B.C. to Allow Electronic Wills and Remote Witnessing of Wills

The Wills, Estates and Amendment Act, 2020 will significantly change how a person may make a will in British Columbia, effective December 1, 2021.

Previously, a will had to meet all of the following requirements in order to be valid in British Columbia:

  1. It had to be in writing;
  2. It had to be signed at the end by the will-maker, or the signature at the end had be acknowledged by the will-maker as his or hers, in the presence of two or more witnesses present at the same time, and
  3. It had to be signed by two or more of the witnesses in the presence of the will-maker.

The amendments will allow for the execution of electronic wills, which are wills that:

  1. Are recorded or stored electronically, which means in a digital or other intangible form by electronic, magnetic, or optical means or by any other similar means;
  2. Can be read by a person; and
  3. Are capable of being reproduced in a visible form.

This means that as of December 1, 2021, a person can prepare and electronically sign a will, with no physical paper copy having to exist.  The amendments allow for the use of an electronic signature, and for the execution of the will to be witnessed electronically (i.e. remotely, by video).

In order to amend an electronic will, a new will must be made.

The amendments reflect some of the temporary measures implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic by way of ministerial orders, to allow for remote execution of wills. According to the Canadian Bar Association (B.C. Branch), these new changes are intended to respond to concerns raised by the public and the legal profession about a lack of flexibility in the rules regarding wills.

These changes certainly will provide greater flexibility and ability to the public to make wills, both during and outside of a pandemic.  However, as electronic wills become more common, problems may arise.

The possible existence of an electronic will creates uncertainty as to what document is actually the last will of a deceased person. Is there a more recent will stored on the deceased’s phone, tablet or laptop? Is there a document found somewhere in the deceased’s email inbox or in the cloud? Hopefully one of the witnesses to an electronic will would come forward and notify others of the existence of the document, but this may not always happen.   Moving forward, what will the expectation be on personal representatives or others to conduct searches of the deceased’s electronic devices, email inboxes, etc… for possible electronic wills?

We currently have a voluntary wills registry in B.C., which allows a will-maker to register a record of where to find the original copy of their will upon death. When dealing with an electronic will, there is no original physical copy of the document. In any event, the registry is not mandatory. This may create further uncertainty, especially when there is a physical will registered with the wills registry, but the possibility of a subsequent electronic will somewhere in the digital world that has not been registered.

If you choose to make an electronic will, you should at minimum make clear to the named executor that the document exists, and where it can be found (and ideally provide them with a copy).

What I’m Reading: Interesting Estate Litigation Articles for September 2021

The following is a roundup of noteworthy articles published this month on estate litigation and related issues:

  1. Ian Hull at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) discusses the potential drawbacks of naming multiple co-executors in your will (who must work together): https://hullandhull.com/2021/09/should-you-have-co-executors-for-your-will/
  2. Stan Rule at Sabey Rule discusses a recent B.C. Court of Appeal decision which held that a creditor who has registered a judgment against real property held in the name of the debtor cannot enforce the judgment in respect of a beneficial interest of another person in the property, even if that interest is not registered: http://rulelaw.blogspot.com/2021/09/chichak-v-chichak.html
  3. Tyler Lin at de Vries Litigation LLP (Ontario) considers whether secret recordings are effective in litigation: https://devrieslitigation.com/can-secret-recordings-be-effective-evidence-in-litigation/
  4. Albert Oosterhoff at WEL Partners (Toronto) discusses the rights of beneficiaries to obtain information from trustees: https://welpartners.com/blog/2021/09/information-trustees-must-disclose-to-beneficiaries-the-joint-interest-exception/
  5. Paul Trudelle at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) discusses an Alberta case in which it was ordered that no further steps could be taken without leave of the court in what amounted to frivolous estate litigation: https://hullandhull.com/2021/09/when-enough-is-enough-ending-estate-claims/

Happy reading!

