Tag: wills and estates
Although the temporary emergency Order has only been in place for a few days, there is no question that lawyers have already begun to virtually witness the execution of wills and powers of attorney. A complimentary CPD program on the issue was put on by the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) last week, chaired by Ian Hull. A link to it is here. LawPRO has also provided a helpful commentary on the subject matter from the perspective of risk-avoidance here, and below I draw upon the points made that may help lawyers lessen their risk of a malpractice claim.
As much as lawyers may be focused on adhering to the requirements under the emergency Order, LawPRO reminds us that the most common cause of malpractice claims in the estates area is inadequate investigation – a failure to inquire about assets, prior wills and details about past and present marital and familial relationships. The second most common error is a communication failure – not ensuring consistency between the draft will and the instruction notes, and not ensuring that the solicitor and client each understand the other. So it is important to keep risk management tips here top of mind, particularly given that it may be more difficult to effectively communicate or ensure that clients understand documentation when conducting virtual client meetings.
As related specifically to virtual witnessing of wills and powers of attorney, LawPRO has various suggested steps to lessen the risk of a claim, which I comment on below.
- Comfort – Some clients may not be as ease with video technology and/or discussing personal matters through this medium. Take the time to establish that all participants are comfortable.
- Identification – As a result of Covid-19, the LSO is not requiring face-to-face meetings to identify or verify a client’s identity. Here you can find the LSO’s guidance on the issue, and LawPRO’s video conference checklist (accessible through the LawPRO link above) will help lawyers consider the steps needed before, during and after a video conference meeting.
- Capacity and undue influence – These known risks may be more difficult to assess through virtual communication, making it all the more important that certain precautions be taken, such as: (i) asking open questions, and follow up questions, (ii) asking questions to establish that the client is acting independently (e.g. explore relationships and reasoning in detail when marked changes are being made), (iii) when acting for one client, make sure the client is alone in the room (consider asking for a video pan of the room if you can’t clearly see it), and (iv) take notes reflecting consideration of capacity and undue influence, especially if there are any concerns. Here you can find a checklist WEL Partners has created for indicators of undue influence during video meetings, and the LSO has released a special comment on the issue here.
- No counterparts – You will need multiple virtual meetings so each witness can sign the original will or power of attorney. Video conference wills will also likely require a different affidavit of execution, and here you can find our recent blog that provides sample affidavits of execution.
- Document your work – Particular scrutiny may be given to documents executed during this health crisis. Taking detailed notes or recording the meeting (with client consent) will document what occurred, and reporting to the client thereafter will serve to confirm your instructions.
- After the emergency – Although not required, once it is safe to do so consider recommending that your clients re-execute their testamentary documents in the physical presence of witnesses.
To help mitigate the risk of a claim, Hull eState Planner has created checklists for executing wills and powers of attorney by video. The will execution by video checklist can be found here and the powers of attorney execution by video checklist can be found here.
The Covid-19 situation is creating rapid change, and at Hull & Hull LLP we are monitoring things on a daily basis. I encourage you to continue to access our website for further updates. Our resource page can be found here.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,
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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Today I wanted to discuss a basic, but important concept when it comes to Wills: revocation. There are a number of ways in which a Will can be revoked, and it is crucial that everyone with a Will, or who will make a Will in the future, understands what those methods are, and the requirements that must be met in order to successfully revoke a Will. An incomplete understanding of revocation can lead to unintended consequences if a testator mistakenly believes either that a prior Will has been revoked, or that a prior Will that he or she believed to have been revoked, remained valid and operative.
According to section 15 of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26,
15 A will or part of a will is revoked only by,
(a) marriage, subject to section 16;
(b) another will made in accordance with the provisions of this Part;
(c) a writing,
(i) declaring an intention to revoke, and
(ii) made in accordance with the provisions of this Part governing making of a will; or
(d) burning, tearing or otherwise destroying it by the testator or by some person in his or her presence and by his or her direction with the intention of revoking it.
Ontario has a strict compliance regime, meaning that the statutory requirements for actions such as executing and revoking a Will must be followed carefully, and that the courts do not have the discretion to declare a document valid that does not do so. Accordingly, if an attempted revocation of a Will does not strictly comply with the statute, it may not be valid.
For instance, one method of revoking a Will is by a writing declaring an intention to revoke and made in accordance with the requirements of the making of a Will. This means that, even if the document revoking the prior Will is not itself a Will, it must nonetheless comply with those requirements, whether it be a formal Will witnessed by two people, or a holograph Will. A testator who does not seek legal advice on revoking his or her Will may mistakenly believe that, for example, a typewritten signed statement would validly revoke a Will, when, in fact, it would not.
