Unjust Enrichment: Plaintiff must Prove Efforts Actually Resulted in Benefit to Estate Property

In order to prove a claim in unjust enrichment against an estate, the onus is on the plaintiff to prove on a balance of probabilities a benefit to the estate, a corresponding deprivation to her, and the absence of a juristic reason for the benefit and deprivation. With respect to the first requirement, it cannot be assumed that just because a person incurred time and/or expense that related in some way to estate property, that this actually benefitted the property. It may be that despite the plaintiff’s efforts or expense, they did not actually enhance or maintain the value of the property. If that is the case, there is no claim in unjust enrichment.

This was the case in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Benson v. Power 2021 BCSC 409. In Benson, a mother and father operated a cattle ranch over ten parcels of land near Golden, B.C. until their deaths in 2013 and 2016. The father held nine of the parcels, and the mother held one of the parcels. Both parents left their estate to their four children in equal shares. One of the children died in 2018, but left four children of his own (who as a result would each receive 1/16 of each estate).

One of the daughters, Penny Benson, obtained probate of both estates. Following her father’s death and then her mother’s death, she continued to operate the ranch has her parents had done. In doing so, the court observed that she (1) comingled her personal funds with estate funds, (2) did not act promptly to administer her parents’ estate, and (3) was in a conflict of interest as a result of her stated wish to acquire estate property. She was removed as sole executor by court order, and replaced with a person who was not a beneficiary under the wills.

Ms. Benson discussed with the new executor her desire to purchase certain estate properties. They were unable to reach an agreement, and so the new executor entered into agreements to sell the properties to his half-sister, who was also one of the grandchild beneficiaries who would receive 1/16 of the estate. This included the main ranch property with the family home where the deceased parents had lived. Ms. Benson had resided on this parcel since 1996, and moved from a manufactured home on the parcel to the family home after her parents’ deaths.

To prevent the sale of the property to the grandchild, Ms. Benson started an action alleging a 10% interest the parcel, and filed a certificate of pending litigation against title. She argued unjust enrichment: that her many hours of labour and the contribution of her personal funds have benefitted her father’s estate, particularly the parcel at issue, to her detriment. She argued that from the time her father’s health began to fail, she and her family performed all or almost all of the maintenance work on the estate properties (which she estimates amounted to hundreds of hours). She also claimed to have paid various expenses from her own funds.

As noted above, the onus is on the plaintiff to establish a benefit to the estate, a corresponding deprivation to her, and the absence of a juristic reason for the benefit and deprivation. Ms. Benson argued that her labour and money to continue operating her parents’ ranch benefited her father’s estate (including the parcel at issue), to her detriment. However, the evidence actually established that she operated the ranch at a loss. It was also impossible to say what time and money was necessary or related to the ranch operations, how much was related to Ms. Benson’s own family (including their own cattle), and how much this enhanced the value of the estate parcel (if at all). The court also alluded to (but ultimately did not have to specifically address) the fact that Ms. Benson and her family lived on the parcel rent-free.

As a result, Ms. Benson was unable to establish a benefit to the estate, and therefore was unable to prove a claim in unjust enrichment. Her claim was dismissed, and the certificate of pending litigation was cancelled.

This case is a reminder that just because you are spending time and money in relation to assets or property belonging to an estate, the court will not assume that this is actually a benefit to the estate which entitles you to claim in unjust enrichment. You must actually prove that your work or expense contributed value to the estate property.  This may also be further complicated if you are also receiving a personal benefit form your efforts or expense.