What I’m Reading: Interesting Estate Litigation Articles for August 2021

The following is a roundup of noteworthy articles published this month on estate litigation and related issues:

  1. Sanaya Mistry at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) writes about a recent Ontario decision involving guardianship of an elderly person and validity of powers of attorney in a pair of posts, one of which has a useful discussion on the admissibility of audio recordings: https://hullandhull.com/2021/08/are-audio-recordings-admissible/ and https://hullandhull.com/2021/08/considerations-for-determining-the-validity-of-powers-of-attorney-and-appointing-guardians-for-property-and-personal-care/
  2. James Steele at Robertson Stromberg (Saskatchewan) notes that every irregularity in a will does not amount to lack of capacity or undue influence of the will-maker, in the context of a recent Saskatchewan decision: https://skestatelaw.ca/2021/08/25/saskatchewan-estate-litigation-update-fraser-v-mountstephen-2021-skqb-192/
  3. Stephen Mulrain at Miller Thomson discusses what happens when there is a dispute over how to handle a deceased’s remains: https://www.millerthomson.com/en/blog/mt-estate-litigation-blog/thoughts-on-final-resting-places/
  4. Arielle Di Iulio (also at Hull & Hull LLP, Toronto) discusses an interesting Federal Court decision, in which a claimant sought to claim the CPP survivor’s pension on two separate occasions, and argued that the inability to due so would infringe upon her charter rights: https://hullandhull.com/2021/08/survivors-pension-rights-of-the-twice-widowed-woman/

Happy reading!

Repost: B.C. Court upholds $1.4M bequest to SPCA

My colleague, Georgia Barnard, (bio found here) posted on our firm blog about a recent estate litigation case.  The post can be found here.

In Henderson v. Myler 2012 BCSC 1649 (reasons for judgment found here), the B.C. Supreme Court considered whether a handwritten note was effective and changed the distribution of an estate as set out in a prior will.  The prior will provided that the SPCA would receive the residue of the estate (approximately $1.4 million).  The note provided that the SPCA would only receive $100,000.  The Court concluded that the note was not effective, and so the SPCA received the $1.4 million residue pursuant to the prior will.

A CBC news article on this decision can be found here.

As Georgia notes in her post, it is important to immediately prepare a new will or codicil if your wishes for your estate change.

B.C. Case Comment: Court Admits Unsigned Will After Will-Maker Dies Before Signing Document

It is not uncommon for people to make changes to their estate plan in the final stages of their life, whether they are ill or elderly.  Sometimes there is urgency – death may be imminent.  On occasion, someone may start to make these changes, but may die before the changes have been finalized.  What happens when it is known that someone wants to make certain changes to their estate plan, starts the process to make those changes, but does not complete the changes (for example by taking the final step of signing a new will)?

This was the case in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Bishop Estate v. Sheardown 2021 BCSC 1571. In Bishop Estate, the deceased had given instructions to a lawyer to prepare her will, she reviewed the draft will, and she made a few minor clarifications.  All that remained was to have the will signed and witnessed.  Unfortunately, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the deceased cancelled her appointment with her lawyer to execute her new will.  She then died without ever signing her new will.

The deceased had a previous will, which named her now-deceased husband as beneficiary, or in the alternative the Kelowna General Hospital Foundation.  Under the new, unsigned will, the primary beneficiaries were the deceased’s nephew and niece-in-law.

A will must meet certain requirements to be valid, including the requirement that the will be in writing, signed by the will-maker in the presence of at least two witnesses.

However, in B.C. a court may cure deficiencies in an otherwise invalid will, and order it to be effective.  It must be established that the invalid document is (1) authentic, and (2) represents the deceased’s deliberate or fixed and final intentions regarding the disposal of her property upon death.  This is a fact specific inquiry.  I have previously discussed other cases that apply the test here.

In Bishop Estate, the Court considered the background as to why the the deceased was making changes to her estate plan in 2020.  Since the prior will was made in 2014, the deceased’s husband had died, and her nephew and his wife (the new beneficiaries) had moved to Kamloops and had become a regular part of her life.  The deceased gave detailed and specific instructions to her lawyer that she wanted to name her nephew and his wife as beneficiaries and remove the Kelowna General Hospital Foundation.

The Court concluded that the unsigned will represented the deceased’s fixed and final intentions.  The Deceased cancelled her appointment with her lawyer to sign her will because she could not leave her care facility and attend at the lawyer’s office in person as a result of the pandemic.  The Hospital Foundation argued that the deceased could have signed her will remotely, which will-makers were allowed to do as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  They argued that the deceased did not proceed with this option because she may have changed her mind about making a new will.  The Court did not accept this argument.  There was no evidence that the deceased was aware of this option, and the failure to execute the will remotely did not undermine her new testamentary intentions.

The Court ordered that the unsigned will was fully effective and determined how the deceased’s estate would be distributed.

