B.C. Case Comment: Attorney Transfers Donor’s Assets into Trust which Mirrors Donor’s Will

A person acting under a power of attorney (the “attorney”) cannot make or change a will for the adult for whom the person is acting (the “donor”).  However, in certain circumstances, the attorney may settle a trust which mirrors the terms of the donor’s will, and then transfer the donor’s assets into the trust.  This may be done to avoid probate fees which would be payable if the assets formed part of the donor’s estate.  There may also be other advantages in administering and distributing the assets through a trust instead of an estate.

There is a further advantage, whether it is intended or unintended:  if the assets form part of the estate, then they are available for a wills variation claim.  If the assets are settled into a trust then they are not available for a wills variation claim.

A disappointed beneficiary attempted to set aside such an arrangement in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Kramer v. Kramer 2023 BCSC 116.

In Kramer, Clara died leaving two children, Karen and Leanne.  Karen and Leanne were the executors of her estate, and the beneficiaries of the estate.  However, Karen was not happy with what she was to receive under the terms of Clara’s will and codicil.

Leanne held a power of attorney over Clara’s affairs.  Clara died in 2017.  In 2015, Leanne used the power of attorney to authorize the creation of an alter ego trust, transferring the majority of Clara’s assets into the trust, and appointing herself and two solicitors as trustees.  The distribution of the trust assets was to precisely mirror the terms of the will and codicil.  Karen learned of the trust after the Clara’s death.

Karen sought a variation of the deceased’s will.  However, most of the assets of the deceased were transferred during her lifetime into the Trust.  This meant that Karen must first succeed in obtaining a declaration that the trust was void, and an order transferring the assets back into the estate.  Karen brought an action to vary the will, and for an order that the disposition of property to the trust was a fraudulent conveyance, and an order that the property put into the trust is part of Clara’s estate.

The Fraudulent Conveyance Act provides that a disposition of property, if made to delay, hinder or defraud creditors and others of their just and lawful remedies, is void and of no effect against a person whose rights and obligations are or might be disturbed, hindered, delayed or defrauded.

The issue to be determined in Kramer was whether the disposition of property to the trust constituted a fraudulent conveyance.  The defendants argued that the Karen had no standing under the Fraudulent Conveyance Act, because she was not a creditor and had no rights or obligations that had been disturbed, hindered, delayed or defrauded.

A wills variation claim does not create standing as a creditor or other within the meaning of the Fraudulent Conveyance Act.  Karen accepted this, but argued that she was a creditor as a result of a loan that she made to the deceased.  Karen argued that the trust was created to avoid paying her money that was owed to her.

The Court held that Karen was a creditor of Clara in 1998 when Karen loaned money to Clara.  However, it appeared that this amount was repaid in 2012, before the trust was settled in 2015.  At the time the Trust was entered into, Karen had not provided any proof she was owed more than the monies she received in 2012, and after that she never demanded further payment for the loan or took any steps to collect any balance owing.    The Court held that Karen had been repaid, and so she was not a creditor of the deceased at the time of the transfer of assets into the trust.  Since she was not a creditor, she did not have standing under the Fraudulent Conveyance Act.

In the alternative, the Court also found there was no fraudulent intention in creating the trust.  The party claiming a fraudulent conveyance must establish that the person making the transfer of assets did so with the intent to put their assets out of the reach of creditors.  The Court in Kramer held that the trust was created for honest purposes.  It was recommended by the deceased’s tax lawyer and prepared with the assistance of counsel.  At no time during the planning and settlement of the trust did anyone discuss an outstanding debt owing to Karen.  The stated purpose of the trust (which was accepted by the Court) was to facilitate estate planning by avoiding substantial probate fees and to affect an efficient and non-confrontational administration of Clara’s estate.  Again, the distribution of the trust assets was to precisely mirror the terms of the Will and Codicil.

However, the Court declined to rule on the validity of the trust or any suggestion that Leanne acted outside her powers under the power of attorney, because that issue was not raised in the pleadings and before the Court.  Karen may seek to argue that Leanne settling the trust was outside her powers as attorney.  However, there is authority to support the position that an attorney can settle a trust on behalf of a donor when the terms of the trust mirror the terms of the donor’s will (see Easingwood v. Cockroft 2011 BCSC 1154, aff’d at 2013 BCCA 182).