Destroying a Will, another method of revocation, must also be done in a particular way to satisfy the requirements of the Succession Law Reform Act. As discussed in Probate Practice (5th ed.), the two elements of destruction and intention to revoke must both be present. The destruction itself must also be done either by the testator personally, or by someone else in the testator’s presence and by his or her direction. Therefore, even if the testator directs another person to destroy his or her Will, if the testator is not present at the time of such destruction, it will be insufficient to revoke the Will in question.
Additionally, the requisite capacity to revoke a Will is the same as that required to execute a Will in the first place.
While this blog only briefly touches upon a few specific issues that may arise in relation to revoking Wills, it is clear that without a proper understanding of how to validly revoke a Will, a testator can easily stray offside of the statute, resulting in a potentially invalid revocation. As with the execution of a Will, revocation can also have significant effects on a testator’s testamentary dispositions, and it is important to seek advice from a trusted legal professional prior to taking any steps that may lead to unintended, and unfortunate, consequences.
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I recently came across the decision in Campbell v Campbell, 2017 ONSC 2139. This is a recent decision with respect to two motions brought within an application for the interpretation of the last will and testament (the “Will”) of the late Howard Campbell (the “Deceased”). While the decision focuses on the various procedural matters at issue in the motions rather than the interpretation question at issue in the application, the decision also provides a brief summary of the facts which raised an interesting question for me regarding the admissibility of extrinsic evidence.
The interpretation concerns the Deceased’s Will, which contains three seemingly incompatible bequests, as follows:
- Paragraph 3(b) of the Will directs the estate trustee “to pay my debts, funeral and testamentary expenses, and to transfer the residue of my estate to my wife, if she survives me for a period of thirty days, for her own use absolutely”;
- Paragraph 3(c) of the Deceased’s Will directs the estate trustee “to deliver to my wife, for her use and enjoyment for life, all articles of personal domestic and household use or ornament belonging to me at the time of my death…and on her death, to divide all such articles among my children…”; and
- Paragraph 3(d) of the Will directs the estate trustee “to divide the residue of my estate equally between my wife (if she survives me for a period of thirty days) and my children, Kim, Howard, Rory, Cherie, Gina, Casey and Patrick, if then alive…”.
There appear to be four possible interpretations of the Deceased’s Will based on the above clauses:
- One hundred percent of the estate is left to the Deceased’s wife;
- The Deceased’s wife is given a life interest in personal property, which is later to be divided amongst the Deceased’s children;
- Fifty percent of the Deceased’s estate is to be left to his wife, and the other fifty percent is to be divided amongst the Deceased’s children; or
- The Deceased’s wife and the Deceased’s children are each to receive one-seventh of the estate.
In interpreting wills, Courts must first look to the language of the will to ascertain whether the testator’s intention can be discerned from the will itself. If the Court is unable to determine the testator’s intention from the will alone, it may then consider the surrounding circumstances known to the testator at the time that he or she made his or her will.
The surrounding circumstances that may be considered include only indirect extrinsic evidence, and not direct extrinsic evidence. Indirect extrinsic evidence consists of such circumstances as the character and occupation of the testator, the amount, extent and condition of his property, the number, identity, and general relationship to the testator of the immediate family and other relatives, the persons who comprised his circle of friends, and any other natural objects of his bounty. Direct extrinsic evidence would include, for example, instructions given by the testator to his solicitor in respect of the preparation of his will, or direct evidence from other third parties about the testator’s intentions.
As discussed in the decision of Rondel v Robinson Estate, 2011 ONCA 493, an exception to the general rule that direct extrinsic evidence is not admissible is in circumstances where there is an “equivocation” in the will, meaning that the words of the will in question apply equally well to two or more persons or things. Equivocation should not be equated with either ambiguity or mere difficulty of interpretation
One of our recent blog posts discusses a case where extrinsic evidence was not permissible. In that case, the court found that the language of the will in question was not equivocal, and accordingly, extrinsic evidence was not admitted. However, in the facts described above, it appears that the Deceased’s Will may provide an example of a situation where there is an equivocation, given that there seem to be four alternative interpretations.
As further discussed in the Rondel v Robinson decision, when direct extrinsic evidence, such as third party evidence of a testator’s intentions are admitted, this can give rise to reliability and credibility issues. Accordingly, it is important that the admissibility of direct extrinsic evidence be restricted, and permitted only when the rules of interpretation and construction are insufficient to interpret equivocal language.