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

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

  1. WEL Partners (Toronto) provided a checklist of red flags and indicators of undue influence.  While the checklist is intended primarily for lawyers watching out for clients who may be unduly influenced, it is also of assistance generally when there may be a concern of undue influence:  https://welpartners.com/blog/2021/03/solicitors-negligence-in-estates-and-trusts-context-no-14-a-lawyers-checklist-red-flags-and-indicators-of-undue-influence/
  2. Arielle Di Iulio at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) commented on a recent Ontario court decision in which an award of costs was made against estate trustees as a result of unreasonable conduct: https://hullandhull.com/2021/03/dewaele-v-roobroeck-the-costs-of-bad-conduct/
  3. Trevor Todd at Disinherited.com listed the ten considerations when assessing the strength of an adult independent child’s wills variation claim:  https://disinherited.com/wills-variation/wills-variaiton-the-ten-considerations/
  4. Janis Ko at Onyx Law wrote about a recent case which held that it was too late for a mother to change her mind and undo the gifting of her house to her daughter: https://onyxlaw.ca/too-late-for-mother-to-change-her-mind-after-gifting-house-to-daughter/
  5. Tyler Lin at de Vries Litigation LLP (Ontario) commented on two court decisions (one from Ontario, and one from British Columbia), which considered whether a suicide note constituted a valid will:  https://devrieslitigation.com/tale-two-suicide-notes/

Happy Reading!

B.C. Court Intervenes to Uphold Bequest To Charity

It is common for will-makers to make bequests to charitable organizations in their wills. But what if the charity that is named as a beneficiary no longer exists at the date of the will-maker’s death? Over time, charities may be dissolved or cease to exist, change names or structures, or otherwise be replaced by successor organizations.  If a will-maker intends to make a charitable bequest, but the charity named in the will no longer exists at their death (or no longer exists in that name or form), what happens?

This issue was recently considered by the B.C. Supreme Court.  In Galloway Estate v. British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 2021 BCSC 413, the deceased left shares of her estate to certain charitable organizations “that are in existence as at the date of [her] death,” including “Pacific Coast Public Television Association” (“PCPTA”).

PCPTA was registered as a Canadian charity so that persons could donate to the commercial-free educational channel, KCTS 9, or PBS Channel 9. The problem was that PCPTA (the beneficiary named in the will) was dissolved in 2018, and therefore that particular entity no longer existed at the deceased’s death.  KCTS also had changed its name to Cascade Public Media (“CPM”), and CPM continued to operate KCTS 9.

The executor needed directions from the court:

  1. Does the gift to benefit PBS/KCTS 9 fail because PCPTA no longer exists; or
  2. Can the PBS gift go to CPM instead?

The court applied the “cy-pres doctrine.”  The cy-pres doctrine determines what happens when property that has been dedicated to charitable purposes cannot be applied in the manner intended by the donor. Where the purposes or objects of a charitable trust have become impossible or impracticable to accomplish, the court may intervene and alter the purposes of the trust. The courts may implement modernized or modified objects that are “as near as possible” to the original purposes. The order must depart from the intentions of the settlor only to the extent required to remove the problem.

If it is not impossible or impractical (which the courts interpret broadly) to accomplish the purpose of the charitable trust, then the court cannot intervene.

In Galloway, the court concluded that the gift would go to CPM. The deceased intended to benefit the PBS channel, and CPM was now the entity that performed that role. CPM assumed responsibility for PCPTA’s obligations.

The court distinguished another case, Re Eberwein Estate 2012 BCSC 250. In that case, the deceased made a gift to a charity called “Aid to Animals in Distress,” which she donated to during her lifetime. The charity ceased to exist prior to the deceased making her will and her death. That gift was not subject to the cy-pres document (and the gift failed) because the court was unable to determine an alternative charity to which the gift should go.

If it appears that a specific charitable bequest may fail because the named charity no longer exists, in certain circumstances the court may intervene and give effect to the will-maker’s charitable intention by modifying the will to, for example, make the bequest to a successor charity, or a nearly identical charity.

B.C. Man Fails to Update Life Insurance Beneficiary Designation From Ex-Spouse to Current Spouse

When making changes to an estate plan, people sometimes overlook their direct beneficiary designations, for example on life insurance policies, RRSPs or TFSAs. You don’t want to make changes to a will, transfer assets into joint ownership with right of survivorship, and settle assets into a trust, but neglect to update a beneficiary designation. The result may be an unwelcomed surprise to your loved ones, when a beneficiary designation that you have failed to update provides a payout that was clearly not what you intended, and which is inconsistent with the rest of your estate plan.

