Tag: unjust enrichment
In the decision of Knowles v LeBlanc, 2021 BCSC 482, the Supreme Court of British Columbia was tasked with determining which party was entitled to insurance proceeds pursuant to the doctrine of unjust enrichment.
This case involved a life insurance policy held by the Deceased, Peter Knowles, with the CUMIS Life Insurance Company. The policy named the Deceased’s ex-wife, Ms. Knowles, as the sole beneficiary. On the date of Mr. Knowles’ death, the benefit payable under the policy was $100,000.
The Deceased designated Ms. Knowles as the sole beneficiary in 1987, shortly before the two separated. Their divorce was finalized in 1991, when they entered into a consent order, which provided that each party would retain their own property and chattels in their possession or control.
After his separation, the Deceased met Ms. LeBlanc in 1988. They lived in an exclusive common-law relationship until the time of his death in 2019. Throughout their relationship, they shared expenses and made joint decisions about their family property.
After Mr. Knowles passed, Ms. LeBlanc received the proceeds from every other life insurance policy that he held as well as all of his other assets by way of right of survivorship. When she did not receive the proceeds from the CUMIS policy, Ms. LeBlanc contacted the company, who advised her that she was not the named beneficiary of the policy. Ms. Leblanc and Ms. Knowles subsequently made competing claims over the proceeds of the insurance policy.
The Court discussed Mr. Knowles’ intentions, as well as whether he ever attempted to change his beneficiary designation in the life insurance policy. The Court found that Mr. Knowles maintained feelings of hostility toward Ms. Knowles after their divorce, and that he not only intended to change the designated beneficiary on his life insurance policy to Ms. LeBlanc, but that he verily believed that he had done so. As a result, the Court concludes that Mr. Knowles clearly intended to remove Ms. Knowles as a beneficiary from his CUMIS life insurance policy but forgot or neglected to do so.
The Court then considered whether the consent order that Mr. and Ms. Knowles entered into in 1991 precluded Ms. Knowles from recovering the life insurance proceeds. The Court ultimately found that the consent order did not prevent Ms. Knowles from claiming the proceeds of the life insurance policy for three reasons. First, the order did not explicitly refer to the life insurance policy. Second, the order did not specifically revoke Mr. Knowles’ designation of Ms. Knowles as a beneficiary of the life insurance policy. Third, the order did not refer to a “full and final” settlement, or a relinquishment of all claims
Finally, the Court considered whether Ms. LeBlanc had a claim in unjust enrichment giving rise to a constructive trust remedy. In doing so, the Court applied the test for unjust enrichment from Pro-Sys Consultants Ltd. v. Microsoft Corporation, 2013 SCC 57 which requires:
- an enrichment of the defendant;
- a corresponding deprivation of the plaintiff; and
- an absence of juristic reason for the enrichment.
The Court easily found that the first two factors had been met. Ms. LeBlanc suffered a deprivation because the premiums of the life insurance policy were automatically deducted from her joint account with Mr. Knowles for many years. Moreover, because Ms. Knowles stood to benefit from receiving the proceeds of the life insurance policy, there was also a corresponding enrichment to Ms. Knowles at the expense of Ms. LeBlanc.
The third element of an unjust enrichment claim is twofold. First, the plaintiff must show that no juristic reason from an established category exists to deny recovery. Second, the defendant may rebut the plaintiff’s recovery by showing that there is another reason to deny recovery.
In their analysis, the Court concluded that the Insurance Act, RSBC 2021, c 1 does not preclude Ms. LeBlanc’s claim in unjust enrichment. In other words, it does not provide a juristic reason for Ms. Knowles to retain the proceeds against Ms. Leblanc’s corresponding deprivation. The Court also failed to find another juristic reason that would apply in the circumstances of the case.
Ms. Knowles was not able to show that there was a residual reason to deny Ms. LeBlanc’s recovery of the life insurance proceeds. The Court focused on the fact that Mr. Knowles was estranged from Ms. Knowles and their two children since their divorce. As a result, it was not reasonable for Ms. Knowles to expect that she would benefit from the insurance policy. The Court was also not able to find a basis in public policy to rebut Ms. LeBlanc’s recovery.
In determining the appropriate remedy, the Court acknowledged that a personal remedy against Ms. Knowles would not be appropriate, as CUMIS had not paid out the proceeds of the life insurance policy to her. Ultimately, the Court imposed a constructive trust to the full extent of the life insurance proceeds in Ms. LeBlanc’s favour.
