Clients often contact us following the death of a family member, when they are surprised to discover how little is left in the deceased’s estate. While a capable independent adult is entitled to deplete their estate during their lifetime as they see fit, there may be concerns with elderly, incapable or otherwise vulnerable persons and “missing” assets. In the most egregious cases, there may be misappropriation of funds by a person in a position of trust, such as a person named in a power of attorney or committeeship order. After death, an estate can recover assets that are misappropriated from the deceased during their lifetime.
This was the case in the recent decision of the B.C. Supreme Court in Sarzynick v. Skwarchuk 2021 BCSC 443. In Sarzynick, the court considered a dispute between two siblings over the estate of their mother. In 2007, the mother and father made wills and also executed powers of attorney authorizing their son to act on their behalf. The father died first. When the mother died four years later, most of her assets had been depleted. The daughter argued that her brother had misappropriated large sums of money for his own use which belonged to his mother (and should form part of her estate). The son denied this, but the court ultimately found that he was not a credible witness.
The court held that the son owed fiduciary duties as (1) executor of his father’s estate, and (2) his mother’s attorney. As attorney, he had an obligation to act in good faith in his mother’s best interests, to avoid personal gain from her property, and to account for all property. The court held that he breached his fiduciary duties. He failed to keep (or disclose) financial records. This breach went to “the core” of the fiduciary relationship as attorney. He also breached his fiduciary duty of loyalty when he misappropriated funds for his own benefit.
The court went on to consider the appropriate remedies. This included a constructive trust over certain assets which properly belonged to the estate, and disgorgement of profits. Fortunately in this case many of the assets (monies) were held in trust, and so there was not the added complication of having to collect upon a judgment against an impecunious defendant who may have spent or hidden all of the assets that he took. The estate was entitled to recover over $440,000 from the son. The estate was also entitled to the appreciation in value of certain real property. Finally, the estate was entitled to special costs due to the son’s behavior during the litigation, which included a flagrant disregard for his disclosure obligations.