B.C. Case Comment: Court Finds No Enforceable Agreement between Father and Son

I have previously written about the importance of documenting transactions between family members (for example, here and here).  Often, transactions between family members (loans, gifts, property transfers, etc…) are not documented.  This is a common occurrence in transactions between parents and children.  There are numerous cases which illustrate the importance of reducing intentions to writing.

However, the parties must also take care to properly document the agreement, and to make sure the agreement as documented is valid and enforceable.  There must be certainty of terms to create a binding agreement.  The agreement must also not be invalid as a result of the circumstances surrounding its creation.  For example, the agreement must not be unconscionable or procured by undue influence.

In the recent decision of Woods v. Woods 2022 BCSC 2269, the B.C. Supreme Court considered the enforceability of an alleged agreement whereby a son would receive his father’s property in return for the right to remain on the property, as well as a share of his son’s business.  There were some attempts made to document the agreement, but the question was whether there was an enforceable agreement.

The Facts

In Woods, the father owned a 20 acre property in Golden B.C.  He lived a manufactured home on the property, and also used the property as a junk yard.

The son developed a plan to open a tourism business on the property using Volkswagen vehicles, called “Camping in the Woods.”  He took steps to clean up the property, and made improvements to set it up for his business, in which visitors would be able to sleep in converted VW busses on the property.

The father fell behind on his mortgage payments, and the property was in danger of foreclosure.

The father and son began to discuss an arrangement whereby the son would buy the property (saving it from foreclosure) and further develop his business.

There was a meeting between the father, the son and a second son (not a party to the agreement) to formalize the plan.  The son alleged that there was a cocktail napkin agreement, which was actually written on a cocktail napkin.  The Court included a photo of the agreement in the reasons for judgment:

The father denied ever seeing a copy of the napkin agreement before the litigation, and also denied that certain writing was in his handwriting.  He said that they discussed that he would receive a 40% interest in the property, not a 10% interest.  He also said that the business was to be restricted to an acre or less of the property.

There was a subsequent draft agreement prepared for the transfer of the property.  The agreement did not discuss the father getting a share in the business.  The lawyer who prepared the agreement recommended that the father obtain independent legal advice.

The father and son both signed the agreement on a bench following the meeting with the lawyer. The father did not get independent legal advice.  The son conceded that he “urged” his father to sign, but said this was because the property was going to be foreclosed upon the next day.  In hindsight, the son said that he should have forced this father to get independent legal advice, but that his father said he didn’t have the money to pay a lawyer.

The lawyer subsequently wrote to raise concerns that the proposed transaction was unfair, or worse fraudulent, as it did not appear to address the equity in the property, for which the father ought to receive some compensation.

After signing the agreement, the father refused to transfer the property.

Relations between the father and son deteriorated.  The son attended to remove his belongings from the property, the father called the police, the son was arrested for mischief, and a no-contact order was put in place.

The son concluded that there was no way the father was going to proceed with the transfer, and did not take any steps to close the deal.

The son rented an alternative location for his business (which he says was not as attractive a location), and incurred additional expenses.  He also claimed that some of his items were still on the property, and that some of them were damaged.

The son commenced an action claiming specific performance, damages, malicious prosecution and conversion.

After the action was commenced, the father entered into an agreement to sell the property for $350,000 to another party, with the understanding that the father could continue to live in the home on the property for as long as he wishes.

There was no certainty of terms, and therefore no enforceable agreement

The first issue was whether there was certainty of terms sufficient to establish the existence of a contract.

The test that governs whether the parties have formed an enforceable contract involves answering two questions:

  1. whether the parties objectively intended to enter contractual relations; and
  2. whether they had reached agreement on essential terms that are sufficiently certain to enforce.

The court will look at whether a reasonably third-party observer would conclude from all the circumstances, including the document itself, the circumstances underlying execution, and the parties’ subsequent conduct, that the parties intended to enter into binding legal relations.  This is a fact-specific inquiry.

The Court referred to the following recent summary of the law on certainty of terms:

When [parties] agree on all of the essential provisions to be incorporated in a formal document with the intention that their agreement shall thereupon become binding, they will have fulfilled all the requisites for the formation of a contract. The fact that a formal written document to the same effect is to be thereafter prepared and signed does not alter the binding validity of the original contract.

