Tag: Testamentary Capacity
The recent case of Tilley v Herley 2019 ONSC 5405 serves as a reminder that courts will not approve an interim distribution of the funds in an estate if there is the possibility of new testamentary documents coming to light.
In this case, the deceased had been estranged from her four children for much of their lives; however, she reconciled with one of her children, Roxanne, before her death in 2019. Roxanne was appointed as sole executrix and trustee and was named as the only beneficiary of the entire estate in the most recent will which was executed in 2008. Prior to her death, the deceased transferred the main asset of the estate, a residence in Mississauga, to herself and Roxanne as joint tenants. When she died, the residence passed to Roxanne by right of survivorship.
Two of the other children brought a challenge to the will on the basis that their mother lacked testamentary capacity, that she was unduly influenced by the Respondent Roxanne, and that the will was executed under suspicious circumstances. They also sought a declaration that the residence should be subject to the presumption of resulting trust and should not pass to Roxanne by right of survivorship. Roxanne had already sold the residence and both parties agreed that the proceeds of the sale would be held in trust pending litigation. Roxanne then brought a motion seeking an interim distribution of 25% of the funds held in trust. The rationale behind this was that even if the other siblings’ will challenge was successful and Roxanne lost at trial, she would still receive 25% of the estate as it would be divided up in equal parts amongst the four children.
The case turned on the fact that even though no will prior to 2008 had been located, there was evidence that an earlier will may have existed. This made it impossible to determine that the Respondent’s interest in the estate would be a minimum of 25% and the court found that making an interim distribution of the proceeds would be “premature and inappropriate”. Another relevant factor was that at this early stage in the litigation, there had not been an accounting with respect to the entire estate, including debts and liabilities, as well as future expenses including litigation costs, making it impossible to determine the value of 25% of the estate.
The court dismissed the motion, as there was a possibility that the deceased may have made an earlier will and until this will could be located or its existence could be discounted, it was impossible to know the extent of Roxanne’s entitlement should the will challenge be successful. The court also noted that it was conceivable that none of the deceased’s children would be beneficiaries under a previous will if the 2008 will were to be declared invalid by the court. This case demonstrates that applying for an interim distribution of estate funds can be ill-advised and will likely fail if there is evidence indicating the potential existence of an undiscovered prior will. This would make it impossible for the court to determine the minimum amount that either party may receive if the contested will is declared invalid.
Thanks for reading,
Ian Hull and Sean Hess
Yes, you’re reading this blog on a Monday. As week days go, Monday isn’t nearly as fun as a Thursday, or Friday. But that doesn’t mean you should be unhappy. A recent study purports that repetitive negative thinking is linked to cognitive decline.
The authors of the study propose that repetitive negative thinking may be a new risk factor for dementia. Based on various tests, the study found that when compared to non-pessimists, people who think negatively have a greater buildup of certain proteins in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia), a worse memory, and greater cognitive decline.
Based on this correlation, it is believed important to think happy thoughts. Whether you are a glass half empty or half full kind of person, the brain can be trained to be more optimistic. This can be done in a number of ways, including:
- meditating – one study found that only 30 minutes a day over a two week period produced a measurable change in the brain
- practicing gratefulness – taking a few minutes each day to write down what you are thankful for
- reframing negative thoughts –changing your perspective on a situation to give more of a positive or beneficial meaning to you
As Bobby McFerrin sings, ‘In every life we have some trouble / But when you worry you make it double / Don’t worry, be happy / Don’t worry, be happy now’.
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Under Rules 75.01 and 75.06 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, any person who has a financial interest in an estate may commence an application to have a will “proved in such manner as the court directs.” In Neuberger Estate v York, 2016 ONCA 191, the Ontario Court of Appeal clarified that the court has a discretion whether to order that a testamentary instrument be proved. The Court went on to state that Rule 75.06 requires a moving party to “adduce, or point to, some evidence which if accepted, would call into question the validity of the testamentary instrument that is being propounded.”
In Joma v Jaunkalns, 2019 ONSC 6788, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered the principles mentioned in Neuberger Estate v York. In doing so, the case provides a helpful review regarding the minimum evidentiary threshold to permit a will challenge.
In Joma v Jaunkalns, the deceased, Zenta Palma, died in September of 2018. She was a widow and did not have any children. Zenta’s siblings and only niece, Brigita, predeceased her.
The Deceased was survived by Brigita’s brother, Ronald. She was also survived by Brigita’s husband, Robert, and their children, Michael and Emily.
In 2012, the Deceased executed a Will naming Robert as her estate trustee and Michael and Emily as the residual beneficiaries. Robert’s brother, Viktor, was named as the alternate estate trustee and his children were named as legatees.