B.C. Case Comment: No Claim in Unjust Enrichment Arising from Contribution to Family Business

I am often contacted by the child of a deceased parent who strongly believes that they have not been treated fairly in that parent’s will (or one of their siblings is making this claim against them).  The death of a parent often brings up long-held perceptions of favoritism, unfairness and lack of appreciation. It is not unusual for a child to seek to revisit events going back years or even decades. This commonly results in wills variation claims and other estate litigation.

One “historical” claim that is sometimes brought is a claim relating to unpaid contributions to a family business. Children are often expected to contribute time and efforts to a family business with no remuneration (but they receive room and board). When those children are not treated fairly under their parents’ wills, they seek to go back and revisit the issue of the unpaid services that they provided.

This was the case in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Tang v. Tom 2021 BCSC 1399. In Tang, the plaintiffs sought a variation of their mother’s will, which failed to treat her five children equally.

One of the plaintiffs (Linda) also brought a claim in unjust enrichment with respect to her work at her parents’ grocery store between 1971 and 1981. She described her assistance to her parents as “extraordinary efforts.”

The family came to Vancouver in the 1960s, when the children ranged in age from eight to 17. The family (parents and children) worked extremely hard to improve their standard of life. The Court described their work ethic as “remarkable”. The parents purchased a small grocery store with an attached home and the family moved there in 1971. All of the children except one worked part-time at the store until it was sold in 1981. None of them were paid for their work. The children also worked various other jobs, and contributed their paycheques to the “family pot” of income to pay expenses. The children received pocket money, vehicles to commute to school, and payment of most of their living and school expenses.

Linda argued that she was a pivotal figure in the success of the grocery store business. The Court held that while Linda may have made significant contribution to the store (which at times may have been greater than the contribution of her younger siblings), she tended to exaggerate the scope and scale of her contribution, while minimizing the contributions of her siblings.

The Court had to consider whether Linda’s historic contributions to the family business constituted unjust enrichment. In order to satisfy the requirements for a claim in unjust enrichment, a plaintiff must show: (1) an enrichment of the defendant (in this case her mother/her mother’s estate), (2) a corresponding deprivation of the plaintiff, and (3) an absence of juristic reason for the enrichment.

A claim in unjust enrichment can be difficult to establish in the context of a family business, as there will often be mutual benefits to family members as they function as a common unit. This was the case in Tang. The Court concluded that while the contributions by the children (and in particular Linda) may have been significant (i.e. there was enrichment), the benefits to the children (housing, food, other amenities, etc…) were also significant. As a result, Linda failed to establish a legal claim against her mother’s estate for unjust enrichment.

Linda did have a moral claim to a portion of the estate, as did her siblings, as a result of their contributions to the family business and the common family unit. However, she did not have a legal claim in unjust enrichment distinct from that of her siblings.

The deceased left an estate which included real property assessed at approximately $1.7M, and personal property (bank and investment accounts) worth approximately $775,000. Her will left her real property to two of her children (neither of which was Linda) who provided a greater degree of care in the last three years of her life. The will divided her personal property equally between her five children.

The Court varied the Will to order specific gifts of $300,000 to each of the children who provided care in the three years of the deceased’s life, with the remainder of be divided equally between the five children. This would recognize the contributions of the children when the family was a joint economic unit (which included the acquisition of the real property), but also take into account the “significant sacrifices” made by the of the two children who provided end of life care.

What I’m Reading: Interesting Estate Litigation Articles for July 2021

The following is a roundup of noteworthy articles published this month on estate litigation and related issues:

  1. Suzana Popovic-Montag at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) discusses the considerations for a beneficiary if they are asked to sign a release before they receive a distribution from the estate: https://hullandhull.com/2021/07/if-you-have-valid-concerns-dont-sign-a-beneficiary-release/
  2. Janis Ko at Onyx Law discusses an important case in which the B.C. Courts recognized a third legal parent in polyamorous relationships: https://onyxlaw.ca/bc-court-recognizes-third-legal-parent-in-polyamorous-relationship/
  3. James Jacuta at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) writes about the British Columbia Unclaimed Property Society, which returns unclaimed funds to individuals in B.C.: https://hullandhull.com/2021/07/thousands-have-unclaimed-funds-waiting-for-them/
  4. Trevor Todd at Disinherited.com discusses the test for a beneficiary to obtain standing to bring a claim on behalf of an estate, in the context of a reason B.C. Supreme Court decision: https://disinherited.com/uncategorized/s-151-wesa-leave-to-bring-action-on-behalf-of-estate/

Happy reading!