However, when the original contract is incomplete because essential provisions intended to govern the contractual relationship have not been settled or agreed upon; or the contract is too general or uncertain to be valid in itself and is dependent on the making of a formal contract; or the understanding or intention of the parties, even if there is no uncertainty as to the terms of their agreement, is that their legal obligations are to be deferred until a formal contract has been approved and executed, the original or preliminary agreement cannot constitute an enforceable contract.

Where there is an intention to contract, the court will make a significant effort to give meaning to that agreement. However, a court cannot create an agreement on essential terms where none exists.  The fact that parties may wish to contract, or believe they have entered into a binding contract, does not make it so.

What constitutes an “essential” term will depend upon the nature of the agreement and the circumstances of the case.  The key question is whether the parties have agreed on all matters that are “vital and fundamental” to the arrangement.

In Woods, the son argued that the cocktail napkin agreement and the subsequent document prepared by the lawyer formed the contract.

However, the Court observed that there were uncertainties in the agreement, including but not limited to:

  1. If the father was entitled to a 10% stake in the son’s business, what did this mean? i.e. ownership, gross rental income, profits net of expenses, etc…
  2. Was the father actually only entitled to 10%, or was it 40% as asserted by the father?
  3. Was the son entitled to pay himself a salary before calculating the 10% (or 40%)?
  4. What remedy would the father have if the son simply abandoned his business after getting the property?
  5. What were the implications of the father not remaining sober, and what was the test for sobriety?

The Court also observed that there were contradictions between the two documents, making it impossible to read the two documents together as a single contract.  For example, the signed agreement requires that the father give up vacant possession, but he was supposed to be allowed to remain in the home on the property.

The Court concluded that that the uncertainties and the inconsistencies related to terms that were consequential, vital and fundamental.  No enforceable contract was created, and the claim in contract must be dismissed on this basis alone.

The father argued that he did not sign the cocktail napkin agreement, and that he was never given the entire other agreement before signing it.  The Court held that the father signed both documents (relying upon the evidence of his other son, a disinterested party).  However, the fact that he signed the documents did not address the issue that there was no certainty of terms  and therefore no enforcable agreement.

In the alternative, the agreement was invalid due to undue influence and was unconscionable

The father also argued that any agreement was invalid due to undue influence or unconscionability.

With respect to undue influence, there is a presumption of undue influence where there is the potential for domination inherent in the relationship itself.  Equity recognizes certain relationships that may give rise to the presumption, including parent and child.  Where the presumption applies, the party must be shown to have entered into the transaction as a result of his own “full, free and informed thought.”  This may entail showing that no actual influence was exercised in the particular transaction, that the plaintiff had independent advice, etc…

The test for unconscionability is as follows:

  1. there must be an inequality of bargaining power between the parties; and
  2. there must be an improvident bargain.

With respect to the first element, an inequality of bargaining power exists when one party cannot adequately protect their interests in the contracting process.  With respect to the second element, a bargain is improvident if it unduly advantages the stronger party or unduly disadvantages the more vulnerable party.

In Woods, the Court noted:

  1. The contracts that the son was pressuring his father to sign involved the father’s only major asset;
  2. This was a parent-child relationship, and the father was heavily reliant on his son’s advice;
  3. The father was placed under “substantial pressure and influence” from the son to sell the property to him;
  4. There was a material inequality in bargaining power.  The father was not in good health and was in a very tenuous financial position.  He was vulnerable and this created a dependency;
  5. The proposed transaction was unfair.  There was no financial analysis offered to show that the proposed terms were fair and reasonable.  There was no effort to obtain an appraisal, even though this was recommended by the lawyer;
  6. The Court did not accept that the agreement was explained to the father by the lawyer, or that it was read aloud to the father three times; and
  7. The father did not obtain independent legal advice, despite being advised to do so by the lawyer.  This was identified as a “key issue”.  The Court was confident that any independent legal advice would have resulted in a modification or clarification of the terms.

The Court concluded that there was a presumption of undue influence, that undue influence was exercised by the son over his father, and that the transaction was unconscionable.

The Court also held that if it were necessary, the son failed to satisfy or waive the condition to obtain financing, which was a fundamental term, and constituted a repudiation of the agreement.

The Court also considered claims in malicious prosecution and conversion

There were two further separate claims considered by the Court.

