What I’m Reading: Interesting Estate Litigation Articles for March 2024

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

  1. David Morgan Smith at Hull & Hull LLP (Ontario) writes about restricting testamentary autonomy on public policy grounds: https://hullandhull.com/Knowledge/2024/03/clipping-testamentary-freedom-to-protect-society/
  2. Brett Book at WEL Partners (Ontario) discusses the suspension of a lawyer for their conduct in delaying with a vulnerable older client: https://welpartners.com/blog/2024/03/lawyer-suspended-for-questionable-transaction-with-vulnerable-older-adult/
  3. Not from March, but the B.C. Law Society recently circulated a reminder that the British Columbia Law Institute has published Undue Influence Recognition and Prevention: A Guide for Legal Practitioners, which can be found here: https://www.bcli.org/publication/undue-influence-recognition-and-prevention-a-guide-for-legal-practitioners/
  4. Chigozie Enwereuzo, also at Hull & Hull LLP, discusses the doctrine of donatio mortis causa (“deathbed” gifting): https://hullandhull.com/Knowledge/2024/03/nanas-deathbed-gift-to-you-is-it-valid/
  5. Fabiana Araujo M.S. Kennedy, also at WEL Partners, writes about a B.C. case where Air Canada was held liable for negligent misrepresentation arising from a Chatbot’s statements about bereavement fares: https://welpartners.com/blog/2024/03/moffatt-v-air-canada-bereavement-fares-do-your-research/

Happy reading!

Executor Purchasing Estate Property

An executor or administrator of an estate or a trustee is in a fiduciary position, which means that they owe certain fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries, including a duty of loyalty. There is a general rule that a trustee cannot purchase trust property, which is referred to as the rule against self-dealing. This would put the trustee in an obvious conflict of interest, contrary to their duty of loyalty.

If all beneficiaries are of full capacity, they can give fully informed consent to the self-dealing. The Court also has the jurisdiction to approve self-dealing by a fiduciary.

The burden is on the trustee seeking permission to sell property to herself to establish that a sale is necessary and that no other purchaser has been forthcoming or seems likely to come forward within a reasonable time, and that his or her own offer in the circumstances is a favourable one. The cases suggest that approval by the court will only be given where it is truly in the interest of the beneficiaries.

The B.C. Supreme Court was recently asked to approve self-dealing in Dewberry Estate (Re) 2023 BCSC 1325. The applicant obtained a grant of administration of an intestate estate. She was the daughter of the deceased. The estate was to be divided equally between the applicant and her two sisters. The only remaining significant assets were a two-acre property and the manufactured home on it.

These assets were recently appraised at $284,000. The applicant sought to buy the property for $179,600.

One sister opposed the application, arguing there was no basis to reduce the purchase price below current market value. The third sister did not respond, but her position mirrored that of the sister opposing the application.

The applicant took the position that her sisters would be unjustly enriched if she was forced to pay market value for the property. However, the Court was not aware of any authority that would allow it to approve a sale of trust property to a trustee at below market value on the basis of contributions by the trustee to the preservation of the value of the property.

The Court held that it could not be said that a proposed sale at more than $100,000 below the recent estimate of market value was “clearly to the advantage of the beneficiaries.” In light of the appraisal, the applicant could not show that no other purchaser is likely to come forward.

However, the applicant was given ten days to decide whether she was interested in purchasing the property for $284,000, the appraised value, as her siblings were prepared to consent to a sale at that price.

Special Costs for Unsuccessfully Alleging Undue Influence

When a party wishes to allege undue influence, they must consider the cost consequences if this claim is unsuccessful.

A common question from parties to estate litigation (or any litigation) is whether the other side can be ordered to pay their costs. After a claim is determined on its merits, the court must decide upon the issue of costs.

The general rule is that costs follow the event, meaning that the successful party will receive costs payable by the unsuccessful party. However, in estate litigation the court may order that the costs of some or all parties be paid from the estate. The court will look at whether the litigation resulted from the conduct of the deceased (i.e. how they chose to set up their estate plan) or the conduct or motivations of a beneficiary.

