When a marriage breaks down, spouses often have an overwhelming amount of issues to consider. For many, all they want to do is figure out how to split up the assets (and kids) and move on with their lives. Sometimes, spouses will separate without formally divorcing. Although life after marriage may be the key consideration for most, separated spouses should also take time to consider what happens on their death and whether or not they want their spouse to share in their estate.
Draft a Will
The most obvious way of ensuring that your separated spouse doesn’t benefit from your death is to draft a Will. By setting out one’s intended disposition of assets, a testator will avoid the provisions of Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, which provides for a share of the Estate to pass to the legally married spouse of a person who dies intestate. But remember, including a provision in the will that the spouse is to be excluded from inheriting is not sufficient to keep a surviving spouse from inheriting on an intestacy (see our recent blog on this topic here).
Of course, if property rights between the spouses have not been settled following separation, the surviving spouse may still be at liberty to elect in favour of equalization of net family property pursuant to the Family Law Act.
Separation Agreements and Release of Intestacy Rights
If the parties have consulted lawyers and formally settled all of the issues surrounding their marriage, they are likely to have entered into a separation agreement. Often, parties to such agreements will walk away thinking that they have fully separated out their lives and settled all issues arising as a result of marriage, cohabitation, or the breakdown of the relationship. However, solicitors drafting such agreements should be careful to properly release each spouse’s interest in the estate of the other, in case of an intestacy. In particular, while no one likes to think of it, cases have occurred where a spouse dies only days after entering into a separation agreement and before they have had the opportunity to draft a Will.
In order to properly release a spouse’s intestate interests in the other spouse’s estate, there must be a specific release of such rights using clear, direct and cogent words (see the leading case in Ontario of Re Winter,  DLR 134 (Ont H Ct)). In Re Winter, the wife released the husband as follows:
The wife of the second part covenants and agrees and does hereby release the husband of the first part from all claims present, past or future against the husband for maintenance, alimony or separation allowance and acknowledges that she has no further claims against the husband nor against the estate of the husband of the first part.
The Court found that although there was a release against the husband’s estate, the release only dealt with claims for “maintenance, alimony or separation allowance” and was not sufficiently clear and cogent for the wife to have released her intestacy rights against the husband’s estate. As a result, the wife inherited on the husband’s intestacy (a result likely to have displeased the other intestate heirs and the husband, had he been alive).
Change Your Beneficiary Designations
Finally, in addition to thinking of the potential intestacy rights of a surviving spouse, don’t forget assets passing outside of the estate. Make sure to have all beneficiary designations on insurance policies, registered accounts (RRSPs and TFSAs), and pensions updated following separation.
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People change their mind all of the time. When someone changes their mind about the terms of their Will however, things can become more complicated. Going to a lawyer to formally make a change to the Will may seem daunting. If the change to the Will is relatively minor, an individual may be tempted to forgo meeting with a lawyer to draw up a new Will or Codicil, and simply make the change to the Will themselves by crossing out or inserting new language by hand on the face of the old Will. But would such handwritten changes be valid?
Although the advice to any individual thinking of changing their Will would always be to speak with a lawyer about the matter, people do not always adhere to such advice. If someone has made handwritten changes to their Will after the document was originally signed, such changes can under certain circumstances alter the terms of the Will.
Section 18(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“) provides that unless any alteration to a Will is made in accordance with the requirements of section 18(2) of the SLRA, such alterations have no effect upon the provisions of the Will itself unless such an alteration has had the effect that you can no longer read the original wording of the Will. Section 18(2) of the SLRA further provides:
“An alteration that is made in a will after the will has been made is validly made when the signature of the testator and subscription of witnesses to the signature of the testator to the alteration, or, in the case of a will that was made under section 5 or 6, the signature of the testator, are or is made,
(a) in the margin or in some other part of the will opposite or near to the alteration; or
(b) at the end of or opposite to a memorandum referring to the alteration and written in some part of the will.”