First, the son alleged that the father’s report of him to the RCMP when he attended at the property to pick up his items qualified as malicious prosecution.  To succeed on this claim, the son was required to prove that the prosecution was:

  1. initiated by the defendant;
  2. terminated in favour of the plaintiff;
  3.  undertaken without reasonable and probable cause; and
  4. motivated by malice or a primary purpose other than that of carrying the law into effect.

The Court held that the son failed to establish #3 and #4.  The father held title to the property and had the right to insist that the son leave the property, and the son failed to do so.

Second, the son sued for conversion of certain of his items that remained on the property.  The father did not contest that his son was entitled to attend at the property to collect certain items.  The Court did not award damages to reflect any degradation of items while they were on the property, as there was no agreement that the father would maintain or secure the son’s property.

Conclusion – the importance of properly entering into and documenting agreements between family members

This case serves as yet another example of the importance of properly documenting agreements between family members, and the importance of taking appropriate steps, including obtaining independent legal advice, to create binding and enforceable contracts.  This case would have been further complicated had the father died and then the son brought proceedings, which is often what happens in estate litigation.

BC Case Comment: Court of Appeal Affirms No Binding Agreement to Leave Estate to Niece

I previously wrote about a case in which the B.C Supreme Court found that there was no binding agreement by an aunt to leave her estate to her niece.  The case was Angelis v. Siermy 2022 BCSC 31, and the post can be found here.  The B.C. Court of Appeal has now dismissed an appeal of that decision.

A person may enter into a contract, whereby they agree to leave their estate to another person in exchange for some consideration.  However, the court in Angelis found that no such agreement existed in that case.  The case was unusual because the aunt (the will-maker) was still alive, denied the existence of any agreement, and defended against the claim.

At summary trial in the court below, the niece claimed that in exchange for providing services to her aunt, her aunt agreed to leave the bulk of her estate to the niece.  The agreement was allegedly formalized in 2002 when the aunt executed estate documents to this effect.  The niece said that the aunt also confirmed the agreement in three letters written by the aunt which explained her wills.  The judge had found that the second and third letters were prepared by the niece, and she had either forged her aunt’s signature or obtained the signature surreptitiously.

Then, in 2011, the aunt changed her will to leave most of her estate to the niece’s cousin (unbeknownst to the niece plaintiff/appellant).

The judge dismissed the claim that there was a testamentary contract requiring the aunt to leave the estate to her niece.  The judge also dismissed a claim by the niece in unjust enrichment on the basis that (1) the niece did not come to court with clean hands (because she forged the letters), and (2) there was juristic reason for the services that she provided (she was compensated and received benefit, and also had donative intent).

The plaintiff niece appealed the judgment, which perhaps is not surprising because the claim was that her aunt was bound to leave the bulk of her $30 million estate to her.  The appellant argued that the judge erred in failing to find a binding testamentary agreement.  She also argued that the judge erred in dismissing her unjust enrichment claim.

The appeal was dismissed.  The reasons of the B.C. Court of Appeal can be found at Angelis v. Siermy 2022 BCCA 401.

The Court of Appeal concluded that it was open to the judge in the court below to find that the two letters were not authentic.   The Court of Appeal concluded that there was no error in the judge’s reasoning or his conclusion that the parties had not entered into a testamentary contract.

The Court of Appeal did hold that the judge erred in his application of the “clean hands doctrine.”  A person who seeks an equitable remedy (such as compensation for unjust enrichment) must come to court with clean hands.  However, the clean hands doctrine is limited, and applies only in respect of misconduct “which has immediate and necessary relation to the equity sued for.”  The doctrine does not apply to all aspects of the party’s behavior known to the court.

In Angelis, the niece did not technically need to rely upon her misconduct (the forged letters) to establish a claim in unjust enrichment.  The letters related to a separate issue (whether there was a testamentary contract).  Accordingly, the clean hands doctrine did not apply as a defence to the unjust enrichment claim.

However, the claim in unjust enrichment still failed.

There are three elements to establish unjust enrichment:

  1. An enrichment;
  2. A corresponding deprivation; and
  3. The absence of a juristic reason for the enrichment.

The judge had concluded that there was a juristic reason for the services that the niece provided.  The Court of Appeal had some issues with the analysis of the juristic reason element by the judge in the court below, but ultimately refused to interfere with the judge’s finding that the niece provided services on the basis that “everyone contributes and everyone gains” from the family enterprise.