Finally, the Court cautioned CUMIS to consider updating its records more frequently and to remind its long-standing policyholders of their designated beneficiaries to avoid similar disputes in the future.
This case was similar to Moore v. Sweet, 2018 SCC 52, where the Supreme Court of Canada held that a beneficiary designation was not a juristic reason to deprive the appellant of the insurance proceeds to which she was entitled under an oral agreement. As you may recall, Ian M. Hull, Suzana Popovic‑Montag and David M. Smith represented the appellant before the Supreme Court of Canada, and blogged about their experience here.
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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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Occupation rent is an equitable remedy available in cases of unjust enrichment. It is a rebuttable presumption that one party shall pay reasonable compensation to another for occupying a premises, which may be rebutted if there is evidence proving that no compensation was to be paid.
In the recent decision of Cormpilas v. Ioannidis, 2020 ONSC 4831, Justice Kurz ordered occupation rent to be payable by the beneficiary of an estate. In this case, Gregory and Barbara owned a home as tenants in common. When Barbara died in 2012, her half-interest in the home was transferred to her grandchildren, as the beneficiaries of her estate. At this time, John, Gregory and Barbara’s son (and the grandchildren’s uncle) moved into the home with his family to help Gregory. Gregory died in November 2017 and his half-interest in the home was transferred to John, as the beneficiary of his estate. John and his family continued living at the home until April 30, 2020.
Despite lengthy negotiations between the grandchildren and John, no agreement could be reached for John to buy out the grandchildren’s half-interest in the home, nor did John and his family move out. The Court found that John had exclusive use of the home from November, 2017 to April, 2020 and that although he paid some expenses as a co-owner, he received a far greater benefit in the exclusive, rent-free occupation of the home. Accordingly, Justice Kurz found that John was unjustly enriched at the grandchildren’s expense and that occupation rent for the period of John and his family’s occupation of the home, was an appropriate remedy in the circumstances.
Interestingly, although the Court found in the grandchildren’s favour, because there was no proper request for rent prior to the commencement of the underlying proceeding, the grandchildren were only entitled to occupation rent from February 1, 2019 to April 30, 2020.
The Court further determined that $1,500/month for the above-noted period was a reasonable award for occupation rent after considering the value of the home, John’s half-interest in the home, the term of its occupation by John and his family, the fact that John maintained the home by paying certain carrying charges (such as taxes and insurance) during the period in question, the fact that the home was not maintained in the best of conditions, and the fact that the home value increased significantly during the period of John’s sole possession.
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The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in Moore v Sweet provided meaningful clarification on the Canadian law of unjust enrichment and, in particular, the juristic reason analysis.
As it made a finding of unjust enrichment, it was not necessary for the Court to consider the second issue before it, being whether, in the absence of unjust enrichment, a constructive trust could nevertheless be imposed in the circumstances on the basis of “good conscience”.
In 1997, the Supreme Court released its decision in Soulos v Korkontzilas. That case considered situations that may give rise to a constructive trust remedy. In referring to the categories in which a constructive trust may be appropriate, which were noted to historically include where it was otherwise required by good conscience, Justice McLachlin (as she then was) stated as follows:
I conclude that in Canada, under the broad umbrella of good conscience, constructive trusts are recognized both for wrongful acts like fraud and breach of duty of loyalty, as well as to remedy unjust enrichment and corresponding deprivation…Within these two broad categories, there is room for the law of constructive trust to develop and for greater precision to be attained, as time and experience may dictate.
Since 1997, Soulos and the above excerpt have been interpreted inconsistently by scholars and courts of appeal throughout Canada. Some consider Soulos to restrict the availability of constructive trust remedies to only situations where there has been a finding of unjust enrichment or wrongful conduct, while others favour a more liberal interpretation.
The appellant in Moore v Sweet sought, in the alternative to a remedy on the basis of unjust enrichment, a remedial constructive trust with respect to the proceeds of the life insurance policy on the basis of good conscience. In choosing not to address this issue, Justice Côté (writing for the Majority) stated as follows:
This disposition of the appeal renders it unnecessary to determine whether this Court’s decision in Soulos should be interpreted as precluding the availability of a remedial constructive trust beyond cases involving unjust enrichment or wrongful acts like breach of fiduciary duty. Similarly, the extent to which this Court’s decision in Soulos may have incorporated the “traditional English institutional trusts” into the remedial constructive trust framework is beyond the scope of this appeal. While recognizing that these remain open questions, I am of the view that they are best left for another day.