This was the case in a decision of the B.C. Supreme Court released this week. In Knowles v. LeBlanc 2021 BCSC 482, the Court considered competing claims over the proceeds of a life insurance policy. The dispute was between the deceased’s ex-wife, who was named as the sole beneficiary under the policy, and the deceased’s long-time spouse at his date of death (described as the “disappointed beneficiary”).

The deceased obtained the life insurance policy when he was still married to his first wife, and the records indicated that no change of beneficiary had ever been filed. He separated from his first wife in the late 1980s, and their divorce was finalized in May 1991.  He moved in with his current spouse around 1993, and they lived in an exclusive common law relationship until his death in 2019.

The deceased continued the monthly payments on the life insurance policy with automated withdrawals from a joint account which he held with his new spouse. The benefit under the policy was $100,000.  Upon the deceased’s death, his spouse received the proceeds of every other life insurance policy that he held, as well as all of his other assets (by right of survivorship).

The Court first considered the intentions of the deceased. The evidence was clear that the deceased maintained feelings of hostility toward his ex-wife. He also became estranged from the two children that he shared with her. It was also clear that he intended to change the beneficiary designation to his spouse and thought he had done so.

While his ex-wife argued that there was no evidence of an intention to change the designation, the Court did not accept this in light of the ex-wife’s complete absence from his life after the divorce, his hostility toward her, and the circumstances which showed a wish to leave all of his property to his spouse.

The Court held that a consent order which was entered in the divorce proceedings involving the deceased and his ex-wife did not operate to prevent his ex-wife from claiming the proceeds of the life insurance policy. It did not include language that the parties clearly relinquished all interest in each other’s estate.

The spouse argued that if the ex-wife was to receive the insurance proceedings then this would result in unjust enrichment. To establish unjust enrichment, the plaintiff must show (1) an enrichment of the defendant; (2) a corresponding deprivation of the plaintiff; and (3) an absence of juristic reason (such as a contract) for the enrichment.

In Knowles, the spouse suffered a deprivation, as the premiums of the policy were paid from an account that she held jointly with the deceased for many years, and she believed that the deceased had changed the beneficiary designation to her. The ex-spouse would be enriched if she received the proceedings. There was no juristic reason for the enrichment, and there was no basis in the parties’ expectations or public policy to rebut the spouse’s recovery.

The court allowed the spouse’s claim in unjust enrichment, and imposed a remedial constructive trust over the insurance proceedings. The insurance company was directed to pay the insurance proceeds to the spouse.

The court was able to “fix” the deceased’s oversight in these particular circumstances.  The spouse had good facts on her side, including good evidence of the deceased’s intention.  This may not always be the case for a “disappointed beneficiary.”  This also resulted in time, stress and uncertainty for his spouse, which would have been avoided if he had properly updated the beneficiary designation.

Covid-19: B.C. to End Suspension of Time Limits for Commencing Legal Proceedings on March 25, 2021

On March 26, 2020, the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General took the exceptional step of suspending limitation periods to commence court proceedings in British Columbia. A previous post about this order, and the effect of the order on estate matters, can be found here: https://www.bcestatelitigation.ca/wills-variation/covid-19-b-c-suspends-time-limits-for-commencing-legal-proceedings/

The provincial government has now announced that they are lifting the suspension, and that limitation periods will resume running on March 25, 2021 (one year after the suspension was put in place).

My colleagues Brian Cheng and Taahaa Patel, articled student discuss the end of the suspension of time limits for commencing legal proceedings in B.C. here: https://owenbird.com/the-limitation-period-suspension-ends-on-march-25-2021/

The key point is this: while the suspension was in effect, any running of a limitation period was paused. When the suspension is lifted, the limitation period will resume running.