B.C. Case Comment: Vagueness in Will Invites (Unsuccessful) Challenge to Charitable Bequest

When making a will, you must take care to make sure that your intentions are clearly expressed and not left open for interpretation.  When a will is unclear or uncertain, this provides an opportunity for a disappointed beneficiary to (1) argue an interpretation which favors them over another party, or (2) argue that the will or some part of it is fatally uncertain and therefore void.

The more complicated that you make a will, the more likely these issues may arise.  These arguments tend to occur more in certain circumstances including:

  1. When a deceased decides to include a power of appointment – a power given to a person to select who shall receive an interest in property (instead of deciding who will receive the property and simply making a bequest to that person in your will); or
  2. When there is uncertainty with respect to a charitable bequest.

Both of these circumstances were present in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision in Royal Trust Corporation Of Canada v. The Welfare Institution Of The Jews Of Athens 2022 BCSC 1454.

In her 1985 will, the deceased set up a trust for her daughter, to pay her the interest “as long as she shall live.”  The deceased further provided in her will:

If my daughter shall by her Last Will and Testament appoint sum [sic] reasonable charity within the country of Greece for such funds they shall be delivered in accordance with the directions made in such Last Will and Testament of my said daughter.

And further:

If my said daughter shall fail to so designate and appoint by her Last Will and Testament then such money shall be paid to the President for the time being of Estia of Constaninopolis, Artistiduu 7, Kolonike, Ahtens, Greece.

“Estia of Constantinipolis” is a non-profit association in Greece that operates nursing homes near Athens, Greece.

In other words, the deceased’s daughter could decide what charity she wanted to receive the rest of her trust fund after she died (the power of appointment), or the default would be Estia of Constantinipolis.

The daughter made a will in Greece in 2017, in which she explicitly exercised the power of appointment, by appointing The Welfare Institution of the Jews of Athens, dab Reston Elderly Care Centre as the beneficiary.  Then, the daughter made a will in Switzerland in 2018, in which she revoked the 2017 will, and left her entire estate to one person.  She failed to appoint a charity in Greece as the beneficiary of the trust property (i.e. she failed to exercise the power of appointment).

The trust property was approximately $500,000, and the issue was who receives it.

First, it was argued that the power of appointment was invalid.  The Court held that it was valid.  The Court then held that the 2017 will (which appointed a charity) was revoked by the 2018 Will (which didn’t appoint a charity).  As a result, the power of appointment had not been exercised, and so the default “Estia of Constantinipolis” would, on its face, receive the monies.

Next, it was argued that the Estia charity could not receive the gift because:

  1. The gift is to the President of Estia personally, or to his office on behalf of Estia;
  2. If the gift is to the President personally, it was unclear whether it was to the President in office at the time of the 1985 will (who was now dead – so the gift would have failed), or the president currently in office; or
  3. If the gift is to the current President by virtue of his office, and such is held in trust on behalf of the charity, the gift also fails because Greek law does not recognize trusts.

The Court did not accept any of these arguments.  The Court had “no hesitation” concluding that the deceased intended to make the gift to the charity.  There was no evidence that she had any relationship with the individual who was the president of Estia.  It logically followed that it was the charity, not the person, who was the intended beneficiary.

While the Court did not appear to have any difficulty interpreting the will, it is likely that the proceedings could have been avoided had the will and the power of appointment been more clearly drafted (or perhaps if no power of appointment had been included at all, and the deceased had simply named the charitable beneficiary in her will).

By drafting the will in the manner that she did, it permitted a disappointed beneficiary the opportunity to argue for an interpretation that would benefit them.  While the arguments were ultimately unsuccessful in this particular case, in some cases this may result in an interpretation that is not consistent with the deceased’s intentions, and in all cases will result in unnecessary expense to the estate.

Equitable Claims: Remedies when you expected to inherit but you didn’t

What if you expect to inherit something from someone’s estate, and when they die you discover that you were mistaken? What if you have acted to your detriment based on this expectation?

This seems to occur frequently in the case of farm properties. Someone works on a farm for little or no compensation, with an expectation that they will inherit the farm upon the owner’s death. Then, the owner leaves the farm to someone else.