B.C. Case Comment: Surviving Business Partner not Entitled to Receive Partnership Property by Right of Survivorship

What happens when your business partner dies, in particular when the assets of the business are held by you and your partner jointly? Do you receive your deceased partner’s “half” of the business, or does it go to their estate?

A fundamental characteristic of joint tenancy (i.e. registering assets in joint names) is the right of survivorship. When one joint tenant dies, their interest is extinguished, and the surviving joint tenant(s) take full ownership. For example, spouses often register title to their property in joint tenancy, so that the surviving spouse will receive the entirety of the property upon the other spouse’s death. This is accepted as a permissible estate planning tool.

However, where the property at issue is partnership property, there is a presumption that there is no right of survivorship as between partners. The death of a partner in a two-person partnership dissolves the partnership, and on dissolution each partner (including the estate of the deceased’s partner) is entitled to a proportionate share of the partnership assets after payment of debts.

This issue was recently considered by the B.C. Supreme Court in Garland v. Newhouse 2021 BCSC 1291. In Garland, the deceased and the spouse of his close friend (“Ms. Newhouse”) purchased an apartment building together in 2003, with the intention of earning a profit from the rental income. They also opened an account to manage the finances associated with the apartment building. The building and the account were both registered in their joint names.

When the deceased died, Ms. Newhouse took the position that the deceased intended for her to receive the apartment building and account through right of survivorship. The deceased’s estate took the position that the deceased intended for the beneficiaries of his estate (his children) to receive his share of the business assets.

The first question for the court was whether a partnership existed between the parties. The court held that there was a partnership. The deceased and Ms. Newhouse were not spouses, they each equally contributed to the purchase of the building and shared in the expenses and the rental income, with a goal to earn profit over time. This was clearly a business partnership.

Next, the court had to determine whether the presumption of right of survivorship was rebutted. As noted above, where the property in issue is partnership property, there is no presumption of right of survivorship between partners. In essence, the right of survivorship is inconsistent with the rules regarding treatment of partnership assets upon dissolution (including the death of a partner). In order for the right of survivorship to apply to partnership assets, “there must be evidence of a contrary agreement between the parties that is sufficiently clear and compelling to overcome the presumption that beneficial interest in partnership property does not transfer through the right of survivorship.”

Ms. Newhouse was unable to provide this evidence. The court was unable to determine why the deceased and Ms. Newhouse chose to register the apartment building in joint tenancy, and there was no credible evidence that they turned their minds to the significance of registering the property in joint tenancy. The court concluded that the parties did not intend and agree that on the death of one partner, the partnership property would transfer to the surviving partner for their personal benefit.

Ms. Newhouse failed to rebut the presumption against the right of survivorship in relation to the partnership property, and as a result she held legal title of the apartment building and the bank account in trust for herself and the deceased’s estate.

It is important to keep in mind business and partnership interests when making your estate plan. Of course this dispute likely could have been avoided if there was a written agreement reflecting the terms of the arrangement between the parties.

What I’m Reading: Interesting Estate Litigation Articles for June 2021

The following is a roundup of noteworthy articles published this month on estate litigation and related issues:

  1. Stan Rule at Sabey Rule comments on a case from the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal which held that allowing independent adult children to apply to vary their parents’ wills (which you can do in British Columbia) does not offend the s. 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (overturning the lower court’s decision): http://rulelaw.blogspot.com/2021/06/nova-scotia-court-of-appeal-allows.html
  2. Suzana Popovic-Montag at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) identifies the dangers of using an online will kit to write your will: https://hullandhull.com/2021/06/the-simplicity-of-online-will-kits-is-their-biggest-shortcoming/
  3. Janis Ko at Onyx Law discusses when the court may order an interim distribution to a beneficiary from an estate where there is an ongoing wills variation proceeding: https://onyxlaw.ca/can-beneficiaries-receive-interim-distribution-pending-wills-variation-claim/
  4. Kimberley A. Whaley at WEL Partners (Toronto) posts a link to a paper that she co-authored on the role of the medical expert in estate litigation, with a focus on claims of undue influence. A link to the blog post can be found here: https://welpartners.com/blog/2021/06/published-paper-susceptibility-to-undue-influence-the-role-of-the-medical-expert-in-estate-litigation/ The paper can be found here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/07067437211020616
  5. Joanna Lindenberg at de Vries Litigation LLP (Ontario) considers an Ontario case where beneficiaries acted unreasonably by raising over 300 objections to a trustee’s accounts, and as a result the trustee was awarded $325,000 in costs: https://devrieslitigation.com/cost-consequences-of-conduct/

Happy reading!

