heart with respect to the distribution of his estate. Rather than leave the bulk of his estate to an individual, Mr. Eastman wished to ensure that his legacy would be one of service to the community that had fostered his photography empire. True to form as a philanthropist and benefactor of local enterprise, Mr. Eastman executed a Codicil to his Will, changing the primary beneficiary of his estate from his niece to the University of Rochester.
The testamentary dispositions under the Codicil represented a significant deviation from those under his Will. Typically, where a testator’s dispositions vary substantially from one instrument to another, concerns may arise with respect to the their testamentary capacity or the presence of undue influence.
A shrewd entrepreneur in his own right, Mr. Eastman recognized the risk that the Codicil might later be the subject of scrutiny or litigation. On the date the Codicil was to be executed, Mr. Eastman hosted a gathering at his residence and invited many guests and acquaintances. He devoted time to speaking to each individual guest about topical, personal subjects so that they could attest to Mr. Eastman’s soundness of mind in the event that a certain disgruntled niece chose to commence a Will challenge.
In a way, Mr. Eastman’s goal is not too dissimilar from some of the criteria that are relied on even today to assess a testator’s capacity. Third-party evidence that a testator appeared to be of sound mind immediately prior to the execution of a testamentary document may help a trier of fact draw a favourable conclusion with respect to capacity. While the formal criteria to assess capacity primarily consider a testator’s appreciation and understanding of his or her assets, Mr. Eastman’s clever scheme demonstrates that he turned his mind to questions about his own capacity and took steps to mitigate the risks.
Mr. Eastman’s Codicil was not later subject to any litigation, and the University of Rochester received a handsome distribution out of his estate.
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The general rule, one that most people are probably familiar with when they think of a Will, is that the testator has to have the requisite capacity in order to be able to execute it. But what does that mean?
Generally, it means that a person should be of sound mind and understanding and have sufficient capacity to appreciate the various dispositions of property that would be put into effect with his or her execution of the Will. In other words, the testator must:
(1) understand that they are giving their property to one or more objects of his or her regard;
(2) have the capacity to comprehend the extent of their property and the nature of the claims of others to whom they are giving nothing under the Will.
In the case of a deceased who committed suicide, a question that may arise is whether a person who is about to commit suicide has the appropriate testamentary capacity to be able to execute a Will?
In that regard, it is important to remember that the onus is on the person who is propounding the Will – in other words applying to the court for an order that the Will is valid. In the usual course, there is certainly no presumption against the testamentary capacity of a testator. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. However, in cases where a proposition is made that a death (suicide) note is the last valid will and testament of a testator, it is more likely that someone may object. That is especially the case where an expected beneficiary is disinherited under such a circumstance.
As soon as capacity is called into question, the onus lies on the party propounding the Will to affirm testamentary capacity.
Suicide, in itself, does not equate to testamentary incapacity – although it is a circumstance that may be considered. In fact, a testator may have testamentary capacity even if they are not of entirely sound mind. That means that prior to committing suicide, a person can very well have testamentary capacity. If that is the case, then a death note can be considered a Holograph Will, which in Ontario, in accordance with section 6 of the Succession Law Reform Act, has the following requirements in order to be valid:
(1) It must be entirely in the testator’s hand writing; and
(2) It must be signed by the testator.
There is no requirement for witnesses in the case of a Holograph Will and it must be that the testator intended to dispose of their property after death.
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Last week we blogged about the relationship between age and capacity, citing the classic statement of the test for testamentary capacity found in Banks v. Goodfellow (1870), L.R. 5 Q.B. 549, which includes:
that no insane delusion shall influence his will on disposing of his property, and bring about a disposal of it which would not have been made otherwise.
Since Banks v Goodfellow, the courts have considered the meaning of “insane delusion” in relation to testamentary capacity. In Boughton v Knight (1873), [1861-73] All ER Rep 40, the court held that a “delusion” is something more than a mistaken belief. To reach the status of “delusion” the mistaken belief must be something that no person with sense could believe. In Re Watts Estate, 1933 CarswellNB 9, the Court stated:
It has been laid down that a mistaken belief as to a matter of fact or illogical conclusions therefrom is not necessarily an insane delusion, neither is any belief or prejudice however mistaken which has some basis for it […] So long as there is some evidence of or basis for the belief it is not and never can be an insane delusion.
In Banton v Banton, the court held delusions may not be obvious on their face. In this case, the testator’s belief that his children were only interested in his money was contrary to the evidence. Delusions can include “beliefs whose extreme improbability is apparent only when the surrounding facts are known. These are obviously the more difficult cases.”
To find a disposition void because of delusion, the courts have held it is insufficient simply to show that the delusion is related to the subject matter of the disposition. Instead, the court must be satisfied that the delusions affected the dispositions in the will. If insane delusions on the subject matter of the will are proved to have existed, the propounder has the burden of showing the delusions did not affect the testator’s dispositions.
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