It is always risky to provide services based upon an expectation, without setting the terms of the agreement or arrangement out in writing.  However, if the parties do not have a written agreement, the party who has provided services based upon an expectation to inherit, but has not ended up receiving the farm, may have potential remedies. A person in this situation may bring certain claims, including claims in:

  1. Proprietary estoppel;
  2. Unjust enrichment; and
  3. Breach of contract.

Proprietary Estoppel:

Proprietary estoppel is an equitable doctrine which enforces a promise that would not otherwise be enforced under the law. In order for proprietary estoppel to be available, the following three conditions must be present:

  1. A representation or assurance is made to the claimant, on the basis of which the claimant expects to enjoy some right or benefit over property;
  2. The claimant relies on that expectation by doing something, and that reliance is reasonable in all the circumstances; and
  3. The claimant suffers a detriment as a result of this reasonable reliance, such that it would be unfair or unjust for the party responsible for the representation or assurance to go back on their word.

There must be a promise one might reasonably expect to be replied upon by the person to whom it was made.

If these conditions are met and there is an equity which needs to be recognized, then the court must craft a remedy to do justice between the parties.

Unjust Enrichment:

Unjust enrichment is another equitable doctrine. A claimant must establish three elements:

  1. The respondent was enriched;
  2. The claimant suffered a corresponding deprivation; and
  3. The respondent’s enrichment and the claimant’s corresponding deprivation occurred in the absence of a juristic reason.

Breach of Contract:

Parties may enter into an agreement with a term requiring one party to make a will to the other party.  As long as the other elements of a contract are present (i.e. offer, acceptance, consideration, etc…), this type of agreement is enforceable in B.C. Further, the party expecting to benefit from such an agreement does not have to wait until the other party’s death before commencing an action, if the beneficiary becomes aware that the other party no longer intends to abide by the terms of the agreement. I previously wrote about a recent B.C. case on this issue, found here.

Recent B.C. Case – Party Expecting to Inherit Farm does not Receive it:

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered a claim to a farm on the basis of proprietary estoppel and unjust enrichment in Kennedy v Marcotte Estate 2022 BCSC 1486.

In Kennedy, the plaintiff thought he would inherit the deceased’s farm for much of his life. The plaintiff’s family had been friends with the deceased for many years (the deceased never married, and did not have any children of his own). The plaintiff was a commercial fisherman, but when he was not fishing he would assist the deceased at the farm.

The deceased made comments which the plaintiff understood to mean that the farm would be his after the deceased’s death. However, the deceased in fact left the will to a neighbour and close friend. The plaintiff found out about this while the deceased was still alive. He tried to convince the deceased to change his will, but this did not happen.

With respect to the claim in proprietary estoppel, the plaintiff relied upon various representations which he said gave him an expectation that he would inherit the farm:

  • In the 1970s, the plaintiff’s mother told him that the deceased put the farm in the names of the plaintiff and his three siblings;
  • From 1979-2004, annually, the deceased said that anybody who works on the deceased’s farm will get a piece one day;
  • From 1980-2000 (every two years), the deceased mentioned a man who inherited a farm from a woman who willed the property to him as an expression of gratitude for the work he did on the farm;
  • In 2004, the deceased said that he was changing his will to provide that one individual will inherit the farm (the plaintiff wrongly assumed that this person was him);
  • 2004-2018 (yearly), the deceased says that he hopes that the plaintiff is ready “to fight for the farm one day”; and
  • 2015 or 2018, Mr. Marcotte made a non-verbal gesture (pointing) with a friend which suggested that the plaintiff would inherit the farm.

The court accepted that the above representations were made, and that the plaintiff interpreted them to mean that the deceased would give the farm or part of it to the plaintiff in his will. The court also found that the plaintiff took action motivated partly upon his reliance on these representations, by working on the farm, and refraining from seeking formal paid employment when he was working on the farm.

However, the fundamental question was whether the plaintiff’s reliance on the representations was reasonable. The court held that his reliance was not reasonable. None of the representations were unambiguous or “clear enough” to communicate an assurance that if the plaintiff worked for the deceased while he was not fishing, he would inherit all or part of the farm. The court referred to several other cases of proprietary estoppel and inheriting farms, where the representations were much more unambiguous.

