Tag: Will Drafting
An oft-repeated maxim of equity is that “equity regards substance rather than form”. Just outcomes, it is thought, should not be frustrated by mere technical shortcomings or other superficial flaws. However, in applying this principle, courts are mindful not to neglect form in every case or to too great an extent, lest legal drafting becomes slipshod and legal results unpredictable.
A recent British Columbia decision dealt with, in part, the dichotomy of form and substance in the context of will drafting errors. In Conner Estate v. Worthing, there were three patent errors on the face of the deceased’s will: (1) the will provided for 150% of the sale proceeds of the deceased’s house, owing to, seemingly, a mathematical error (50% given to the husband, 20% to five others); (2) the residue was gifted twice, once to the husband and once to the children; and (3) several lines appeared to have been missing. While the court acknowledged that it was generally barred from adding words to erroneous wills (though it had the power to delete words), it found that this case was an exception to the rule, for the deceased’s intentions could be clearly ascertained from the extrinsic evidence – the solicitor’s notes and the deceased’s letter of instructions – and the solicitor was responsible for the errors:
“While the exception to the prohibition against adding words on an application to rectify a will at the court of probate stage in Moiny Estate is extremely narrow, I conclude that the facts in this case fit within that narrow exception. Ms. Conner’s stated intentions should not fail simply because her solicitor failed to draft her will in a manner that gave effect to her wishes.”
A similar result likely would have been reached in Ontario, where it has long been held that in matters of “equivocation” – when the words in a will apply to two or more persons – courts can look to extrinsic evidence to infer a testator’s actual intention. If a will is not equivocal, and the testamentary intention can be discerned in the will, the courts cannot examine extrinsic evidence – and whatever the substance, the form will prevail.
As we have previously written, the courts may be hindered from rectifying drafting errors in scenarios where the errors are subtle and there is little extrinsic evidence of true testamentary intention. It is important, therefore, for both drafting solicitors and testators to carefully review their wills before executing them, and to watch out, in particular, for those minor errors which may burn while emitting no smoke.
Thank you for reading!
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry.
For a will in Ontario to be valid, it must meet the statutory requirements for due execution as outlined in section 4(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”). In some cases, however, determining whether these requirements have been met is not always clear-cut. Bayford v. Boese, 2019 ONSC 5663 provides such an example.
In this case, the testator, Bruce Boese (“Bruce”), died in June of 2015. Bruce was the sole owner of a farm he inherited from his parents. He never married and did not have any children. For the past two decades prior to Bruce’s death, his friend, Brenda Bayford (“Brenda”), assisted him with the operation of the farm.
Throughout his lifetime, Bruce executed two wills: one in 1992 and another in 2013. Under the 1992 will, Bruce named his parents as his sole beneficiaries. However, since both of Bruce’s parents had pre-deceased him, his estate would pass on an intestacy to his siblings, with Brian and Rhonda each inheriting 50%. Under the 2013 will, the farm property was to be transferred to Brenda, with the residue being equally divided amongst four children of Bruce’s two siblings. Interestingly, the 2013 will had the word “DRAFT” stamped on every page. Also, there were two versions of the 2013 will: “Version 1” and “Version 2”. Version 1 contained Bruce’s signature but did not contain the signatures of any witnesses. Version 2 contained Bruce’s signatures and the signature of two witnesses, Sophie Gordon (“Sophie”) and Colleen Desarmia (“Colleen”).
After Bruce’s death, Brenda found Version 1 of the will. She brought it to the office of Bruce’s lawyer as she thought that the fully executed version of the will would be there. It was not. Shortly after, Colleen informed Brenda of the existence of Version 2. Upon hearing this, Brenda did a further search and found Version 2.
Brian asserted that the 2013 will did not comply with section 4(1) of the SLRA. His theory was that upon finding Version 1 of the will, Brenda colluded with the two witnesses to procure the 2013 will. In the alternative, Brian asserted that Bruce’s signature was forged on the 2013 will which the two witnesses signed.
Although Brian called an expert to give evidence with respect to Bruce’s signature on the wills, Justice Corthorn did not find the expert’s evidence to be helpful to Brian, nor did she find that it made the two witnesses less credible.
