Bernard and Honey Sherman Estates Update: Supreme Court of Canada Releases Decision Allowing Public Access to Estate Files

This morning the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision on the sealing of the court files relating to the estates of Bernard and Honey Sherman, the wealthy victims of murders that remain unsolved, and that were widely reported in the media. I previous wrote about the case here, after the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions on whether the media ought to have access to the court files.

The Supreme of Canada dismissed the appeal brought by the trustees of the estates. The Court held that the sealing orders should not have been issued by the lower court, and the files were open to the public. The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada can be found here: Sherman Estate v. Donovan 2021 SCC 25

There is a strong presumption in favor of open courts. Court openness is a constitutional guarantee. Public scrutiny can cause inconvenience and even embarrassment to those who feel that the court system has intruded on their private lives. However, the Court confirmed that this discomfort is not enough to overturn “the strong presumption that the public can attend hearings and that court files can be consulted and reported upon by the free press.”

The court confirmed that there may be exceptional circumstances which justify a restriction on the open court principle.  An applicant for a sealing order or similar relief must demonstrate that openness presents a serious risk to a competing interest of public importance. This is a high bar.  Next, the applicant must show that the order is necessary to prevent the risk, and that the benefits of the order restricting openness outweigh its negative effect.

The estate trustees in the Sherman case argued that the concerns for (1) privacy, and (2) public safety were important public interests that are at such serious risk that the files should be sealed.

With respect to privacy concerns, the respondents to the appeal argued that virtually every court proceeding requires some intrusion on privacy.  The Court held that proceedings in open court can lead to the dissemination of highly sensitive personal information, that could result in discomfort or embarrassment, or even an affront to dignify. In the latter case, an exception to the open court principle may be necessary.

However, the Court was not convinced that there was such a risk in these circumstances. The Court is not concerned with the mere fact of the dissemination of sensitive personal information – this happens in almost every court proceeding. The focus must be on the impact of the dissemination. The trustees failed to show how the lifting of the sealing order engages the dignity of the affected individuals. The Court observed that “the information in the court files about which the Trustees are concerned must be sufficiently sensitive in that it strikes at the biographical core of the affected individuals.” The trustees also failed to establish that there was serious risk of physical harm to the affected individuals.

The court did not accept that the matters in a probate file are quintessentially private or fundamentally administrative.  The information contained in the files did not reveal anything particularly private about the affected individuals. It was acknowledged that there was near certainty that the media would publish at least parts of the estate files. Again, the risk of inconvenience and embarrassment resulting from publication is not enough.

In the end, the estate files will show the type of information found in any probate file. They may shed light on the relationship between the deceased and the affected individuals, in that we will see who they named as beneficiaries of their estate, and who they trusted to administer their estate. The only difference between this case and any other probate application is the high profile murders and intense media interest which will result in a larger audience for what are, in the normal course, publicly available documents. In those circumstances, a sealing order was not appropriate.

Recent B.C. Case Illustrates Importance of Documenting Transactions Between Family Members

All too often, transactions between family members (loans, gifts, property transfers, etc…) are not properly documented or are not documented at all. I see this repeatedly in transactions between parents and children.  The other children (i.e. the transferees’ siblings) seek to challenge the transaction after the parents’ deaths, so that the transferred asset forms part of the parents’ estates, causing fractures within the family.

This was the case in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision in Cadwell Estate v. Martin 2021 BCSC 1089.   The Court observed:

[1] As this case shows, when a significant financial transaction is casually entered into between parents and their adult children, tragic consequences may occur, if the terms of the transaction are not clear to the members of the family at the outset, or are not properly, legally documented

In 2004, Bill and Ruth Cadwell (the parents) paid $170,000 to their daughter and her husband (the defendants). The payment was used to assist with the purchase and construction of a new house by the defendants. The house was modified to include a suite suitable for the parents.

The house was built, and the defendants and the parents moved into the house in 2005. No agreement was put in writing. Bill Cadwell died in 2007. Ruth Cadwell lived in the suite for 12 more years until she died in 1981.

The $170,000 payment lead to “considerable friction over the years” between various family members, and eventually lead to this litigation.

The plaintiff (the executor of Ruth Cadwell’s estate) claimed that the payment was an equity investment in the property, or that a resulting trust in the property was created. In the alternative, the plaintiff claimed in unjust enrichment, or for repayment of the amount as a loan, with interest.

The defendants said that the payment was a loan, which was paid off by notional payments of rent applied against the loan over the years. In the alternative, they argued that the loan claim was statute barred because the limitation period had expired.  The defendants relied upon a loan repayment schedule document initialed by Bill Cadwell. The plaintiff argued that this document was a forgery, created for the purpose of the litigation.