The claim in unjust enrichment also failed. The plaintiff established that his unpaid labor was a benefit to the deceased, and that the plaintiff suffered a corresponding deprivation. However, the claim failed on third element, in that the plaintiff failed to show a lack of juristic reason for the enrichment. The juristic reason was “[the plaintiff’s] donative intention to gift his labour to Mr. Marcotte as a long-time friend, just as his father and others had done over the years.” He did not expect to be paid, although he appreciated the payments and other benefits that were provided by the deceased to express his gratitude for the assistance.

This case is an important reminder of why you should always reduce agreements of this nature to writing. If you have expectations based on representations, the representations must be clear and unambiguous, and you must be reasonable in your reliance on them. The court in Kennedy accepted that from 1979 until 2018, during the months that the plaintiff was not away fishing, he was working on the farm approximately four to six days a week, for several hours each day. However, he was not entitled to anything for this.

BC Case Comment – UPDATE: On Appeal, Surviving Business Owner Still not Entitled to Receive Partnership Property by Right of Survivorship

Estate litigation issues do not just arise as between family members of the deceased (although that is most common).  A death may also result in disputes with respect to the deceased’s business dealings and partnership holdings.  This is why a fulsome estate plan that addresses all interests, personal and business, is key.

In a previous post found here, I discussed what happens when your business partner dies, in particular when the assets of the business are held jointly.  I considered this in the context of the decision of the B.C. Supreme Court in Garland v. Newhouse 2021 BCSC 2021.

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.

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 matter proceeded to court by way of summary trial, in which there are no live witnesses, and the court determines the matter based only on affidavit evidence and argument by the parties.   The B.C. Supreme Court stated that 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.”  The Court held that Ms. Newhouse was unable to provide this evidence.  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.

Ms. Newhouse appealed, and the B.C. Court of Appeal recently provided its decision, which can be found at Newhouse v. Garland 2022 BCCA 276.

A majority of the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, finding that:

  1. The lower court judge did not apply an incorrect legal test.  Ms. Newhouse argued that the lower court judge applied a higher legal burden, but the Court of Appeal disagreed.  They held that the lower court judge properly assessed whether the presumption had been rebutted, on a balance of probabilities, which was the appropriate standard;
  2. The lower court judge did not make a clear and overriding factual error, such as misapprehending the evidence, ignoring material evidence, or drawing inferences unsupported by primary facts.  While some judges may have made different findings, it is not the role of the Court of Appeal to reweigh the evidence and substitute their own findings; and
  3. The lower court judge did not err in exercising her discretion to proceed by way of summary trial instead of requiring a full trial with live witnesses.

The result reflects the role of the Court of Appeal.  The Court of Appeal does not simply re-hear cases and substitute their own decision.  The Court of Appeal may only interfere if there is a legal error, a clear and material factual error, or an error in the exercise of discretion.

One of the three-judge panel would have allowed the appeal, and delivered lengthy dissent reasons.  The judge would have referred the matter back to the B.C. Supreme Court for a full trial.  In the dissenting reasons, the judge notes the difficulties in determining these claims.  The dispute arises after the death of one of the partners, and so one of the parties to the original agreement will always be unavailable to give first-hand evidence.  The surviving partner will have an interest in the result, and so their evidence must be viewed with some caution.

It remains the case (as I noted in my previous post) that it is important to keep in mind business and partnership interests when making your estate plan.  Again, this this dispute likely could have been avoided if there was a written agreement reflecting the terms of the arrangement between the parties.

B.C. Case Comment: B.C. Court of Appeal Again Considers Whether a Claimant has Standing as a “Spouse”

When a person dies without a will and has no descendants, their spouse inherits their estate.  In order to benefit, a claimant must establish that they are indeed a “spouse.”  I continue to frequently see cases in which a person’s standing as a “spouse” is in dispute and is one of the key issues in the litigation.  This is relevant on an intestacy (dying with no will), and also for wills variation claims, which can only be brought by children and “spouses.”  This was one of the first issues that I wrote about when I started this blog, found here.  I have also wrote about it here.

The B.C. Court of Appeal recently considered this issue again in Coad v. Lariviere 2022 BCCA 222.

In Coad, the Court considered an appeal by a “spouse” from an order that the deceased died intestate and without a spouse, leaving her mother as the sole beneficiary.  The plaintiff was living in the same home as the deceased when she died, and he claimed to be in a marriage-like relationship with her at the time of her death.  The deceased’s ex-husband obtained a grant of administration with respect to a will dated August 11, 2011, while the plaintiff received a grant of administration based on an intestacy (on the assumption that he was a spouse).  The orders were in conflict.