In addition to who gets their costs, and who pays those costs, there is the issue of the scale of costs. In the ordinary course, costs are determined using a tariff system set out in the B.C. Supreme Court Civil Rules. However, the costs payable under this system are significantly less than a party’s actual legal fees, often a quarter or a third of the actual legal fees.

In some cases, a party can apply for “special costs”. Special costs are increased costs, which are intended to more closely resemble the reasonable fees actually charged by a lawyer to their client. Special cost awards are intended to address the conduct of a party. Special costs are awarded only in exceptional circumstances, where the conduct of the party is deserving of rebuke.

There are a number of cases in which special costs have been awarded in the face of unproven and unsubstantiated allegations of undue influence. This is because the allegation of undue influence is a serious one, impugning the character of another person. It has been compared to allegations of fraud, which also may attract an award of special costs if unfounded.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered this issue and the line of authority in Lambrecht v. Lambrecht Estate 2023 BCSC 1051. In Lambrecht, the Court observed that the primary considerations in previous cases were that allegations were pursued based on speculation, without foundation, and unduly prolonged the proceedings. In one case, costs were awarded where the allegations were only abandoned three days before trial.

In Lambrecht, the plaintiff advised before trial that he agreed to withdraw his claim of undue influence. Although the notice of civil claim was not amended to reflect this agreement, the court was advised of the concession at trial. The defendant argued that despite this agreement, the plaintiff continued to make assertions that the defendant acted improperly which were, in substance, allegations of undue influence, which the defendant was obliged to defend, and which the plaintiff knew had no chance of success.

The Court agreed with the plaintiff. Although the pleadings were not amended, the plaintiff advised that he would not pursue the claim of undue influence, and he maintained that position at trial. Even though the plaintiff was not successful in the claim that he did pursue (in resulting trust), that alone was not sufficient to warrant an order for special costs.

This case is an important reminder that if you are unable support allegations of undue influence which you make in your pleadings, you should carefully consider whether you want to pursue those allegations at trial. If you withdraw the allegations of undue influence far enough in advance, you can potentially avoid a special costs award that would otherwise be payable for making the unfounded allegations.

It should be noted, however, that the plaintiff was ordered to pay double costs because he failed to accept a formal offer to settle which was reasonable and ought to be accepted (triggering double costs under Rule 9-1 of the B.C. Supreme Court Civil Rules).


B.C. Case Comment – Claim against Estate Dismissed for Want of Prosecution

If a claimant brings an action, but then fails to move forward with pursuing it, the defendant(s) may apply to dismiss the claim for want of prosecution.

Dismissal for want of prosecution is considered a draconian remedy that should not be ordered lightly. It should be reserved for circumstances in which inexcusable delay gives rise to a substantial risk that a fair trial of the issues in dispute will no longer be possible. There is no set amount of time that a defendant must wait before making the application. There is no set amount of delay that will be inexcusable or inordinate.

The following factors are to be considered by the judge hearing an application for dismissal for an action for want of prosecution:

  1. The length of the delay and whether it was inordinate;
  2. Any reasons for the delay either offered in evidence or inferred from the evidence, including whether the delay was intentional and tactical or whether it was the product of dilatoriness, negligence, impecuniosity, illness or some other relevant cause, the ultimate consideration being whether the delay is excusable in the circumstances;
  3. Whether the delay has caused serious prejudice to the defendant in presenting a defence and, if there is such prejudice, whether it creates a substantial risk that a fair trial is not possible at the earliest date by which the action could be readied for trial after its reactivation by the plaintiff; and
  4. whether, on balance, justice requires dismissal of the action.

The fourth factor encompasses the other three and is the most important consideration.

The onus is on the party seeking dismissal to show inordinate delay for which there is no credible excuse. Once it has been established that the delay is inordinate, a presumption of prejudice arises, and the party responding to the application has the onus of rebutting the presumption by showing that the applicant has not been prejudiced in their ability to have a fair trial.

