Tag: Will Challenge litigation
Earlier this year, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta directed that a party challenging a will may be able to obtain orders for disclosure before the Court determines whether the will must be proven in solemn form.
This case may be of interest in Ontario because the procedure for commencing a will challenge in Alberta and Ontario is relatively similar. If a party in either province wishes to challenge a will, that party must establish an evidentiary basis for doing so before a hearing will be ordered. In Ontario, the requirement to provide a “minimal evidentiary threshold” before a will must be proven in solemn form was reiterated by the Court of Appeal in Neuberger v. York, 2016 ONCA 191 (CanLII). The standard is worded differently in Alberta, where applicants must provide an evidentiary foundation to confirm that there is a “genuine issue to be tried” before the hearing of a will challenge will be ordered: see Quaintance v Quaintance (Estate), 2006 ABCA 47 (CanLII) and Logan Estate (Re), 2021 ABCA 6 (CanLII).
Evidence a party challenging a will in Alberta may obtain before a hearing is ordered:
In Gow Estate (Re), 2021 ABQB 305 (CanLII), the will dispute was between four of the deceased’s children. Two siblings were serving as the personal representatives of the estate, and two other siblings applied to challenge the deceased’s will on several bases, including undue influence. The personal representatives opposed the applicants’ request that the will be proven in solemn form.
The applicants also applied to the court for interim relief – an order that would permit them to question the personal representatives and obtain documentary disclosure, including the estate solicitors’ files, the deceased’s medical records and driver’s licence documents, previous wills, and other estate planning records, before the “threshold” application was heard. The personal representatives objected to the interim relief sought by the applicants on the basis that Alberta’s Surrogate Rules did not permit pre-application discovery and also argued that the testator’s privacy was to be respected unless the applicants proved that formal proof of the will was warranted in the circumstances.
Before the interim application was heard, the personal representatives also provided the applicant siblings with partial disclosure relating to the testator’s health, testamentary capacity and intentions, and estate planning, and also examined one of the applicant siblings in anticipation of the threshold application.
The interim application was heard by Justice Feth, who permitted both questioning and limited documentary disclosure, recognizing “the importance of early disclosure in surrogate disputes”. With respect to questioning, the Court confirmed that the personal representatives could be questioned “about their personal interactions with the testator during his lifetime, including their observations of his mental capacity and their involvement in his testamentary decision-making.” Justice Feth explained:
 Access to pre-application questioning advances procedural fairness since the Applicants are obligated to meet an evidentiary burden and obtain corroboration through material evidence from other sources. In meeting their onus, measured litigation procedures should not be foreclosed to them.
 Immunizing an adverse party from questioning is especially concerning when undue influence is raised. The living witness who is likely the most knowledgeable about the interactions with the testator would be hidden from the Court.
Justice Feth also observed that it would not be fair to permit the threshold application to be heard by the Court with only partial disclosure selected entirely by the personal representatives because of the potential for “a misleading presentation of the facts”.
Limited documentary disclosure of some of the deceased’s medical records and previous wills was also ordered in light of the partial disclosure already provided by the personal representatives. While Justice Feth acknowledged that individuals may have a significant privacy interest in their medical records, it was also recognized that such a privacy interest is not absolute and ordered the personal representatives to provide the applicant siblings with disclosure for the period during which the deceased’s testamentary capacity was in question.
Justice Feth acknowledged the potential for “[c]oncerns about fishing expeditions, the testator’s privacy interests, and excessive delay and expense occasioned by exuberant demands for disclosure” during the early stages of estate litigation, but held that those concerns could be managed by the Court rather than prohibiting early disclosure in surrogate proceedings.
Evidence a party challenging a will in Ontario may obtain before a hearing is ordered:
In comparison to Justice Feth’s decision, Ontario courts have in some recent instances been reluctant to provide documentary disclosure in will challenges during the preliminary stages of the litigation. In Seepa v Seepa, 2017 ONSC 5368 (CanLII), Justice Myers held that documentary disclosure should not occur until after a threshold will application has been granted. Recently, in McCormick v McCormick, 2021 ONSC 5177 (CanLII), Justice Wilcox described Justice Myers’ decision as follows:
 In Seepa, Meyers J. expanded on the policy considerations behind the minimum evidentiary threshold requirement. It was to protect from lengthy, intrusive, expensive documentary collection and investigation proceedings untailored to the needs of the individual case and from intrusion into a deceased’s privileged legal files and personal medical records. In the face of these, a litigant was not to be given tools such as documentary discovery that are otherwise ordinarily available to a civil litigant before the litigant has produced some evidentiary basis to proceed.