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A recent story in the news featuring a fraudulent wedding officiant, raises some interesting estate planning issues. Mr. Cogan, who held himself out as an authorized wedding officiant, was charged with performing unauthorized marriages. Cogan had been licensed to perform marriages in the past, but it is reported that his license was revoked before he performed at least 48 marriages between August 2013 and July 2016.
Fortunately, pursuant to section 31 of the Marriage Act, if the couple married in good faith the marriage may be deemed valid despite the revoked licence. Indicia of good faith include: the intention to have a legally binding wedding, no disqualifications due to capacity and impairment, and proof that the couple lived together after the wedding ceremony.
Notwithstanding this statutory remedy, larger consequences for estate planning arise if the couple do not satisfy the prerequisites for the remedy provided in the Marriage Act.
Firstly, an invalid marriage may present an issue for individuals who created a will after the fact, leaving bequests to their “spouses” in their wills. Due to the fact the individuals are not “spouses” as defined pursuant to the intestacy provisions of the Succession Law Reform Act (excluding Part V) or Divorce Act, it would be interesting to see how the court would treat the inheritance should the spouse who made the will die.
Pursuant to Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, if the couple has been cohabiting continuously for a period of not less than three years, or are in a relationship of some permanence, or if they are the natural or adoptive parents of a child, they may be considered a dependant spouse (within the meaning of Part V). This may entitle the individual a fair share of the estate in this case, but being recognized as an unmarried spouse is not always certain. In any case, it would be necessary to litigate the issue, adding an unnecessary expense to the estate.
Secondly, an invalid marriage would create issues for individuals who die intestate. Pursuant to the intestacy provisions of the Succession Law Reform Act, the spouse is first entitled to the preferential share ($200,000) of an estate. If an individual dies and their marriage was not valid, the spouse that would normally be entitled may be disinherited. The result of this is that the preferential share may go to somebody who was not meant to inherit such a large portion of the estate.
Thirdly, a will is automatically revoked upon marriage. Because he did not have the authority to perform marriages, if a person was “married” by Cogan but had a pre-existing will, that will might not be found to have actually been revoked. This uncertainty creates the potential for litigation.
Thanks for reading,
Last week I tweeted an article from Advisor.ca on Seg Funds for Estate Planning: Advantages and Pitfalls, which discusses the benefits of using segregated funds as part of estate planning and notes some areas that may lead to issues. Segregated funds are a type of investment fund available through life insurance companies, where the funds are kept “segregated” from the general assets of the company. They have an advantage in estate planning in that, as an insurance product, the beneficiary is named on the plan itself, and thus, provided that the estate has not been named as beneficiary, the proceeds pass outside of the estate, avoiding probate fees.
One possible benefit of segregated funds, as noted by the article, is protection from creditors. Because the segregated fund passes directly to the beneficiary, it is not an estate asset, and is not available to satisfy creditors’ claims. However, it is noted that the creditor protection may be lost in certain circumstances, including if it was purchased at a time when the investor knew that he or she may be subject to a creditor claim.
When considering a segregated fund as a way to minimize probate fees, it is important to consider additional fees associated with such funds. Segregated funds usually have a higher management expense ratio (MER) than mutual funds. If the amount that would be saved in probate fees is less than the MER, the segregated fund may not result in any net savings.
Lastly it is important to be aware of any beneficiary designations in a will that may create possible conflicts with the designated beneficiary of the segregated fund. Pursuant to s. 51 of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26, a beneficiary designation can be made either by an instrument or by will, as long as the will designation refers expressly to a plan. Section 52(2) provides that a later designation revokes an earlier designation. Therefore if a will is executed after the beneficiary of the segregated fund is designated, and makes a designation that differs from that in the fund, the designation in the will revokes the designation in the fund.
The article provides the example of Orpin v Littlechild, 2011 ONSC 7695. In that case, the testator had a segregated fund held in an RRSP which designated his sons as beneficiaries. Following this designation, the testator executed a new will which designated his spouse “as the sole beneficiary of all moneys that I may have at the date of my death in any registered retirement savings plan, registered retirement income fund, registered pension plan, registered investment fund or any other similar device”. The court then had to decide to whom the fund would pass. Despite the fact that the will did not specifically refer to the insurance policy, the broad language used in the will was sufficient to change the designation of the segregated fund.
There are other similar products to segregated funds, such as life insurance policies which can have similar benefits and effects. However, it is important to be familiar with a variety of options in order to properly advise clients on what strategy may work best for them.
Thanks for reading.