As a result of section 18(1) and 18(2) of the SLRA, any handwritten change to a Will does not validly alter the terms of the Will unless the testator and two witnesses sign in the margins of the Will near the alteration (subject to certain exceptions listed). If the handwritten change is not accompanied by such signatures it is not a valid alteration and has no impact upon the original terms of the Will, unless the handwritten change has had the effect of “obliterating” the original language of the Will by making it no longer readable.
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For all that is known about chef Anthony Bourdain’s colourful lifestyle, the estate plan he left behind is surprisingly comprehensive.
Bourdain’s Will leaves the residue of his estate to his minor daughter, Ariane. The residue has been valued at approximately $1.2 million, and consists of savings, cash, brokerage accounts, personal property, and intangible property including royalties and residuals. In the event that Bourdain survived his daughter, the residue was to pass to his daughter’s nanny.
Bourdain appointed his estranged wife as estate trustee. This makes sense given that Ariane is the daughter of the marriage and that the mother will likely have her daughter’s best interests in mind while the estate is administered. Bourdain was also mindful to include in his Will other assets – personal and household effects, including frequent flyer miles. Given the amount of travelling Bourdain did, it was shrewd of him to specifically include this in his Will.
A separate trust was also settled, apparently containing most of his wealth. Again, his estranged wife is named as trustee, with Ariane as beneficiary receiving money from the trust when she turns 25, 30, and 35. Presumably, Bourdain settled a trust to avoid the payment of taxes and the publicity associated with probate – another sign of a well thought out estate plan.
While so many celebrities succumb to poor estate planning, it is refreshing that in addition to teaching us about cooking, travelling, eating, and so much more, Bourdain also taught us about the importance of a thorough estate plan.
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I hope that everyone had a wonderful long weekend and has been able to check a couple of items off their summer “bucket list”. If the summer has been passing you by a little too quickly, and you feel that you are missing out—don’t worry! A recent essay in the Wall Street Journal makes the case for, at the least, scaling back on bucket lists:
Nobody really needs to go falconing in Mongolia or ride on the back of a nurse shark in Alaska for their life to be complete. They need to raise kids who won’t grow up to hate them. Or take care of their aging mother and make sure she gets a nice send-off.
That being said, there are a couple of things that we at Hull & Hull would recommend adding to your “bucket list”:
- Have a Will and Powers of Attorney: If you don’t take the time to set out what your wishes are, you risk those wishes being either unknown, or not respected.
- Review your Will and Powers of Attorney & Know what they say: You should be confident that you not only know exactly what your Will and Powers of Attorney say, but that they continue to represent your wishes. Particularly if your estate planning documents were prepared a number of years ago, it is important to review these documents and ensure that you recall their contents, so as to avoid any unexpected outcomes. If you are familiar with the contents of your Will and Powers of Attorney, you are more likely to be triggered by changes in circumstances that may affect you, and to take steps to adjust your estate planning documents accordingly.
- Revisit your estate plan: It is important to review your estate plan and consult with your lawyer regularly. There are a number of life events that can impact the effect of your Will, including marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, the death of an estate trustee, the death of a beneficiary, a beneficiary developing a disability, changes in the law, and the list goes on. If you aren’t revisiting and updating your Will regularly, based on changes in circumstances, the way in which your estate is ultimately distributed on your death could be vastly different than what you originally envisioned.
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When making testamentary gifts in a Will, if a specific bequest fails for any reason, the assets in question will fall into the residue of the estate. However, if a gift of residue fails, the distribution of whatever assets are affected by the failure will be governed by the intestacy provisions set out in Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26.
The recent decision of Sabetti v Jimenez, 2018 ONSC 3523 in part considers the interpretation of a residue clause in order to determine whether there is a partial intestacy in respect of the estate of Ms. Valdes.
