The popularity of cryptocurrencies has heightened the world’s attention on the versatility of blockchain technology. An interesting development is the application of a blockchain solution for estate planning of crypto assets.
Generally speaking, a blockchain is a shared, real-time ledger of any type of information that can be recorded ranging from financial transactions to ownership of real property. Blockchain technology allows for blocks of information to be stored in a chain on a distributed peer-to-peer network.
The traditional method of estate planning, as we know it, involves hiring a lawyer to prepare a will, which appoints the executor(s) and lists the beneficiaries. When the testator passes away it is the responsibility of the executor to administer the estate in accordance with the will. This traditional method has created uncertainty for testators who own Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency and intend for their beneficiaries to receive them.
It is estimated that millions of Bitcoins have been lost as a result of testators not adequately factoring this type of asset into their estate plan. For testators that have considered their crypto assets, concerns still remain as to whether the executor has the technological ability to access and distribute a cryptocurrency holding.
One possible way for the testator to address this uncertainty is to author a plan with detailed instructions and provide the private key to the executor(s).
A start-up company in the United States has fostered a novel approach to this issue. The company’s product offering uses a blockchain-registered will also known as a “crypto-will” to enable digital assets to be transferred automatically. The idea behind the product is that once a testator’s death record appears in the Death Master File, a computer database of death records made available by the United States Social Security Office, the crypto-will is then activated and executes the wishes of the testator. This potential solution eliminates the need for an executor to administer this portion of an individual’s estate.
As the crypto-will is still very much in the development stage, many questions still remain. It will be interesting to discover how the concept of a crypto-will evolves in the near future.
Thank you for reading,
Ian M. Hull
In today’s podcast, Jonathon Kappy and Garrett Horrocks review the interaction between no-contest clauses and applications to prove a will in solemn form as discussed by the Court of Appeal of Alberta in Mawhinney v Scobie.
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Medical records are frequently key evidence in estate disputes. Often, a testamentary document or inter vivos transaction is challenged on the basis that the deceased lacked testamentary capacity or the mental capacity to make a valid gift.
The British Columbia Supreme Court recently reviewed the issue of admissibility of medical records within the context of a will challenge. The parties propounding the last will asserted that the deceased’s medical records were inadmissible on the basis that (1) the parties challenging the will were attempting to admit the records for the truth of their contents, (2) the records included third party statements from family members, which was suggested to constitute double hearsay evidence, and (3) the records were entirely inadmissible because they were not relevant, none of them being within weeks of the date of execution of the challenged will.
In Re Singh Estate, 2019 BCSC 272, the estate trustees named in the deceased’s will executed in 2013 only learned of the existence of a subsequent will executed in 2016 after they provided notice to the beneficiaries of the estate that they intended to apply for probate in respect of the 2013 will. The 2016 will disinherited two of the deceased’s eight children (including one of the two adult children named as estate trustee in the 2013 will) on the basis that they had received “their share” in their mother’s estate from the predeceasing husband’s estate. Between the dates of execution of the 2013 and 2016 wills, the deceased had suffered a bad fall and allegedly experienced delusions and had otherwise become forgetful and confused.
At trial, medical records are typically admitted under the business records exemption of the Evidence Act (in Ontario, section 35). Justice MacDonald acknowledged this general treatment of medical evidence, citing the Supreme Court of Canada (at para 48):
While clinical records are hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception both at common law and under s. 42 of the Evidence Act. The requirements for the admission of medical records as business records are set out in Ares[ v Venner,  SCR 608]. The Supreme Court of Canada held at 626:
Hospital records, including nurses’ notes, made contemporaneously by someone having a personal knowledge of the matters then being recorded and under a duty to make the entry or record should be received in evidence as prima facie proof of the facts stated therein.
Subsequent case law cited by the Court addressed the second objection of the parties propounding the will, which provided that the observations that a medical practitioner has a duty to record in the ordinary course of business (including those involving third parties) are generally admissible (Cambie Surgeries Corporation v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2016 BCSC 1896). Lastly, the Court considered the issue of relevance of the medical records and found that evidence relating to the mental health before and after the making of a will can be relevant in supporting an inference of capacity at the actual time of execution of the will (Laszlo v Lawton, 2013 BCSC 305).