It will be interesting to see if and when the Supreme Court ultimately chooses to determine “the open questions” regarding the availability of the remedial constructive trust. Until then, it appears that some debate regarding the circumstances in which it may be imposed will remain.
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Earlier this year, we argued the appeal in Moore v Sweet before the Supreme Court of Canada. On Friday, the Court released its decision, which has provided what, in our view, was necessary clarification of the juristic reason component of the test for unjust enrichment. The Supreme Court has also confirmed the circumstances in which a constructive trust remedy is appropriate within the context of unjust enrichment. Our firm was pleased to argue the appeal at the Supreme Court in February 2018 and to learn on Friday of our client’s success in the reversal of the split decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal.
The facts of the case were relatively straightforward: The appellant had previously been married to the deceased. Around the time of their separation, the appellant and the deceased entered into an oral agreement whereby the appellant would remain the designated beneficiary for the life insurance policy on the deceased’s life on the basis that she would continue to pay the related premiums. The appellant paid the premiums on the life insurance policy until the deceased’s death approximately 13 years later, while, unbeknownst to the appellant, the deceased named his new common law spouse (the respondent), as irrevocable beneficiary of the policy soon after the oral agreement was made. At the time of his death, the deceased’s estate was insolvent.
At the application hearing, Justice Wilton-Siegel awarded the appellant the proceeds of the life insurance policy on the basis of unjust enrichment. The respondent was successful in arguing before the Ontario Court of Appeal that the designation of an irrevocable beneficiary under the Insurance Act was a “juristic reason” that permitted what was otherwise considered the unjust enrichment of the respondent at the appellant’s expense. The appellant was subsequently granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Justice Coté, writing for the Majority, agreed that the test for unjust enrichment was flexible and permits courts to use it in the promotion of justice and fairness where required by good conscience. The Court clarified that the juristic reason permitting an unjust enrichment needs to justify not only the enrichment of one party but also the corresponding deprivation of the other party. While the irrevocable beneficiary designation may have required the payment of proceeds for the policy to the respondent, it could not be considered as also requiring the appellant’s deprivation of the proceeds to which she was entitled under the oral agreement. The Court found that a designation of an irrevocable beneficiary under the Insurance Act precludes claims by creditors of an estate, but it does not state “with irresistible clearness” that it also precludes a claim in unjust enrichment by a party who has a contractual or equitable interest in the proceeds.
While reaching the opposite result, the dissent acknowledged that this was a difficult appeal, in which both parties were innocent and had strong moral claims to the proceeds of the life insurance policy.
We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to argue this case before the Supreme Court of Canada earlier this year and look forward to following the role of this decision in further developments in the Canadian law of unjust enrichment.
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Richardson v. Mew is a significant decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in the context of life insurance policies and claims alleging unjust enrichment.
Mr. Richardson had divorced his first wife, Ms. Mew, and had been required by separation agreement to have her designated the beneficiary of a life insurance policy until 1995. Thereafter, he had left the beneficiary designation unchanged.
Soon after his second marriage, Mr. Richardson became incapable to manage his property.
Mr. Richardson’s second wife, Ms. Ferguson, acted under his power of attorney and, among other things, made payments of premiums on the insurance policy on his behalf.
On Mr. Richardson’s death, Ms. Ferguson sought the assistance of the Court, claiming Ms. Mew had been unjustly enriched.
The Court of Appeal found in favour of Ms. Mew. In its judgment, the Court found that the provisions of the Insurance Act constituted a juristic reason for Ms. Mew’s enrichment. As was previously blogged on this website, the trial judge had also considered rectification and whether Ms. Ferguson could have changed the beneficiary designation in her capacity as attorney for property. The rectification issue was not pursued before the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal agreed with the application judge that an attorney for property could not make what amounted to a testamentary disposition.
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When someone passes away, their executor is responsible for paying out of the estate any debts and liabilities for which the deceased was responsible. However, when there is debt for which two or more people are jointly liable, who becomes responsible when one of the joint debtors dies?
In the case of a joint debt, presumably all joint debtors will have taken responsibility and signed for that debt. Accordingly, when one joint debtor dies, the other joint debtors will be responsible for the full amount of the debt.
