Tag: Will Challenge litigation
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
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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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Listen to Will Challenge Litigation – Part 12
This week on Hull on Estate and Succession Planning, Ian and Suzana clarify the distinction between claims of resulting trust and claims of constructive trust.
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