After finding the medical records to be admissible as evidence of the deceased’s mental capacity (and in consideration of all of the available evidence), the Court declared the 2016 will to be invalid on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.
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In the past, in estate litigation matters, it was often the case that some or all of the litigating parties’ costs would be paid out of estate assets. However, in more recent years, the courts have been moving away from this general practice, and increasingly making costs awards providing for the payment of costs by one of the parties, personally. In particular, if the court views a party, including an estate trustee, to have behaved improperly or unreasonably, it may decide that such a party must pay the other party’s costs, personally. We have blogged about instances of such an outcome before.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has reaffirmed this general trend. The decision in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 542, involved a motion to pass over the named estate trustee, and appoint the two sole beneficiaries of the estate in question, as estate trustees. Although the named estate trustee and the beneficiaries were initially on good terms, within several months of the testator’s passing, the relationships began to break down, with the estate trustee beginning to make accusations towards the beneficiaries, in relation to the testator. The court found that it was “not a case of mere friction—this is a case of outright hostility from [the estate trustee] to the beneficiaries”, also commenting that it was difficult to fathom why the estate trustee acted as she did, and that her accusations were unwarranted. Ultimately, the court made an order passing over the estate trustee.
After the parties were unable to reach an agreement as to costs, the court made an endorsement in this regard in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 1297. After a discussion of the costs principles applicable to estate litigation, the court stated as follows:
“I am mindful that an estate trustee should be fully compensated for any reasonable costs incurred in the administration of the estate. However, the actions of the [estate trustee] are far from reasonable. I was not provided any rationale as to why her animus became necessary in the administration of her good friend’s estate.”
Ultimately, the court made a costs award in favour of the beneficiaries, payable by the estate trustee, personally.
This costs decision serves as an important reminder that parties entering into estate litigation proceedings should not count on their costs being paid out of the estate. Additionally, even though the estate trustee’s conduct in this case appears to be extreme, litigants should still keep in mind the importance of acting reasonably.
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A recent decision of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench highlights the importance of “going big or going home” when challenging a Will.
In the decision of Kot v. Kot, 2018 SKQB 338 (CanLII), an application to revoke probate and allow a will challenge to proceed by the spouse of the deceased was dismissed on the basis of a lack of credible evidence sufficient to raise a triable issue.
There, the deceased died on September 15, 2015. He died leaving a will dated August 4, 2014. In his will, the deceased appointed his spouse and two of his brothers as estate trustees. He gave one of his brothers a right of first refusal to purchase some of the deceased’s farm land upon his death.
Probate of the will was granted, and the three estate trustees proceeded to administer the estate.
The spouse then commenced her application to challenge the will. She said that the deceased tore up his will (actually, a copy of it: the spouse had switched the original will with a copy, and gave evidence that the deceased thought he was tearing up and therefore revoking the original). She said that she told the estate lawyer of the revocation, but the estate lawyer told her that it was better to have a will than no will, and that the estate lawyer did not tell her that if there was no will, she would inherit the entire estate. She also later alleged that the will was the result of undue influence from the brothers.
The court dismissed the spouse’s application.
The court held that the delay in seeking to challenge the validity of the will was not fatal to the application. However, while the delay did not defeat the application, it was a relevant consideration, and suggested that her claims had little credibility. Further, the evidence of the estate lawyer did not support her claim that the will was torn up by the deceased.
The court also found that there was no evidence of undue influence.
Interestingly, the court did not discuss the application of any limitation period. The court relied upon the Ontario Court of Appeal decision of Neuberger Estate v. York in concluding that mere delay did not preclude the challenge. However, in Neuberger, the will challenge was brought within the two year limitation period. In Kot, the challenge was brought 4 ½ years after the deceased’s death.
Have a great weekend.
In Ontario, a Will has to be in writing and typically an original is required for probate to be granted. With the increase of the technological presence in the everyday life of a typical Canadian, the question remains, should electronic Wills be admitted to probate?
Clare E. Burns and Leandra Appugliesi wrote an interesting paper on this topic titled “There’s an App for that: E-Wills in Ontario” that argued for the development of a legislative scheme in Ontario that admits the possibility of electronic Wills.