This obligation to pay the full amount of a joint debt is between the debtor(s) and the creditor. The creditor can thus seek repayment from either joint debt holder, or, after the death of one joint debtor, from the surviving debtors. As between the debtors themselves, however, there may be remedies for a situation in which one joint debtor is made to pay the full debt, without contribution from the other joint debtor. This may arise upon the death of one of the joint debtors if the Estate refuses to pay back any of the debt.
The courts have held that if liability for joint debt is shared, but only one debtor is ultimately made to pay the full amount of the debt, there may be an equitable remedy available. In Parrott-Ericson v Stockwell, 2006 BCSC 1409, the court stated that, even if there is no specific arrangement between the estate and the survivor who becomes responsible for a joint debt, “equity will impose that obligation in order to avoid unjust enrichment. That is the usual rule, because ordinarily there is unjust enrichment if the liability is not shared.”
In that particular case, unjust enrichment was not found. The joint debt in question was a line of credit secured against two properties owned jointly by the Deceased and his surviving spouse. The line of credit had been used to acquire the properties. Upon the death of the Deceased, the spouse took sole title to the properties by right of survivorship, and she also became liable for the balance of the line of credit. The court held that, although normally the estate would be unjustly enriched in this situation, as the spouse was receiving the entire benefit of the properties, it was not unjust that she be responsible for the full amount of the loan relating to that property.
Ultimately, the answer to this question may not be completely straightforward. Ensure that responsibility for joint debt is clear as between any joint debtors to ensure that you are not liable to pay the full amount of a joint debt after someone’s death, and that you have recourse to claim contribution from the deceased’s estate if necessary.
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Today on Hull on Estates, Moira Visoiu and Paul Trudelle discuss an article presented at the OBA entitled Restitution for the Elderly Client, which looks at ways in which the law of Restitution, and the principle of unjust enrichment, can be particularly helpful for elderly clients who seek to recover assets that were transferred inadvertently.
Should you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment on our blog page.
Click here for more information on Moira Visoiu.
Equitable remedies are pushing the boundaries of just what kind of claims may be made against an estate. The most apparent beneficiary of this willingness of the Courts to expand the scope of such relief would appear to be common law spouses (see the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Kerr v. Baranow and our recent blog on the case).
In the October 2011 issue of Canadian Lawyer there is a good article on this whole issue entitled "Common Law Couples – til death do they part." The author gives, in part, a summary of some of the legislation in other provinces as it has evolved to provide for common law spouses:
- In Alberta, there is the Adult Interdependent Relationships Act and other legislation that "provide surviving spouses and common law partners the same rights to claim support from the estate and share in the deceased estate on intestacy [with the exception of the Dower Act]."
- In Manitoba, "major legislative amendments were proclaimed in 2004 such to create The Common-Law Partners’ Property and Related Amendments Act…Now in Manitoba, a common law partner is able to claim a share of a person’s estate if they’ve died without a will."
- In Saskatchewan, "the Wills Act, 1996, The Administration of Estates Act, The Intestate Succession Act, 1996, The Dependants’ Relief Act, 1996, and The Family Property Act all treat married and common law couples who have cohabited for not less than two years the same,” says Maria Markatos, Crown counsel with the Ministry of Justice’s Public Law Division in Regina.
David M. Smith – Click here for more information on David Smith.
The recent Supreme Court of Canada case of Kerr v. Baranow recognized common law relationships and gave guidance on the appropriate approach to address property and compensation claims in such relationships.
Unlike married spouses, there is no legislative scheme for common law couples to determine property division upon the breakdown of a relationship.
Following a relationship breakdown, one common law partner may claim that the other would be "unjustly enriched" if permitted to retain certain property without some kind of monetary compensation or without some sort of ownership interest in the land or investment. Typically, the aggrieved partner advances a “resulting trust” claim.
The Supreme Court decided that, to establish an unjust enrichment claim, the claimant must show: (i) that there was a joint family venture and (ii) that there is a link between his or her contributions and the accumulation of wealth. Whether there is a “joint family venture” depends on such factors as:
- mutual effort (i.e. whether the parties worked collaboratively towards common goals);
- economic integration (i.e. joint bank account/ sharing of expenses or common savings);
- actual intent express or inferred; and
- priority of the family (i.e. detrimental reliance on the relationship, by one or both parties, for the sake of the family).
David M. Smith – Click here for more information on David M. Smith.