The applicant, Mr. Sabetti, was Ms. Valdes’ second husband. She had three adult children from her prior marriage. Ms. Valdes’ Will provided that the residue of her estate was to be divided into four equal shares. The first share was to be held in trust for Mr. Sabetti during his lifetime, and on his death, whatever amount was remaining was to fall into and form part of the residue. The remaining three shares were to be transferred to Ms. Valdes’ three children.
Mr. Sabetti claimed that because of the gift-over of his share of the residue, which provides that it is to form part of the residue, the beneficiaries of the first share of the residue were not named with sufficient certainty, and a partial intestacy must result. Ultimately, the Honourable Justice Dunphy concluded that Ms. Valdes’ intention was clear on the face of the will, and found that there was no partial intestacy.
In its decision, the Court goes through an interesting analysis of the residue clause, outlining the rules applicable to construction of documents. Where there are two possible interpretations, one of which creates an absurd result, and one of which is in line with the apparent intention of the maker of the document, the latter is to be preferred. It is also preferable to construe a will so as to lead to a testacy over an intestacy, if it is possible to do so without straining the language of the Will or violating the testator’s intention.
In this case, the Court found that to interpret the term of the residue according to Mr. Sabetti’s position would lead to an absurd result. In terms of Ms. Valdes’ intention, the Court was of the view that the intended beneficiaries of the remainder interest were clearly the other three shares of the residue. The Court found no difficulty in discerning the testator’s intention or in applying it, and was able to read the Will in such a way as to avoid an intestacy.
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I recently came across several articles (one of which can be found here) regarding the elder financial abuse of a senior gentleman in Moncton, New Brunswick. Around 2013, Mr. Goguen had been living in the home that he owned, with tenants residing in part of the property. Upon deciding to sell his home, Mr. Goguen was referred to Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier, licensed real estate agents in New Brunswick. After the home had been listed for sale for some time, without success, Ms. Hannah apparently told Mr. Goguen that his home was in such deplorable condition that it would be impossible to sell without making certain repairs (which Ms. Hannah says Mr. Goguen could not afford) and removing the tenants (whom Ms. Hannah has claimed were using drugs and not paying rent).
As a result of the alleged difficulty in selling Mr. Goguen’s house, he, Ms. Hannah, and Mr. Poirier entered into an agreement whereby Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier purchased Mr. Goguen’s home. The terms of the arrangement were not favourable to Mr. Goguen, and it appears that Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier did not follow through on certain aspects of the agreement.
The Financial and Consumer Services Commission, which regulates real estate agents in New Brunswick, has revoked Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier’s real estate licenses. The Commission stated that Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier committed financial abuse of a senior and took “outrageous and egregious advantage” of Mr. Goguen. The Public Trustee of New Brunswick has now become involved on Mr. Goguen’s behalf, and has filed a statement of claim against Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier, seeking $83,320.00, characterized as the amount owing to Mr. Goguen.
We’ve blogged about elder abuse a number of times. Unfortunately, due to factors such as isolation, physical difficulties, and cognitive impairments, elderly people are often vulnerable to abuse. Given this vulnerability, and the circumstances in which abuse occurs, it can go undetected for a significant amount of time. In such situations, it may be too late to make the elderly person “whole” if the abuse is not discovered until it is too late.
Fortunately in Mr. Goguen’s case, despite the fact that it took a number of years, the Public Trustee discovered the abuse and is now taking steps to protect Mr. Goguen and recoup funds owed to him by his abusers. However, the Public Trustee is seeking the amount of approximately $83,000.00, which may not fully reimburse Mr. Goguen for the value of the house had it been sold to a normal third-party purchaser. Additionally, one of the articles also notes that Mr. Goguen had named Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier as his attorneys, and also executed a will naming them as executors and beneficiaries of his estate. It is unclear whether the Public Trustee has sought any relief in this regard. As such, even though the Public Trustee may be pursuing relief on Mr. Goguen’s behalf, it is an unfortunate possibility that he may continue to feel the effects of the abuse.