The Law Society of British Columbia has published helpful guidelines (with examples) which can be found here: https://www.lawsociety.bc.ca/about-us/covid-19-response/guidelines-for-calculating-bc-limitation-periods/

In my previous post, I noted that executors should consider the effect of the suspension (and now the end of the suspension) on estate administration matters, most notably distribution of estate assets to beneficiaries. Beneficiaries (or other potential claimants) should similarly be aware of the lifting of the suspension, so that they do not miss a deadline to bring a claim.

The Wills, Estates and Succession Act [SBC 2009] Chapter 13 provides that the personal representative of a deceased person must not distribute the estate of the deceased person within 210 days following the date of the grant of probate or administration, absent a court order or the consent of the beneficiaries.  This is so that potential claimants can bring claims before estate assets have been distributed, some of which must brought within 180 days of the issuance of the grant (most notably wills variation claims).  I warned that executors should obtain advice before distributing assets even after 210 days, if the 180 day deadlines have been suspended. Once the suspension is lifted, the 180 day and 210 day periods will resume running (or start running, if the period would have started during the suspension).

B.C. Supreme Court finds that Deceased had Two Spouses Entitled to Share Estate

The recent decision of the B.C. Supreme Court in Boughton v. Widner Estate 2021 BCSC 325 discusses a number of important estate litigation issues in the context of an unusual fact scenario: the deceased had a second “secret” family.

The deceased was a victim of homicide.  He did not leave a will. At the time of his death, the deceased was married (to Ms. Widner) and had two children. At the same time, he was in a long term relationship (with Ms. Boughton), which the parties at trial agreed was a “marriage-like relationship” of at least two years. He also had two children with Ms. Boughton.

Ms. Boughton knew that the deceased was married, but the deceased told her he would eventually obtain a divorce and marry her. Ms. Widner had no knowledge of the deceased’s relationship with Ms. Boughton.  The deceased was living a double life, telling Ms. Widner that he was working part of the week on the other side of Vancouver island, when he was actually spending time with Ms. Boughton and their children.

The headline of this article in the Vancouver Sun nicely summarizes the salacious circumstances: “Secret family and wife battle in court over dead Hells Angels prospect’s assets” https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/secret-family-and-wife-battle-in-court-over-dead-hells-angels-prospects-assets

The evidence at trial was that the deceased was a member of the Hells Angels. Ms. Boughton claimed that the deceased told her many times that he paid for several properties that were registered Ms. Widner’s name. Ms Boughton sought orders that the deceased’s estate consisted of half of the value of the properties held in Ms. Widner’s name.

This decision addresses a number of important issues:

A person can have multiple spouses. The Court held that a deceased person can have two spouses at the same time for the purpose of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act. In particular, a person can be in a marriage-like relationship with someone who is still married to someone else. The Court declared that Ms. Boughton was also the spouse of the deceased, and so the deceased had two spouses at the time of his death. Ms. Boughton and Ms. Widner are each entitled to half of the deceased’s estate.

Ms. Widner argued that this cannot be the case, as it would sanction polygamy, which is an offence under the Criminal Code. However, it was previously decided that the criminal law prohibits “conjugal union” or “multiple marriages”, but does not extend to “conjugal relationships” or “common law cohabitation” (i.e. marriage like relationships).

Statements made by the deceased as to beneficial ownership of assets may be admitted as evidence. The Court considered whether statements by the deceased were admissible for the truth of their contents. The deceased allegedly made statements to Ms. Boughton that he paid for properties, even though they were registered in Ms. Widner’s name.   The general rule is that hearsay evidence is not admissible for the truth of its contents. However, hearsay statements may be admitted if it can be established that the evidence is necessary and reliable. In this case, the deceased was dead and so the requirement that the evidence be necessary was satisfied. The court was satisfied that some of the deceased’s statements were reliable. The judge did not accept that the deceased’s statements that he paid for all of the properties was reliable, as other evidence showed this was not the case.

