Trusts are generally divided into two categories; “inter vivos” or “testamentary” trusts. Inter vivos trusts are broadly defined as trusts that are established by a settlor while they are still alive, typically pursuant to a deed of trust, while testamentary trusts are established in the terms of a Will or Codicil. Generally speaking there is no overlap between an individual’s Will and any inter vivos trust, with any inter vivos trust existing separate and apart from the settlor’s “estate”. But does this have to be the case? Could you theoretically, for example, leave a bequest in a Will to an inter vivos trust that you previously established, thereby potentially increasing the assets governed by the trust upon your death, or must a trust which governs estate assets be a “testamentary trust” established by the Will? The short answer is “it depends”, although any individual considering such a bequest should proceed with extreme caution.
A clause in a Will that provides for the potential distribution of estate assets to a separate inter vivos trust is often referred to as a “pour over” clause, insofar as the assets of the estate are said to “pour over” into the separate trust. The availability and use of “pour over” clauses in Ontario is somewhat problematic.
The fundamental issue with the use of “pour over” clauses that allow a bequest to be made to a trust is that the formalities that are required to make or amend a trust are much lower than the formalities that are required to establish a Will, with trusts often containing provisions that will allow for their unilateral amendment or revocation after their establishments. The statutes which establish the parameters that are required for a Will to be valid are very strict, with a Will only being able to be later amended or altered if it too meets very strict criteria. The potential concern in allowing a distribution from a Will to a separate trust that can easily be amended after the execution of the Will is that it could create the scenario in which an estate plan could be altered after the Will was signed in a way that would not meet the strict formal requirements that would otherwise be required for a Will to be altered or amended.
In Ontario the formalities required for a Will to be valid is established by section 4(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act. A Will that has been signed in accordance with the formal requirements of section 4(1) can only be altered or amended by a Codicil that itself has been signed in accordance with the formal requirements of section 4(1), or if the alterations to the Will meet the requirements of section 18 of the Succession Law Reform Act. Unlike alterations and/or amendments to a Will, an alteration or amendment to a trust does not need to meet any formal statutory requirements for it to be valid, with the only requirements being those stipulated in the trust document itself and/or under the rules in Saunders v. Vautier. As a result, an inter vivos trust to which a bequest was directed using a “pour over” clause could theoretically be changed numerous times after the signing of the Will either with or without the involvement of the testator, thereby bringing into question whether the bequest actually represents the deceased’s testamentary intentions at the time the Will was signed.
In Quinn Estate v. Rydland, 2019 BCCA 91, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the lower British Columbia Supreme Court decision, 2018 BCSC 365, which found that a “pour over” clause which purported to distribute certain estate assets to a trust that was settled by the Deceased during his lifetime was inoperable, with the funds that were to be distributed to the trust instead being distributed on an intestacy. In coming to such a decision the court appears to place great emphasis on the fact the trust in question could be amended unilaterally after the fact and in fact was amended in such a fashion after the execution of the Will.
The court in Quinn Estate provides an excellent summary of the considerations to make when determining whether a “pour over” clause can be upheld, including the concepts of “facts of independent significance” and “incorporation by reference”. I will discuss the concepts of “facts of independent significance” and “incorporation by reference” as they relate to pour over clauses in my remaining blogs this week.
Thank you for reading.
Corporations and Estates – What happens when a Will gifts an asset that is actually corporately owned?
The use of privately held corporations to manage an individual’s assets or business interests seems to be an increasingly common strategy and tool. Although the use of privately held corporations offer a number of potential advantages to the individual both during their lifetime and as part of their estate planning, it does raise a number of novel issues for the administration of the estate which may not exist if these assets had been directly owned by the individual. Such potential issues manifested themselves before the Ontario Court of Appeal in the relatively recent decision of Trezzi v. Trezzi, 2019 ONCA 978, where the court was asked to determine the potential validity of a bequest in a Will of property that was not directly owned by the testator personally but rather owned by them through a wholly owned private corporation.
As privately held corporations are often wholly owned by a single individual owner the individual in question would be forgiven for thinking that any assets that are actually owned by the corporation are their own. Such a misconception could carry with it some significant legal issues however, as it ignores the important fact that at law the corporation and the individual owner are two distinctly separate legal entities, and that although the individual owner of the corporation can exercise almost absolute control over the corporation as the sole shareholder, and could through such control likely direct the corporation to take any action regarding any asset the corporation may own (subject to any obligations of the corporation), they do not personally “own” any asset that is in fact owned by the corporation. Such a distinction is potentially important to keep in mind when a person who owns assets through a private corporation is creating their estate plan, as they should be mindful of whether any specific asset which they wish to bequest is owned by them personally or through the corporation.
In Trezzi the testator left a bequest in their Will to one his children of all equipment and chattels that were owned by a construction company that was wholly owned by the testator. This bequest was challenged by certain of the residuary beneficiaries, who argued that as the equipment and chattels in question were not actually directly owned by the testator, but rather the corporation, the testator’s bequest of such items had failed and that the items in question should instead continue to form part of the corporation and be distributed in accordance with the residue clause to their potential benefit.
The Court of Appeal in Trezzi ultimately upheld the bequest in question; however, in doing so, noted that the language was potentially problematic and encouraged counsel to be more careful when drafting in similar circumstances (even including potential precedent language to follow from the Annotated Will program). In upholding the bequest the Court of Appeal was in effect required to do an interpretation application for the Will, noting that they placed themselves in the position of the testator and considered what his intention would have been when including the provision in question. The court ultimately concluded that it would have been the testator’s intention with such a provision that the executor was to wind up the corporation in question, with the assets being distributed to the beneficiary in question as part of such a process. In coming to such a conclusion the court states:
“While it is true that Peter, as the sole shareholder of Trezzi Construction, did not directly own the corporation’s assets, that does not complete the analysis. In substance, Peter’s shares in Trezzi Construction became part of the estate, and Peter effectively directed his executors to wind-up the company and to distribute its assets in accordance with his will, even though he did not own those assets directly. As already noted, the key question thus boils down to whether this was indeed Peter’s subjective intention in his will…” [emphasis added]
Although cases like Trezzi show that under certain circumstances a bequest of assets which are not directly owned by the testator but rather through a corporation can be upheld such a result cannot be guaranteed, as the Court of Appeal in Trezzi was required to resort to the rules of construction and place themselves in the position of the testator to uphold the bequest in question. As a result, a testator would be wise to take extra care when dealing with an estate plan that includes the potential bequest of assets that are corporately owned to ensure that the ownership of such assets is properly described and the executor is provided with any necessary authority and direction to deal with the corporately held assets on behalf of the estate.
Thank you for reading.