B.C. Case Comment: Creditor Entitled to Shares that Deceased tried to Settle into a Trust

A creditors may make a claim against a debtor’s estate. However, a creditor is sometimes disappointed to find that the debtor’s estate is insolvent or has insufficient assets to satisfy their claim. The creditor may look at other steps taken by the deceased debtor to strip their estate of assets. While the courts have recognized alter ego trusts, transfers into joint tenancy, etc.. as valid estate planning tools, creditors still have remedies available if the deceased has taken steps to defeat the claims of their creditors.

In the recent case of Lau v. McDonald 2021 BCSC 1207, the B.C. Supreme Court was asked to determine who owned shares of 319344 B.C. Ltd. (“319344”) which were previously held by the deceased. A creditor of the deceased wanted to execute against the shares to satisfy a debt owed by the deceased.

The deceased’s spouse argued that she was entitled to receive the shares. She said that she was the beneficiary of an alter ego trust settled by the deceased, and that the shares were settled into the trust pursuant to a deed of gift. However, the deed did not on its face transfer shares in 319344 to the trust. Instead, the deed referred to the transfer of shares in Noramco Capital Corp. (“Noramco”), a subsidiary of 319344. The Deceased did not own any shares in Noramco, only in 319344.

The 319344 shares were valued at almost $1,900,000 at the deceased’s date of death.

The creditor of the estate took the position that the 319344 shares formed part of the estate (as opposed to the trust), so that she could claim against them to satisfy the debt owed to her by the deceased.

There was a good argument that the deed contained a drafting error, and the issue became whether there was some legal basis to fix the error, and whether the spouse was able to keep the shares and avoid execution against them by the creditor.

First, the spouse argued that the deed should be interpreted to include the 319344 shares. However, the deed stated that it transferred “all of the issued shares of Noramco Capital Corp. which are beneficially held by [the deceased] as of the date hereof.” The Court was not willing to interpret this to include shares in 319344 when the deed clearly only referred to Noramco.

Next, the spouse asked that the deed be rectified, to give effect to the true agreement of the parties. Where a written instrument does not accord with the true agreement between the parties, equity has the power to rectify the document so that it reflects the true agreement. The mistake is not in the transaction itself, but the way that the transaction has been expressed in writing. This is a discretionary remedy.

In Lau, the Court held that there was sufficient evidence to establish an agreement by the deceased to transfer “all of his known material assets” into the trust.   The deed clearly failed to reflect this agreement, since it left out the 319344 shares and instead purported to transfer Noramco shares that the deceased did not even own.

As a result, the court concluded that rectification was available. If the discrepancy was pointed out to the deceased at the time of the transaction, the deceased would have obviously agreed to the necessary revision. It was ultimately an error by the deceased’s professional advisor (lawyer) who drafted the documents. In the end, the court characterized this as a “simple drafting mistake in inserting the name of a subsidiary rather than the parent company.” Equity ought to step in and fix this mistake.

However, this was not the end of the matter. The creditor made other arguments. She sought to argue that the shares were not properly transferred, and that the court may not generally assist a claimant in enforcing an imperfect gift. However, the court held that the transfer of the 319344 shares was properly completed. She sought to argue that the transfer of the shares to the trust was a fraudulent conveyance under the Fraudulent Conveyance Act, intended to defeat her claims. The court held that the deceased did not have this intention, and so there was no fraudulent conveyance.

The creditor’s last argument was that the transfer was contrary to s. 96 of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, which provides that a transfer at undervalue is void as against the trustee if it occurred within a specified period of time (which is set out in the section), and if the debtor was insolvent at the time of transfer or was rendered insolvent by it, or intended to defeat creditors. The Court in Lau held that the creditor established the test for s. 96.  The transfer of the shares rendered the deceased insolvent, even though he may not have intended to defeat his creditors.

Success on this one argument was enough for the creditor to be entitled to the shares.