An Estate may be entitled to an award for unjust enrichment. The Court found that the deceased contributed $150,000 towards the properties that were registered in Ms. Widner’s name, which resulted in an unjust enrichment to Ms. Widner. There was no juristic reason for Ms. Widner to retain the benefit of the deceased’s contributions. As a result, the deceased’s estate was awarded $150,000 from Ms. Widner.

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

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

  1. Stan Rule at Sabey Rule discusses the use of multiple wills in British Columbia to minimize probate fees, and identifies potential pitfalls to avoid:  http://rulelaw.blogspot.com/2021/02/using-two-wills-to-minimize-british.html
  2. Janis Ko at Onyx Law posted two articles on the use of mutual wills in British Columbia:  https://onyxlaw.ca/mutual-wills-clear-evidence-needed-for-binding-agreement-not-to-revoke-a-will/ and https://onyxlaw.ca/mutual-wills-clear-evidence-needed-for-binding-agreement-not-to-revoke-a-will-2/
  3. Garrett Horracks at Hull & Hull LLP (in Ontario) writes about the “prudent investor rule” which applies to trustees managing trust assets, in the context of the recent GameStop share fluctuation.  Part 2 can be found here:  https://hullandhull.com/2021/02/the-gamestop-saga-part-ii-prudent-investing/
  4. James Steele at Robertson Stromberg in Saskatchewan discusses a recent decision of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench, in which the court refused to summarily cure what appeared to be relatively minor deficiencies in a testamentary document because there were greater concerns about whether the document reflected the deceased’s testamentary intentions:  https://skestatelaw.ca/2021/02/05/estate-litigation-update-thorne-v-thorne/
  5.  Rebecca Rauws at Hull & Hull LLP comments on a recent Ontario decision which found that a gift in a will was void for uncertainty:  https://hullandhull.com/2021/02/estate-interest-void-for-uncertainty/

Happy Reading!

Estates in the News: Larry King’s Will Contested and a $5 Million Bequest to a Dog

There have been two interesting estate-related stories in the news this week.

Larry King’s Widow Contests his Will

First, the widow of TV host Larry King has gone to court to contest a handwritten will that purportedly leaves Mr. King’s$2 Million estate to his five children. She alleges that one of his children exerted undue influence on him, that he was “of questionable mental capacity” when the will was signed, and that he made a previous will in 2015 in which she was named executor.

Larry King had filed for divorce in 2019, but his widow claims that he was not actually pursing the divorce, and in fact they were working toward a possible reconciliation.

More can be read here: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-56095825 and https://people.com/tv/larry-kings-widow-shawn-contests-his-will/

If this case arose in British Columbia, Mr. King’s widow would have various remedies, some of which would depend upon whether she was a “spouse” at his death. She could argue that the will was invalid as a result of undue influence or lack of capacity. If the handwritten will was valid, then she could seek to vary the will to make provision for her only if she was Mr. King’s spouse at the date of death. The separation may have terminated her standing as a “spouse”. However, if they began to live together again for at least 90 days and the primary purpose for doing so was to reconcile, then she would have regained her standing as “spouse” and could seek to vary the will. If she was not a “spouse” at death, then she could bring a family law claim against Mr. King’s estate (or continue the divorce proceedings that were ongoing at his death).

Dog Inherits $5 Million

A businessman in Nashville who died last year stipulated in his will that upon his death his assets, worth an estimated $5 Million, would be transferred into a trust for the benefit of his 8-year-old border collie, Lulu. The will names a friend as Lulu’s official caretaker, and the funds are to be used to pay Lulu’s reasonable expenses. It is unclear who will receive the remaining monies upon Lulu’s death.