In discussing this question, the experience of other jurisdictions was considered, including the United States and Australia.
In 2005, the State of Tennessee was the first American state to recognize the validity of a Will executed with an e-signature. In that particular case, the deceased prepared his Will on his computer and asked two of his neighbours to serve as witnesses. A computer-generated signature was affixed to the Will. Almost ten years later, in 2013, the State of Ohio admitted to probate a Will that was written in the deceased’s own handwriting and signed by him, on a tablet computer.
It appears that electronic Wills are most probably valid in Florida, Texas and California and consistent with existing legislation, though the legislation does not specifically contemplate electronic Wills. The State of Nevada, on the other hand, has specifically enacted legislation which expressly allows for the validity of electronic Wills.
Australia, in comparison to the United States, has managed the question of electronic Wills by making use of the “substantial compliance” legislation that exists in each state, which gives the state courts the authority to dispense with the formal requirements for the execution of the Will. In comparison, the legislation in Ontario is one of “strict compliance” such that the formalities of a Will are required before a Certificate of Appointment is granted.
It appears that in Ontario, though a Court could theoretically admit an electronic Will (i.e. not an original copy) to probate, the formalities in accordance with the Succession Law Reform Act must be met, in any event. As a result, an electronic Will that does not meet any one of the formalities will almost certainly not be admitted to probate.
As various electronic gadgets are now being used more and more, Canadians are also using them to make testamentary documents. In keeping with the realities of contemporary life, it may be that legislative reform is needed.
In discussing the possibility of legislative reform, Ms. Burns and Ms. Appugliesi, also addressed the importance of various policy considerations. In doing so, they addressed the John J. Langbein analysis, which set out four main purposes to the formalities requirements in any Wills legislation:
- Evidentiary: the writing, signature and attestation requirements serve as evidence of testamentary intent in a reliable and permanent form;
- Channeling: the writing, signature and attestation requirements ease the administrative burden on the court system by setting out a uniform checklist of what is required before probate can be granted;
- Cautionary: the formalities are designed to impress the seriousness of the testamentary act upon the testator so as to ensure that he or she has fully thought through the result of executing the Will; and
- Protective: the formalities are designed to reduce the opportunity for fraud and undue influence by involving witnesses in the process.
As litigators, the “evidentiary” and the “protective” purposes are particularly important, as we often consider questions of testamentary intent, undue influence and fraud (albeit more rarely), amongst other things.
From that perspective, any legislative amendments to be made must address the various policy considerations and the implications of any such amendments on the legal system in Ontario.
Thanks for reading!
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It is that time of the year when media outlets release their “top” or “most popular” lists, like the Time 100.
I came across a rather interesting and topical list the other day called “The Most Obnoxious Celebrity Wills” by Ranker. This particular list features 24 celebrity Wills and I will excerpt some of the notable mentions here:
- Napoleon Bonaparte’s Will was first on the list. Apparently, his Will included a direction for his head to be shaved and for his hair to be divided amongst his friends.
- Harry Houdini asked his wife to hold an annual séance to contact his spirit.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman wanted his son to be raised in three different cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
- Charles Dickens gave directions for a particular dress code at his funeral.
- Fred Baur, the person who designed the Pringles can, wanted to buried in a Pringles can.
Turns out testamentary freedom is whatever you want to make of it but the enforceability of provisions like these are another matter.
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!
This week on Hull on Estates, Natalia Angelini and Kira Domratchev discuss the decision in Shannon v Hrabovsky, 2018 ONSC 6593, and the question of a limitation period in a Will challenge.
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A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice highlights the importance of preserving a surviving married spouse’s ability to elect for an equalization of net family properties within the six-month limitation period.
Upon death, a surviving married spouse in Ontario can elect for an equalization of net family properties under Sections 5 and 6 of the Family Law Act instead of taking under the predeceasing spouse’s will or, if the spouse has not left a will, on intestacy. Subsections 6(10), 6(11), and 7(3)(c) of the Family Law Act provide that the surviving spouse must ordinarily make an election within six months of date of death and not after that date. The Court may, however, extend the election deadline in the event that: (a) there are apparent grounds for relief; (b) relief is unavailable because of delay that has been incurred in good faith; and, (c) no person will suffer substantial prejudice by reason of the delay (subsection 2(8) of the Family Law Act).