Ronald claimed that he was named as a residual beneficiary under an earlier Will but the Will could not be located.
Ronald asserted that, at the time the Deceased executed the 2012 Will, she lacked testamentary capacity and was unduly influenced by Robert. The question before the court was whether Ronald met the required threshold to be granted his request for the 2012 Will to be proven.
Upon considering the evidence of Ronald and Robert, Justice Dietrich found that Ronald did meet the threshold. She arrived at this conclusion based on the following:
- The Deceased was an 84-year old widow who was reliant on her two sisters and her niece and nephew for support and assistance;
- In 2011, the Deceased was taking prescribed medication that would “tranquilize” her;
- The Deceased was taking anti–anxiety medication approximately one month before she executed the 2012 Will;
- Robert’s evidence that the Deceased never had any cognitive impairment was found to be a broad conclusory statement;
- Robert was a physician with experience assessing capacity but he did not offer any evidence of having examined the Deceased or knowing exactly what medication she was taking and in what dosage;
- Ronald’s evidence of Robert’s involvement in the Deceased’s finances raised the spectre of Robert’s potential undue influence over the Deceased;
- For example, Robert undertook a banking transaction on behalf of the Deceased which had upset her so she asked Robert to reverse it.
Based on the evidence above, Justice Dietrich found that Ronald’s evidence amounted to more than suspicion. If accepted, it would call the validity of the Deceased’s Will into question.
Furthermore, a review of the Deceased’s financial records, medical records and the drafting solicitor’s file would be beneficial. Quoting from Seepa v. Seepa, 2017 ONSC 5368, Justice Dietrich went on to state that Ronald “ought to be given the tools such as documentary discovery, that are ordinarily available to a litigant before he or she is subjected to a requirement to put a best foot forward on the merits.”
In summary, Joma v Jaunkalns demonstrates that the evidentiary burden on a party who wishes to challenge a will is not fairly high. Evidence that amounts to more than a suspicion should suffice.
Thanks for reading!
Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
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In preparing my other blogs this week, I spent some time considering the issue of how we might see the increased access to medical assistance in dying (MAID) impact our practice area. As such, I thought that I would finish off this series of blogs focusing on MAID with a hypothetical question I have not yet encountered in practice, but which is inevitably going to be raised: what impact, if any, does MAID have on a will challenge?
Our regular readers will already be well aware that capacity is task, time, and situation specific.
Presumably, the standard of capacity applying to the decision to access MAID is that required to make other personal care decisions, such as receiving or refusing medical treatment. Section 45 of the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, defines incapacity for personal care as follows:
A person is incapable of personal care if the person is not able to understand information that is relevant to making a decision concerning his or her own health care, nutrition, shelter, clothing, hygiene or safety, or is not able to appreciate the reasonably foreseeable consequences of a decision or lack of decision.
I have been unable to find any literature suggesting whether the standard may be somewhat heightened as a result of the significant impact of the decision to actually receive MAID.
The standard for testamentary capacity typically applied remains that set out in the old English authority of Banks v Goodfellow. While some have suggested that the standard of testamentary capacity be updated, we are generally concerned with the same, well-established criteria:
It is essential to the exercise of such a power that a testator shall understand the nature of the act and its effects; shall understand the extent of the property of which he is disposing; shall be able to comprehend and appreciate the claims to which he ought to give effect; and, with a view to the latter object, that no disorder of the mind shall poison his affections, pervert his sense of right, or prevent the exercise of his natural faculties—that no insane delusion shall influence his will in disposing of his property and bring about a disposal of it which, if the mind had been sound, would not have been made.
While, historically, standards of mental capacity were viewed as hierarchical, recent case law and commentary have strayed from this understanding, instead viewing the different standards of mental capacity as just that: different. Courts will consider whether an individual understood the nature of the decision being made and appreciated the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their decision.
Consent to MAID must be confirmed very shortly before it is administered, which restriction has been of considerable controversy. While possessing the capacity to confirm consent to obtain MAID may not correspond to testamentary capacity, it may nevertheless become evidence suggestive of a degree of mental capacity that is valuable (in conjunction with other evidence) in establishing that a last will and testament executed shortly before death is valid.
Whether the fact that MAID has been achieved will be important evidence on a will challenge in support of testamentary capacity or not remains to be seen, but it will be interesting to see how the laws relating to MAID evolve and how incidents of MAID may impact estate law over time.
Thank you for reading,
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).
Thank you for reading.
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.
Thanks for reading – Have a great day!
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.
Thank you for reading … Have a great day,
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.
Thanks for reading!
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This week on Hull on Estates, Noah Weisberg and Doreen So discuss the UK and Hong Kong Golden Rule for assessing testamentary capacity.
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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.
Thanks for reading,
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