More can be read here: https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/13/us/dog-border-collie-lulu-5-million-dollar-trust-owner-trnd/index.html and https://people.com/pets/man-leaves-5-million-to-his-dog-in-will/

In British Columbia, will-makers have the autonomy to distribute their estate by will as they see fit.  If they want to make an “unconventional” bequest or provision in a will, then that is their choice to make. However, there are potential avenues to challenge such a bequest. There may be a challenge to the validity of the will, on the basis that the will-maker lacked capacity, did not understand what they were doing, or was unduly influenced. A child or spouse (if there is one) may also bring a claim to vary the will on the basis that it does not make adequate provision for them.

Misconduct by Person Holding Power of Attorney may Constitute a Criminal Offence

We are often contacted by clients with concerns about misconduct by a person holding a power of attorney. We may be contacted by the person who granted the power of attorney (the “donor”) or a family member of the donor who has discovered the abuse under the power of attorney (either during the donor’s lifetime, or after their death).

These clients are upset when they discover what has happened, and often they ask the same questions:

  • “Isn’t this criminal?”
  • “Should I also go to the police?”
  • “Shouldn’t this person be in jail for what they’ve done?”

We assist with obtaining civil remedies against the attorney, including recovery of property that has been taken and damages for breach of fiduciary duty. However, it should be kept in mind that theft by a person holding a power of attorney is also an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada.

Section 331 provides as follows:

Theft by person holding power of attorney

331 Every one commits theft who, being entrusted, whether solely or jointly with another person, with a power of attorney for the sale, mortgage, pledge or other disposition of real or personal property, fraudulently sells, mortgages, pledges or otherwise disposes of the property or any part of it, or fraudulently converts the proceeds of a sale, mortgage, pledge or other disposition of the property, or any part of the proceeds, to a purpose other than that for which he was entrusted by the power of attorney.

Misconduct by a person holding a power of attorney may also fall within general Criminal Code provisions relating to theft and fraud.

There are key differences between moving forward with civil proceedings and criminal proceedings. In a civil claim for breach of fiduciary duty you must prove your claim on a balance of probabilities, while a criminal conviction must be established on the higher standard of beyond reasonable doubt. In civil proceedings, a plaintiff may also be able to rely upon rules which reverse the onus of proof for breach of fiduciary duty in certain circumstances.

People have been convicted and imprisoned for misconduct using a power of attorney. Here are few examples:

In R. v. Kaziuk 2011 ONCJ 851, the victim was 86 years of age at the time of the offences. The accused was her son, who she named as her power of attorney. At one point, the victim was “well off financially”, she owned her own properties mortgage-free and she had significant savings in her account. Then she signed a power of attorney naming her son as her attorney. The son used the power of attorney to register mortgages on his mother’s properties, as collateral for his own personal loan (to cover his own mortgage against his own home).

As a result of the son’s conduct, his mother lost her car and her savings, and she was evicted from her property when the banks seized her properties as a result of the fraudulent mortgages registered against title without her consent and knowledge. She lost everything and ended up living in a homeless shelter.

The son was 57 years old, and blamed his “financial misfortunes” and depression. He was convicted of theft exceeding $5,000 and fraud exceeding $5,000. The judge also held that the offence under s. 331 (theft by person holding power of attorney) had been proven. The judge described this as a “despicable breach of [his mother’s] love and trust. The son was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, which was reduced to 8 years on appeal. There were aggravating factors, including a finding that the son was incapable of feeling empathy and had no conscience.

In R. v. Hooyer 2016 ONCA 44, the victim suffered from dementia and resided in a long-term care facility. The accused had known the victim since the accused was a child. After the victim’s wife died, the accused assumed control over the victim’s property, moving into his home, dissipating his assets, and diverting nearly $400,000 for his own use. He did not attend to the victim’s care, and did not see the victim for several years. He failed to pay the bill for the care facility, which resulted in a downgrade of the victim’s accommodation. The accused argued that he honestly believed he was authorized to use the money for his own purposes. At trial we was convicted of fraud and theft, and he was sentenced to imprisonment of two years less a day and six months to be served concurrently, and restitution of the monies that he took.