In keeping with the Court’s decision in Seepa, in Young v Prychitko, 2021 ONSC 3150 (CanLII), Justice George declined to order documentary disclosure in the context of a will challenge, holding that the Court would not entertain a fishing expedition and compel production of documents before the minimal evidentiary threshold had been met. The firm’s blog post about the Court’s decision in Young v Prychitko can be accessed here.
While document disclosure prior to a threshold application may have recently been discouraged, some Ontario decisions have instead permitted cross-examination on affidavit evidence as a next step, as noted in Justice Wilcox’s decision in McCormick. The Court even noted in Young v Prychitko that the parties would be able to cross-examine each other on their affidavit evidence before the threshold issue, in that case, was decided.
Having said that, the practice of permitting parties to cross-examine each other on affidavit evidence before documentary disclosure may not always be optimal. In Shapiro v Shapiro, 2021 ONSC 4501 (CanLII), for example, Justice Hurley noted that cross-examination on an affidavit before documentary discovery in that particular case was “unlikely to accomplish anything of real benefit” and likely “would only add to the legal costs and beget delay” – the very danger that Justice Myers indicated the minimum evidentiary threshold requirement was intended to avoid. The will threshold application was determined in Shapiro without any cross-examination.
In light of these recent decisions by Ontario and Alberta Courts in which we have seen two conflicting approaches in the disclosure of medical records and other documentary disclosure, the minimal evidentiary threshold issue should remain top of mind to lawyers assisting clients with the early steps of a will challenge.
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For further reading on threshold will challenges and the evidentiary burden, check out these other blog posts:
The doctrine of righteousness is a historical concept that is interesting to consider in the context of estate litigation.
Apparently, it was first developed in the 1800s to protect will-makers from consequences of the actions of those attempting to gain a benefit from another’s Will, specifically through the exercise of undue influence.
The case law on this particular concept is quite sparse.
This doctrine was considered by the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) in Riach v Ferris,  SCR 725 where the case of Barry v Butlin was reviewed. It was mentioned in passing by the British Columbia Supreme Court in Halliday v Halliday Estate, 2019 BCSC 554, without any significant commentary as to its effect or place in a Will challenge.
A more in-depth analysis of this doctrine, however, was provided by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal (“SKCA”) in the decision of Karpinski v Zookewich Estate, 2018 SKCA 56.
The SKCA held that this doctrine may apply where a person, who is “instrumental” in the drafting of the will, also receives a benefit from the will greater than the other beneficiaries. In that case, there may be a requirement for such a recipient to prove the “righteousness” of the transaction.
The SKCA further noted that the SCC also stated that these rules of law apply to all circumstances that raise the “suspicion” of the Court and not only where a person who is instrumental in the drafting of the Will receives a superior benefit. According to the SKCA, this may suggest that this doctrine is only an example of the Court finding a certain kind of relationship to be a suspicious circumstance such that the burden of proof shifts to the propounder of the Will.
The SKCA’s comments are in contrast to John Poyser’s position set out in his book entitled “Capacity and Undue Influence” where he relays his views that the doctrine of righteousness is its own unique doctrine and ought not to be confused with the concept of suspicious circumstances.
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Handwritten Wills/Codicils are certainly quite rare, particularly for people with means. In certain circumstances, and particularly where the testator had made a pre-existing Will, the presence of a subsequent handwritten Will or Codicil can suggest the presence of suspicious circumstances.
As Paul Trudelle blogged last week, Larry King apparently executed a secret handwritten codicil in 2019 that divided his roughly $2 million estate amongst his five children, to the exclusion of his wife, Shawn King. Mrs. King apparently intends to challenge the validity of the 2019 codicil.
In Ontario, an amendment to a Will is referred to as a “codicil” and it is considered to be a Will, for the purposes of the Succession Law Reform Act. A handwritten Will, in Ontario, is referred to as a “Holograph Will” and the only requirement is that it be made wholly by the testator’s own handwriting and signature, without formality, and without the presence, attestation or signature of a witness. The fact that a Holograph Will is usually made without witnesses will often cause litigation, particularly if there are suspicious circumstances surrounding its execution and/or discord in the family of the deceased.
If Mr. and Mrs. King resided in Ontario, Mrs. King could pursue various claims in challenging the validity of the 2019 codicil (subject to the available evidence), including:
- Lack of requisite testamentary capacity on Mr. King’s part;
- Mr. King being subject to undue influence from any or all of his children (or other third parties);
- Presence of suspicious circumstances in the execution of the codicil; and
- Presence of fraud in the execution of the document (which is pleaded quite rarely, as there are serious costs consequences for those that make such an allegation but are unable to prove it).
It will certainly be interesting to see how this matter unfolds, particularly taking into account that $2 million is not a significant amount when the costs of litigation are taken into account.
