In today’s podcast, Noah Weisberg and Sydney Osmar discuss Webb v Belway, 2019 ONSC 4602, a recent case from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, where the court had to consider whether a common law spouse’s conduct towards the end of the deceased’s life, which included misappropriating funds as attorney for property, should be taken into consideration in determining whether she is entitled to support.
If you would like to read more about the case, see Natalia Angelini’s recent blog here.
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A recent news article refers to the struggle of father of accused killer Bryer Schmegelsky to obtain video footage from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The father’s lawyer has referred to the video as the accused’s “last will and testament.” It was apparently recorded very shortly before death and expresses funeral and burial preferences.
Oral wills (also known as nuncupative wills) are recognized in select jurisdictions, including some American states:
- New York law provides that an oral will, heard by at least two witnesses and made by a member of the active military or a mariner while at sea can be valid and will expire one year after discharge from the armed forces or three years after a sailor, if the testator survives the situation of peril;
- In North Carolina, an oral will made while the testator’s death is imminent and in circumstances where the testator does not survive in the presence of two or more witnesses may be valid;
- In Texas, oral wills made in the presence of three or more witnesses on the testator’s deathbed before September 2007 are valid in respect of personal property of limited value.
As most state legislation is silent on the issue of videotaped wills, if the testator’s oral wishes are videotaped, they must generally meet the criteria for a valid oral will to be effective.
However, in Canada, a will must be in writing, signed by the testator, and witnessed by two people. Alternatively, a will that is entirely in the testator’s handwriting and unwitnessed may be valid. Because Ontario is a strict compliance jurisdiction, any inconsistency with the formal requirements, as set out in the Succession Law Reform Act, renders a will invalid.
While a videotaped statement intended to be viewed posthumously may not be a valid will in Ontario and other Canadian provinces, it can nevertheless be used to express the deceased’s final wishes, for example with respect to the disposition of his or her remains (which are typically precatory rather than enforceable, even if appearing within a written document), and may assist a family in finding closure following an unexpected loss.
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With the summer vacation now at the midpoint, many people are travelling as part of their holidays. But, what can one do when a friend or family member dies while you are on vacation? Does your trip have to be cut short? Are there additional charges to be paid for changing dates on plane tickets and for hotel room cancellations? Not any longer. In many cases, a livestream funeral service is now available. Some companies provide this service via the internet. Or, depending upon the funeral home, wireless can be used to stream the memorial service using facetime or skype. There are even websites that provide information and assist with the planning of the do-it-yourself camera work.
There are many advantages for those who cannot attend even if not on vacation. Other reasons to not attend in person might be because of illness, distance, cost or other barriers. Now almost everyone can attend from wherever they are.
Also, the funeral service can be archived and watched again online. This can be of benefit not only to those who could not attend the service in person but also to family members who were there. It can help in dealing with their loss or to simply remember things that were missed in the immediate grief of the service. Technology has developed rapidly. It has become accepted and has recently extended into the areas of wills and estates, providing services such as online obituaries instead of publishing in newspapers; advertising for estate creditors using online services instead of much more expensive newspaper print notices; cataloging and registering the location of wills (in some jurisdictions); assisting lawyers in automated interactive drafting of wills (like the Hull e-State Planner); recognizing the validity of electronic wills (in some jurisdictions); among others. The trend towards even more changes coming in this area is strong and there is hope that expanding technology use will serve to assist friends and family members through difficult times.
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In Marsden Estate (Re),  N.B.J. No. 295, upheld on appeal at  N.B.J. No. 304, the deceased was seen by a solicitor and gave instructions for the preparation of a will on September 19, 2016. She died the next day, before the will could be signed.
The estate trustee under the impugned will brought an application to prove the will. She relied on s. 35.1 of New Brunswick’s Wills Act. This section provides:
35.1 Where a court of competent jurisdiction is satisfied that a document or any writing on a document embodies
(a) the testamentary intentions of the deceased, or
(b) the intention of the deceased to revoke, alter or revive a will of the deceased or the testamentary intentions of the deceased embodied in a document other than a will,
the court may, notwithstanding that the document or writing was not executed in compliance with the formal requirements imposed by this Act, order that the document or writing is valid and fully effective as if it had been executed in compliance with the formal requirements imposed by this Act.
The matter was contentious, as two of the testator’s children were essentially excluded from the will. The testator told the solicitor that she had been estranged from them for some time.
The court relied on affidavit evidence, including the affidavit of the drafting solicitor. The court concluded that the unsigned will reflected the testator’s “deliberate, fixed and final expression as to the disposal of her property upon her death”. Further, the court was satisfied that the testator had testamentary capacity, and was not being unduly influenced.
In earlier blogs, we reported on similar applications under similar “substantial compliance” legislation. An Alberta court considered the legislation but declined to apply it where there was an absence of clear and convincing evidence that the deceased failed to execute the will by inadvertence or mistake. An Australian court went as far as admitting an unsent text message to probate.
In Ontario, the doctrine of strict compliance continues to apply. As stated by Nick Esterbauer in his blog of December 11, 2017, it will be interesting to see if Ontario legislation opens the door to substantial compliance in the future. To date, it has not.
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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.
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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.
Should you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our blog.
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.
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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.
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