Where it can be shown that the parties would have a fair trial notwithstanding the delay and some prejudice, the interests of justice generally require that the application for dismissal be dismissed and the claim be allowed to proceed.

Dismissal for want of prosecution was recently considered by the B.C. Supreme Court in the estate litigation context (although it started as a family law claim) in Varga v. Poole Estate 2023 BCSC 122. In Varga, the plaintiff commenced an action over seven years ago by filing a notice of family claim. The plaintiff sought a division of a 17.3-acre property near Tofino, B.C. that the defendant (who was alive at the time the action was commenced) purchased many years before meeting her. The plaintiff alleged that she was the defendant’s “spouse”. The defendant denied that he was the plaintiff’s “spouse”.

The defendant died nearly three years before the application for dismissal for want of prosecution was brought, after a long battle with cancer. The defendant’s estate continued to dispute that the plaintiff and the defendant were spouses. The defendant’s daughter (the litigation representative of the defendant’s estate) applied to dismiss the claim for want of prosecution.

The parties attended a judicial case conference in early 2017. The lawyers corresponded occasionally. The defendant filed a form F-8 financial statement (as required by the rules) but the plaintiff did not. There were intermittent and inconclusive settlement discussions, which were driven by the defendant. The defendant was never examined for discovery before his death and so his testimony was permanently lost. After the defendant’s death, the parties exchanged lists of documents, and the plaintiff unilaterally set the matter for trial. However, she did so without providing disclosure concerning the value of another property, which the defendant would have a claim to if the parties were found to be spouses.

Turning to the factors for dismissal for want of prosecution, the Court held that even though there had been some activity in the case, the passage of over seven years from the filing of the notice of family claim was inordinate delay. The Court did not accept the plaintiff’s excuses for the delay (which included that the defendant was frequently out of town and lived in Thailand for a period of time, and that the defendant changed lawyers). Although good faith attempts to negotiate a settlement may excuse delay, intermittent and fruitless discussions do not advance an action toward trial.

The Court held that the prejudice in this case was obvious and serious. The plaintiff was aware that the defendant was seriously ill with cancer even before she filed her claim. If the plaintiff had pursued her claim with reasonable diligence, she would have at least examined the defendant for discovery, and his testimony would be available and a fair and balanced trial would be possible. Instead, the plaintiff gained a significant and unfair advantage by delaying. The Court also observed the weakening of witnesses’ ability to recall long-ago events, and the loss of correspondence and documents.

The Court observed that the idea that the trial should proceed almost eight years after the claim was filed is “profoundly embarrassing”, and would make a mockery of the primary objective of the B.C. Supreme Court Family Rules, which is to secure the just, speedy, inexpensive and proportionate determination of matrimonial disputes. The B.C. Supreme Court Civil Rules have a similar objective.

The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for want of prosecution.

This case serves as an important reminder that if you commence an action, you deed to pursue it with reasonable diligence, or else you risk your claim being dismissed without a determination of its merits.

What I’m Reading: Interesting Estate Litigation Articles for February 2024

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

1. Tiansheng Wen at Hull & Hull LLP (Ontario) discusses Aeroplan points and estate planning: https://hullandhull.com/Knowledge/2024/02/aeroplan-points-and-estate-planning/

2. Gabriella Banhara and Oliver O’Brien at WEL Partners (Ontario) write about five notable estate and trust decisions from 2023: https://welpartners.com/blog/2024/02/five-notable-estates-trusts-decisions-of-2023/#_ftn1

3. A post by Onyx Law (Vancouver) discusses issues relating to the recovery of stolen inheritances in B.C.: https://onyxlaw.ca/recovery-of-stolen-inheritance-in-bc/

4. Ian Hull, also at Hull & Hull LLP, discusses how to retract a renunciation as executor: https://hullandhull.com/Knowledge/2024/02/retracting-a-renunciation/

5. Not from this month, but Step Canada published a useful resource for assisting persons in vulnerable situations: STEP: CSR A Guide for Assisting Persons in Vulnerable Situations (fliphtml5.com)

Happy reading!