Finally, in R. v. Banoub 2019 ONCJ 681, the offender was the power of attorney for her mother, who suffered form dementia and lived in a care facility. Over a period of four years, the offender depleted the monies in the mother’s bank accounts and investments by $161,000. She spent the monies on gambling, living expenses, and a trip. The offender was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and three years’ probation.

The above cases confirm that misconduct under a power of attorney is a serious matter and may amount to a criminal offense resulting in imprisonment.

B.C. Court Orders Medical Assessment to Determine Capacity of Elderly Person who Opposes Elder Abuse Lawsuit Brought on his Behalf

When cases of elder abuse arise, it is often a loved one who discovers alleged financial abuse, improprieties, or undue influence. But the loved one does not have standing to bring their own claim to recover assets for the rightful owner. The elderly person (the victim) must bring their own claim. Sometimes this creates difficulties. This person may lack capacity, or they may still be under the influence of the perpetrator of the fraud or otherwise unwilling to bring legal proceedings. What if a person is unable or unwilling to bring a proper and valid claim to recover their own property?

A proceeding can be filed and pursued on the person’s behalf by a litigation guardian, but only if the person is under a legal disability. A proceeding brought by or against a person under a legal disability must be started or defended by a litigation guardian – someone who agrees to conduct the litigation on behalf of the person with the legal disability. The test for a “legal disability” is whether the person is capable to instruct counsel and to exercise judgment in relation to the claims in issue and possible settlement as reasonable person would be expected to do. A person is presumed capable unless proven otherwise. If the person is capable, then they are the appropriate person to bring their own legal proceedings, unless there is a power of attorney or some other authority that would permit a third party to handle proceedings on their behalf.

What if you have knowledge of a case of financial abuse against a person under a legal disability, but the “victim”  does not want to bring a claim, and does not agree that they suffer from a legal disability? This was the issue in Stanford v. Murad 2021 BCSC 130, a decision of the B.C. Supreme Court released last week.

Mr. Stanford is 89 years old, and has two adult children who are the primary persons who will inherit their father’s estate upon his death. Mr. Stanford suffered from psychiatric disorders, including depression, for decades. He also suffers from other serious health issues and is unable to care for himself. In 2013, Mr. Stanford appointed his son-in-law as attorney-in-fact and executor of his will, and asked him to manage his affairs.

Mr. Stanford met the defendant in 2015, and they eventually moved in together. It is unclear whether they actually married, but Mr. Stanford was very dependent on the defendant. His daughter and her husband (Mr. Stanford’s son-in-law) allege that the defendant isolates Mr. Stanford and prevents them from seeing and communicating with him, that she is abusive, and that she is taking financial advantage of him. They allege that Mr. Stanford lacked capacity to take various steps, including appointing the defendant as his new power of attorney, adding her as a joint owner of various assets (including real property) and transferring monies to the defendant.

The daughter and son-in-law caused a lawsuit to be filed on behalf of Mr. Stanford, with the son-in-law as litigation guardian, seeking an accounting and tracing of all property transferred to the defendant.

Mr. Stanford sought to set the appointment of his son-in-law as litigation guardian. He does not agree that he is under a legal disability, and he does not want his son-in-law challenging the transfers and other arrangements that he has made with the defendant.  In other words, he denies that he is a victim of elder abuse, and he says that he has the capacity to make that decision.

The Court held that the evidence raised significant concerns about whether Mr. Stanford is under a legal disability. The Court ordered that Mr. Stanford attend a medical examination conducted by a doctor chosen by the son-in-law for the purpose of providing an opinion to the Court regarding whether Mr. Stanford is capable of instructing counsel and exercising judgment in relation to the claims and possible settlement.

If upon reviewing the medical opinion the Court determines that Mr. Stanford has the requisite level of capacity, then he can make the decision not to move forward with court proceedings against the defendant.  While Mr. Stanford remains capable, his daughter and son-in-law will not have standing to advocate and protect his assets by way of court proceedings brought on his behalf.