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I recently read this article from the New York Times, which discusses the Will of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as well as some of the events that occurred several years prior to Harper Lee’s death. Harper Lee died in 2016, at the age of 89. In the years leading up to her death, there was some question as to her capacity, and possible vulnerability to coercion or undue influence.
The New York Times article states that Ms. Lee had had a stroke in 2007 and also had severe vision and hearing problems. Ms. Lee resided in an assisted living facility before her death. The article also describes the position taken by counsel for Ms. Lee as part of a copyright dispute in 2013, where counsel stated that Ms. Lee had been taken advantage of and coerced into signing away her copyright because she was “an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.”
A couple of years ago, in 2015, Ms. Lee published her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman”. It turned out that this novel had been an earlier draft of her extremely popular book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is purported to have been discovered by Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, in 2014. There was some controversy surrounding the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” on the basis that Ms. Lee had not actually consented to the manuscript being published, and may have been manipulated into doing so. The publication of a new book was particularly remarkable given that Ms. Lee had only ever published one book prior to “Go Set a Watchman”—namely, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which was published in 1960. However, an investigation was performed, and a determination made that there had been no elder abuse of Ms. Lee.
After Ms. Lee’s death, her Will had not been made a matter of public record, as a result of the successful efforts by Ms. Carter (named in the Will as executor) to have the Will sealed on the basis that Ms. Lee, who was a very private person, would have wanted her Will to remain private. It was only unsealed recently after litigation by the New York Times, and after Ms. Lee’s estate withdrew its opposition to the Will being unsealed.
The Will was signed only 8 days before Ms. Lee’s death, and apparently directs that the bulk of her assets be transferred into a trust formed by Ms. Lee in 2011. Ms. Carter is one of the trustees of this trust. Further documents relating to the trust are not public, and accordingly, very few details are known about it.
Given the questions surrounding Ms. Lee’s potential vulnerability in the years leading up to her death, it will be interesting to see whether anything further develops in relation to her estate, or the trust which apparently will hold most of the assets of Ms. Lee’s estate.
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In today’s podcast, Natalia Angelini and Doreen So discuss the case of MacDonald v. Estate of James Pouliout, 2017 ONSC 3629, which was an interesting decision on constructive trusts, the limitation period applicable to dependants relief, and vesting pursuant to section 9 of Estate Administration Act.
Should you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our blog.
In the recent case of Rehel v Methot, 2017 ONSC 7529, the Honourable Justice Gomery was asked to provide directions regarding the entitlement to money held in a life income fund account owned by the deceased testator.
William (the “Deceased”) made a Last Will and Testament one day before he committed suicide. At the time of his death, the Deceased held a life income fund account (the “Account”) at Scotiabank. The Deceased’s spouse, Sharon (“Sharon”) was named as the beneficiary of the Account at the time that it was opened in 2013.
However, in his Will, the Deceased directed his Estate Trustee to use the funds in the Account to pay off any debts owing at the time of the Deceased’s death. The Estate Trustee took the position that the designation under the Will replaced the prior beneficiary designation.
Application of Provincial Pension Legislation
Before engaging in a discussion over which designation should prevail, the first question before the Court was whether Sharon was automatically entitled to the proceeds of the Account as the Deceased’s surviving spouse.
The Deceased and Sharon were married in Quebec in 2005, and moved to Ontario in 2008. However, the money in the Account was from a pension plan registered in Quebec. The Court was asked to consider if provincial pension legislation in Ontario or Quebec was applicable to the distribution of the Account.
Subsection 48(1) of the Ontario Pension Benefits Act states that if a member who is entitled to a deferred pension under a pension plan dies before payment of the first installment, the surviving spouse of the person is entitled to receive payment. However, under subsection 48(3) of the Act, a spouse is not automatically entitled to the proceeds of a deferred pension if the parties are “living separate and apart” at the time of death.
The Estate Trustee argued that subsection 48(3) applied, and adduced evidence that suggested that the parties were separated as of the time of the Deceased’s death. Sharon filed an affidavit disputing that she had separated from the Deceased, and asserted that she and the Deceased had only discussed the possibility of a separation at the time of his death.