The Court concluded that there was no equity investment. While Ruth may have referred to the payment as an “investment”, that was not sufficient to establish that the parents were investing the $170,000 to acquire a beneficial interest in the property. The Cadwells had some business experience. They knew they were not going to be registered on title. There was no evidence of any discussions regarding proportionate ownership shares, sharing of expenses, etc…  On the evidence, the parents did not expect to have an ownership interest in the property. Instead, they expected to remain in the suite, free of charge, for some period of time, and the parents would be able to rely upon the defendants for help as needed.

The Court concluded that the parents intended the $170,000 payment to be a loan. The next issue was whether there had been repayment. The Court concluded there was no agreement for repayment by way of notional rent.

The Court held that the repayment schedule document was a forgery: “it represents the agreement that the defendants wish they had made with the Cadwells, but did not make.” It’s existence did not make sense in the circumstances, which included a conversation that Ruth surreptitiously recorded between her and one of the defendants, in which she asked for the return of her money.  The plaintiff went so far as to call an expert in computer fonts, who testified that the font used for the repayment schedule document did not reach public use until January 2007 (the defendants claimed the document was prepared in 2004).

However, the defendants were fortunate because the Court held that the claim was statute barred. The former Limitation Act applied to the claim, and so the six-year limitation period for the demand loan began to run on the day the loan was made. It should be noted that the current Limitation Period provides for a two year limitation period, which starts on the date that a demand is made.

As a result, the defendants did not have to repay the $170,000 amount due to the passage of time, even though they attempted to reply upon a forged document at trial (although they were not awarded their costs at trial due to their conduct).

There is a lesson here.  As observed by the Court:

[11]         As I am confident that everyone involved now recognizes, it would have been quite easy to document an agreement about the payment at the outset, thereby avoiding years of conflict.

Case Comment: No Executor’s Fee for Executor who Breached Fiduciary Duty

Under the B.C. Trustee Act, an executor is entitled to remuneration for administration of an estate, unless the Will states otherwise. However, executors should not expect to receive a fee regardless of their conduct. Executor misconduct, for example breach of fiduciary duty, may disentitle the executor to any fees, despite their efforts and time spent to administer the estate.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered executor misconduct in the context a passing of accounts and approval of executors’ fees in Zaradic Estate (Re) 2021 BCSC 1037. In Zaradic, The sole beneficiary was a friend of the deceased. The joint executors were a husband and wife, who were also friends of the deceased.  The executors sought to pass their accounts, which included payment of an executors’ fee.

The Trustee Act provides that an executor is entitled to remuneration of up to a maximum of 5% of the gross aggregate value of the estate (including all capital and income) unless the will provides otherwise. In Zaradic, the Will allowed for the executors to claim a fee up to 10%.

The criteria for determining an appropriate fee includes:

  1. The magnitude of the trust;
  2. The care and responsibility involved;
  3. The time occupied administering the trust;
  4. The skill and ability displayed; and
  5. The success achieved in the final result.

The beneficiary argued that the executors ought to be denied any fees for administering the estate by reason of their alleged breach of trust in attempting to sell the deceased’s house to their daughter for roughly 50% of its market value. The beneficiary had to commence a legal action and obtain a certificate of pending litigation to prevent the sale of the deceased’s home. The executors had also loaned their daughter $13,000 of estate monies to ensure she had enough money to complete the sale.

The executors tried to place the blame on (1) their experience with property ownership generally, and (2) a notary who allegedly advised them to take this course of action. The property eventually sold for fair market value, but the beneficiary incurred legal costs in order to make sure that this happened.

The Will provided as follows with respect to remuneration:

. . . My trustees may claim remuneration for acting as Trustees in the amount of Ten Percent (10%) of the net value of the residue of my estate to be shared equally between them, in lieu of any Executor or Trustees Fee’s.

The executors argued that this wording meant that they were entitled to a 10% fee regardless of their conduct. The Court did not agree. The Will said that the executors may “claim” for remuneration, but the amount of the fee was not fixed and had to be approved by the court if the beneficiary did not agree.

In terms of the amount of the fee, the Court concluded that the actions of the executors in relation to the attempted sale for less than market value to their daughter were “an egregious breach of their fiduciary duty,” which disentitled them to any fee.

The executors were denied any fee for their time spent administering the estate.  While there was a measure of care and responsibility involved in handling the estate, the executors’ efforts were a “dismal failure” when it came to the skill and ability displayed and the success achieved.  In other words,  all of their time and effort spent on the estate was eclipsed by their breach of fiduciary duty.