Interestingly, some sources suggest that his Estate is actually worth $50 million, which sounds a lot more accurate!
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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.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
For further reading on this topic, check out these other blogs:
Ante-Mortem Probate, or Pre-Death Probate, is a process of probate which validates the Will of a testator during his or her lifetime and may be particularly useful for testators who fear that their Will may be subject to a challenge following their death.
Various models of Ante-Mortem Probate have been explored in the past by American scholars and include the following proposed models:
- The “Contest Model”, reviewed by Professor Howard Fink, is where each of the beneficiaries are identified, including those that would benefit on an intestacy and the testator essentially becomes the moving party in his or her own suit against all possible beneficiaries of his or her Estate. [Antemortem Probate Revisited: Can an Idea Have a Life After Death? (1976) 37 Ohio St LJ 264]
- The “Conservatorship Model”, explored by Professor John H. Langbein, is where the testator is required to apply to the Court in a manner similar to the “Contest Model”, however, instead of each of the specific beneficiaries being involved, a Guardian Ad Litem (Conservator) represents the interest of all potential beneficiaries, including any unborn or unascertained beneficiaries. [Living Probate: the Conservatorship Model (1980)]
- The “Administrative Model”, set out by Professor Gregory S. Alexander and Albert M. Pearson is neither judicial nor adversarial. There is no requirement of notice to the beneficiaries or in fact “interested parties” as one of the significant concerns with the other models of Ante-Mortem Probate is the confidentiality of the testator. [Alternative Models of Antemortem Probate and Procedural Process Limitations on Succession (1979-1980) 78 Mich L Rev 89]
Only certain American States allow Ante-Mortem Probate, whereas Canada does not have any provinces or territories with a similar arrangement.
Given the number of suits that are commenced following the death of testators across Canada, such an arrangement could be beneficial in that at the very least, a testator who expects that there will be a challenge to his or her Estate plan could take an active part in adjudicating whether his or her Will is indeed, valid.
Considering the complicated familial arrangements that are often present in our society today, perhaps addressing challenges of things like capacity of the testator, undue influence or the presence of suspicious circumstances would make more sense before the testator’s death. This is particularly an issue where a testator’s capacity had been in question for a while and the Will being challenged was executed a decade or more before death.
There are, of course, certain potential negative effects of any Ante-Mortem Probate regime, particularly the possibility that it would encourage litigation that would not otherwise arise, following the death of the testator.
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As societal norms are continuously changing and evolving, there has been a change in attitudes toward the relationship between adopted children and their biological parents. Today, society encourages adopted children and their birth parents to re-establish a relationship. For example, we have previously blogged on a change of the law in Saskatchewan, which provides for an adult adopted child to reconnect with their birth parents.
In Ontario, the legal status of adopted children is governed by the Child and Family Services Act (the “CFSA”). Section 158(2) of the CFSA provides that, upon an adoption order being granted, the adopted child becomes the (legal) child of the adoptive parent and ceases to be the child of the person who was his or her parent before the adoption order was granted. Pursuant to this statute, once a child is adopted, they are not entitled to their birth parent’s estate unless specifically provided for in the birth parent’s will.
Furthermore, in Ontario, there are no direct provisions governing a testator’s wishes in distributing their property. There is no requirement that all children must be treated equally, or that an individual must leave a part of their estate to their children through a testamentary document. Statutory protection does exist, for dependants, however, under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act.
In contrast, the law in British Columbia provides that the Court has discretion to vary a will to remedy disinheritance of a child. Pursuant to s. 60 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”), a parent must make adequate provision for their children, and if the court does not find a testamentary division among the children to be equitable, the court can intervene.
A recent case out of British Columbia considered a novel argument: does the receipt of a benefit under a birth parent’s will entitle an adopted child to argue for a greater share of the estate under section 60 of the WESA?
In the Boer v Mikaloff, 2017 BCSC 21, Mr. Boer was legally adopted as a baby to an adoptive family. He became reunited with his birth mother around the age of thirty, and in his birth mother’s last will and testament, he received a portion of her estate. Mr. Boer challenged his birth mother’s last will and testament in court, arguing that pursuant to s. 60 of the WESA, he was not given an equitable share of his mother’s estate compared to his mother’s other children.
The court held that Mr. Boer was not entitled to an equitable share, as he was not legally considered to be his birth mother’s child. The court held that section 3(2)(a) of the WESA does not allow an adopted child to manipulate a bequest by the child’s pre-adopted parent into a s. 60 claim and applied the case of Canada Trustco Mortgage Co. v Canada, 2005 SCC 54, to uphold that the text, context and purpose of the statute in this regard was clear.
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