Tag: Will Challenges
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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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.
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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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