At trial, there were discrepancies between the evidence of the two witnesses with respect to the specific mechanics of Bruce signing the will and the witnessing of his signature. For example, Colleen testified that she believed that both she and Sophie remained standing while Bruce was seated at the kitchen table when he signed the 2013 Will. Sophie’s evidence was that she believed she was the only person standing and that both Bruce and Colleen were seated. Justice Corthorn noted, however, that “these inconsistencies [were] in keeping with the frailty of human memory, including […] the passage of time” and that they did not give her a reason to be concerned with the credibility of either witness.
Furthermore, based on the witnesses’ respective education and work experience, Justice Corthorn drew an inference that each of them had sufficient experience in completing paperwork to know that a witness to a document signs after the document is signed by the principal signatory.
Taking this into consideration, Justice Corthorn concluded that Bruce’s 2013 will was executed in accordance with s. 4(1) of the SLRA and that it was therefore valid.
While Bayford v Boese provides many noteworthy take-aways, perhaps the main one is the importance of ensuring that a will is properly executed, and that it is stored in a safe and easily accessible place that the testator’s lawyer and estate trustee(s) are aware of. Had this happened, the case could have been avoided altogether.
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Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
What is a solicitor’s duty when preparing a Will?
Those seeking to answer this question should start their journey with the BC Court of Appeal decision of Chalmers v Uzelac. Here, Madam Justice Southin noted that, “every solicitor who, as part of his or her practice, draws wills should read, mark and inwardly digest at least once each year the judgment of Sir John Alexander Boyd, C. in Murphy v. Lamphier (1914), 31 O.L.R. 287, the Canadian locus classicus on a solicitor’s duty in taking instructions”.
Murphy is a seminal case. The Court found that it was wrong to assume that because a person can understand a question put to them, and give a rational answer, that they are of sound mind and capable of making a Will. Instead, the Court emphasized that capacity must be judged in light of the nature of the act and all of the circumstances:
“A solicitor is usually called in to prepare a will because he is a skilled professional man. He has duties to perform which vary with the situation and condition of the testator. In the case of a person greatly enfeebled by old age or with faculties impaired by disease, and particularly in the case of one labouring under both disabilities, the solicitor does not discharge his duty by simply taking down and giving legal expression to the words of the client, without being satisfied by all available means that testable capacity exists and is being freely and intelligently exercised in the disposition of the property. The solicitor is brought in for the very purpose of ascertaining the mind and will of the testator touching his worldly substance and his comprehension of its extent and character and of those who may be considered proper and natural objects of his bounty. The Court reprobates the conduct of a solicitor who needlessly draws a will without getting personal instructions from the testator, and, for one reason, that the business of the solicitor is to see that the will represents the intelligent act of a free and competent person.”
Expanding on this, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Hall v Bennett Estate references an article by M.M. Litman & G.B. Robertson which identifies common errors that have been either the subject of criticism by the courts or the basis of liability for professional negligence in the preparation of a Will, including failing to: obtain a mental status examination; interview the testator in sufficient depth; properly record/maintain notes; test for capacity; and, provide proper interview conditions.
Read, mark, and inwardly digest this blog at least once a year accordingly.
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As an estates litigator for the past 25 years, there isn’t much I haven’t seen when it comes to will drafting issues and errors. I’ve made a living out of picking up the pieces and sorting out the conflicts that result from errors and ambiguities in the estate documentation process.
While it’s great for my business, clients pay a high price for those errors and ambiguities in the form of legal fees, bequests lost, and family harmony dashed to bits among other things.
A will may be one of the most common documents in our legal world, but there is nothing off-the-shelf about it, and complexities abound. You’ve likely experienced it your own practice – drafting a will “right” isn’t always easy.
Is there a better way to draft one – so that the proper checks are made, the proper questions asked, and the proper wording applied?
You bet. The Hull e-State Planner is an interactive Will Planning App designed specifically for Canadian lawyers. It takes a visual approach to will planning, one that’s easy for you to use and easy for your client to understand and verify that their wishes have been properly captured.