Courts have reviewed the circumstances in which an extension is typically ordered. The requirement that the delay be incurred in good faith has been interpreted as meaning that the party has acted honestly and with no ulterior motive (see, for example, Busch v Amos, 1994 CanLII 7454 (ONSC)).
In Mihalcin v Templeman, 2018 ONSC 5385, a surviving spouse had commenced two claims with respect to the estate of her late husband and an inter vivos gift made to a live-in caregiver. However, neither of the proceedings had sought any relief relating to an equalization of net family properties, nor did the wife take any steps to make an election or to extend the time within which she was permitted to do so. The Court reviewed whether the delay in making the election was in good faith. The evidence regarding the reasons for the delay in electing for equalization were considered to be vague and insufficient to satisfy the evidentiary burden that the delay was incurred in good faith. Accordingly, the applicant was not permitted to amend her pleadings to incorporate this relief.
Justice Bruce Fitzpatrick commented as follows with respect to the importance of limitation periods, generally (at para 48):
I am mindful of the general importance of limitation periods for the conduct of litigation. There is an obligation on parties to put forward all known legitimate claims within certain time limits. In this case, the time limit was relatively short. I think it cannot be readily ignored. The evidentiary record is not sufficient for me to say that justice requires me to exercise my discretion in favour of allowing [the applicant] to amend her claim so as to include a claim for equalization in all of the circumstances.
Where an equalization of net family properties may be sought at a later time (for example, pending the outcome of a will challenge or dependant’s support application), it is prudent to seek an extension well before the expiry of the six-month limitation period as courts may or may not assist a surviving spouse in seeking this relief down the road, if and when it may become advisable.
Thank you for reading,
Other blog entries/podcasts that may be of interest:
- When is it Appropriate to Extend the Time Granted in Favour of Equalization Under the Family Law Act?
- Equalization Claims and Unequal Division of the Net Family Property
- Family Law Equalization Claims and Bankruptcy
- Consolidation of Family Law Act and Dependant Support Claims
Multiple wills are an extensively used estate planning tool designed to reduce the amount of Estate Administration Tax payable. Essentially, the grant of a Certificate of Appointment is limited to the assets referred to in the will that is being probated, and Estate Administration Tax is only paid on the assets falling under the will that is being probated.
This estate planning strategy was tested and approved by the courts in Granovsky Estate v. Ontario.
Where there is only one will, can similar probate fee/administration tax savings be accomplished by applying for a limited grant? According to the Manitoba Court of Appeal decision of Pollock v. Manitoba, the answer is NO.
In Pollock, the deceased died leaving personal property, mainly shares in privately held corporations, having a value of about $12.5m, and real property having a value of $1m. Probate was required to deal with the real property, but not required to deal with the shares. If probate could be obtained in relation to just the real property and not the value of the shares, the estate would save $75,000 in probate fees. (Using current Estate Administration Tax rates in Ontario, the saving under such a scheme would be $187,500!)
The Manitoba legislation allowed the administration of an estate of a deceased person to be limited to certain assets “as the court thinks fit”. The Manitoba Court of Appeal considered a long line of cases dealing with the issue and concluded that the court must have a “strong reason” for making a limited grant, and stated “I do not regard the saving of probate fees as a sound reason for making a limited grant of probate. An applicant for a limited grant is, of course, entitled to take the least expensive way of administering an estate, but the chosen way must be one permitted by the legislation. The saving of probate fees is not, as I see it, a sufficiently strong reason to justify a limited grant. Nor is a limited grant a money-saving device contemplated by the legislation.”
In Ontario, the Rules of Civil Procedure specifically allow for limited grants. However, the grant is “limited to the assets referred to in the will”: Rule 74.04(1). Thus, in Ontario, if there is only one will, the result would be as in Pollock: even if probate of the will was needed in order to deal with only one asset, Estate Administration Tax would need to be paid on all assets of the estate.
Have a great weekend.