The Estate Trustee filed additional affidavit evidence that led Justice Gomery to conclude “beyond a doubt” that the marriage had broken down and that the parties were negotiating their separation from each other. Justice Gomery thus concluded that the parties were separated under Ontario law, and that Sharon was not automatically entitled to the proceeds under the Pension Benefits Act.
Another question before the Court was whether Quebec law applied to the question of Sharon’s entitlement to the Account. Under Quebec pension legislation, the automatic right to spousal benefits is “terminated by separation from bed and board.” The Estate Trustee asserted that the application of Quebec law made no difference, whereas Sharon asserted that “separation from bed and board” meant something different than “living separate and apart.”
Justice Gomery noted that the law of another province is “foreign law,” and must be proved. Absent such proof, Justice Gomery held that the Court must assume that the foreign law is the same as Ontario law. Thus, Justice Gomery concluded that Sharon was not entitled to the death benefit under the Deceased’s pension plan by right.
Next Question: Which Beneficiary Designation Prevails?
Given Justice Gomery’s conclusion that Sharon was not entitled to the Account by operation of statute, the Court concluded that Sharon would only be entitled to the funds in the Account if she was the designated beneficiary as of the Deceased’s death.
In tomorrow’s blog, I will discuss Justice Gomery’s discussion of the terms of the Deceased’s Will, and whether the direction to the Estate Trustee overrode the earlier designation in Sharon’s favour.
Thank you for reading,
Umair Abdul Qadir
If someone asks you to act as their Estate Trustee, or you learn to your surprise that you are named as an Estate Trustee after the person’s passing, there are a number of things that you should consider before accepting such a responsibility. Given the significant duties involved in such a role, it is important to be aware of the potential for personal liability.
An Estate Trustee’s Legal Duties
An Estate Trustee is a fiduciary and, as such, s/he owes a duty to exercise the care, diligence and skill that a person of ordinary prudence would exercise in dealing with the property of the Deceased.
Furthermore, an Estate Trustee owes a “duty of loyalty”, which has been described as the duty to act honestly and in good faith, and to use powers solely for the purposes for which they were granted (see Oosterhoff on Trusts: Text, Commentary and Materials, 8th ed.). The “duty of loyalty” means that:
(a) An Estate Trustee must exercise powers and perform duties solely in the interest of the Estate.
(b) An Estate Trustee must not knowingly permit a situation to arise where:
(i) The Estate Trustee’s personal interest conflicts in any way with the exercise of powers or performance of duties; or
(ii) The Estate Trustee derives a personal benefit or a benefit to a third party, except as far as the law or the Will expressly permit.
Additional legal duties of an Estate Trustee are:
- The “prudent investor” rule which ensures that the Estate Trustee properly invests the Estate assets;
- The “even-hand” rule which ensures that the Estate Trustee acts impartially among all the beneficiaries;
- The “duty of transparency” which ensures that the Estate Trustee provides information to the beneficiaries; and
- The “duty to account”.
Some Practical Considerations
From a practical stand point it is also prudent to consider the overall complexity of the Estate and what type and quantity of work will be expected from you in your role as an Estate Trustee. Certainly, some Estate Trustees can be compensated for the work they perform; however, there is a limit to what one may claim and it largely depends on the circumstances.
There are certain tasks that an Estate Trustee may want to delegate to third parties; however, there is a limit as to what type of work may be delegated and what is considered reasonable.
You should consider whether the Will properly sets out the powers as well as the responsibilities of the Estate Trustee which will aid you in the future, should any of your decisions be challenged. Another useful consideration is whether there are any third parties, or specifically, any beneficiaries who may be difficult to deal with in your role as an Estate Trustee, or may want to challenge your authority in the future.
In making the decision whether or not to act as an Estate Trustee, it may also be a good idea to speak to a lawyer regarding whether taking on this role may present an unacceptable legal risk for you in the future.
Thanks for reading.
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