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Or, to see the Hull e-State Planner in action, take a few minutes to watch how the App takes you through the drafting process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyZWyM9gktQ
Even better, try it yourself, with a 30-day, 100% money back guarantee. You’ll find it a small price to pay for a better way to draft your clients’ wills.
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As an estate planner and a lawyer, it is important to remember that when creating an estate plan, familial relations may turn negative. It becomes crucial for estate planners to ensure that their instructions are complete, in order to protect themselves in the case of a family fight.
Often, in the process of a married couple jointly retaining a lawyer to prepare their wills, “mirror wills” are prepared. Mirror wills typically provide for all estate assets to pass to the surviving spouse.
An issue arises in the case of a lawyer who prepares mirror wills and one of the spouses decides to make a change, adversely affecting the other spouse. What are the lawyer’s ethical obligations?
Pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.3-1 states that a lawyer has an ethical obligation to hold in confidence all information concerning their clients, and Rule 3.4-1 creates an ethical obligation to avoid conflicts of interest.
It is important, therefore, that when acting for a married couple, the lawyer outlines his or her ethical obligations, and specifically, if applicable, outlines that they are acting in a joint retainer. Rule 3.4-5 outlines the ethical obligations of a lawyer in the case of a joint retainer:
Before a lawyer acts in a matter or transaction for more than one client, the lawyer shall advise each of the clients that:
(a) the lawyer has been asked to act for both or all of them;
(b) no information received in connection with the matter from one client can be treated as confidential so far as any of the others are concerned; and
(c) if a conflict develops that cannot be resolved, the lawyer cannot continue to act for both or all of them and may have to withdraw completely.
While outlining the joint retainer rules to a client, it is important that the lawyer considers what they would do in the case of one of the spouses asking the lawyer to alter a mirror will. While the lawyer could refuse to draft a new will, the requesting spouse may be able to find another lawyer to do the will, and the lawyer will still have the issue of whether or not to tell the disadvantaged spouse. This may give rise to a conflict of interest.
The second Commentary to Rule 3.4-5 specifically contemplates and guides the lawyer acting for a married couple as to what should happen in this scenario. Simply put, any subsequent communication to change the will by one of the spouses would be “treated as a request for a new retainer and not as part of the joint retainer.” The lawyer would therefore have a duty to decline the new retainer unless the other spouse consented to the change.
The critical issue is that this possibility must be conveyed to the spouses at the outset of the joint retainer.
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A testamentary document may be set aside if it is not accurately representative of a testator’s intentions, for reasons such as an innocent mistake on behalf of the testator or solicitor, or the fraud of another.
In the British Columbia Supreme Court case of Johnson v Pelkey (1997) 36 BCLR (3d) 40, the Court stated that “any will that does not express the real or true ‘intention’ of the testator will be set aside, even if the testator had testamentary capacity, and was not subject to undue influence.”
Additionally, in Coleman v Coleman Estate, 2008 NSSC 396 (CanLii), the Nova Scotia Supreme Court observed that even if testamentary capacity is found to exist, it is possible that a testator did not properly know or appreciate the contents of their will due to an innocent mistake or by the fraud of another. As established in Vout v Hay,  2 SCR 876, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the propounder of a will must demonstrate “that the testator knew and approved of the contents of the will.”
When drafting a will, there is a duty on the solicitor drafting the testamentary document to make necessary inquiries. This duty is required so that the solicitor can demonstrate, based on discussions with the testator, that the testator fully appreciated what he or she was doing when they made the will.
In Johnson v Pelkey, the British Columbia Supreme Court found that there were differences between the solicitor’s notes and what appeared in the executed will, there were errors in the will, a property lot was left out of the will entirely, and an intended gift was missing. The solicitor testified these omissions were his mistakes or that his instructions may have been changed between receiving them and the execution. It was reported that upon the solicitor’s review of the will with the testator, the testator did not notice any of the omissions, errors and ambiguities.
When considering whether the testator had the knowledge of his or her testamentary document as well as approval of the contents of his or her will, based on mistake, are matters of fact to be determined based on all of the evidence of the case.
Thank you for reading,
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