The trial judge concluded that the deceased died intestate, but that the plaintiff was not in a marriage-like relationship with the deceased.  As a result, the deceased’s mother was the sole beneficiary of the deceased’s estate.  The plaintiff appealed the order.

A “spouse” is defined in s. 2 of the WIlls, Estates and Succession Act as follows:

2 (1) Unless subsection (2) applies, 2 persons are spouses of each other for the purposes of this Act if they were both alive immediately before a relevant time and

(a) they were married to each other, or

(b) they had lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years.

(2) Two persons cease being spouses of each other for the purposes of this Act if,

(a) in the case of a marriage, an event occurs that causes an interest in family property, as defined in Part 5 [Property Division] of the Family Law Act, to arise, or

(b) in the case of a marriage-like relationship, one or both persons terminate the relationship.

(2.1) For the purposes of this Act, spouses are not considered to have separated if, within one year after separation,

(a) they begin to live together again and the primary purpose for doing so is to reconcile, and

(b) they continue to live together for one or more periods, totalling at least 90 days.

(3) A relevant time for the purposes of subsection (1) is the date of death of one of the persons unless this Act specifies another time as the relevant time.

There is no specific definition of when a marriage-like relationship exists.  The presence or absence of any particular factor cannot be determinative of whether a relationship is “marriage-like.”  There is no checklist of characteristics that will invariably be found in all marriages .  While the parties’ intentions may be important, objective evidence will also provide guidance as to whether a relationship was “marriage-like”.  Spousal relationships are many and varied.

Whether people are in a marriage-like relationship is a question of mixed fact and law, and the decision of a trial judge is entitled to deference.

The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge did not take a contextual and holistic approach, and instead applied a “checklist.”  He also placed undue emphasis on the fact that the plaintiff and the deceased did not engage in sexual relations.  The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, and made an order that the plaintiff was in a marriage-like relationship with the deceased (i.e. was a “spouse”) and therefore received the estate.

As these claims are so fact-specific, and the result is “all or nothing” depending upon whether the claimant is a “spouse”, we can expect to continue to see this issue making its way before the courts.

Mareva Injunctions and Freezing Orders in Estate Litigation

Often there is a concern that a defendant will dissipate assets or put them out of reach of the court if they become aware of a claim against them.   A person who intends to bring a claim wants to make sure that (1) the property that is the subject of the claim is protected until a determination of the claim, and/or (2) the defendant will still have sufficient assets to satisfy the claim.

A Mareva injunction is an order which freezes the defendant’s assets, so that they cannot be disposed of or removed to a place beyond the court’s reach while proceedings are ongoing.  Preservation orders are also available to freeze and preserve the property that is the subject of a claim.

A Mareva injunction is an extraordinary remedy, because it provides the plaintiff with enforcement rights and prejudices the defendant before the court has actually determined the merits of the claim.

These orders are usually obtained ex parte, or without notice to the other party.  Otherwise, there is the risk that the defendant will removal or deal with the assets after they are served and made aware of the application but before the order is made.

Once the party against whom the order is made is served with the order, they may apply to set it aside.

There is a two-part test for granting a Mareva injunction:

  1. The existence of a strong prima facie case or a good arguable case.  This does not mean that the applicant must demonstrate that they are “bound to succeed” with their claim.  The test is satisfied if “either side might win”; and
  2. Having regard to all relevant factors in the case, whether granting an injunction would be just and convenient (the balance of convenience).

For a restraining order over property at issue in the proceeding, there is a lower threshold for #1: whether there is a substantial question to be tried.

The B.C. Supreme Court in Shakeri-Salah (discussed further below) set out the relevant factors which may be considered on the balance of convenience analysis (which factors are relevant will depend upon the case, and this is not a closed list):

  1. the residency of the defendant;
  2. enforcement rights of judgment creditors in the jurisdiction where the defendant’s assets are located;
  3. evidence showing the existence of assets within British Columbia or outside;
  4. evidence showing a real risk of the disposal or dissipation of assets to render a judgment nugatory;
  5. evidence of irreparable harm;
  6. the strength of the plaintiff’s case;
  7. the nature of the transaction giving rise to the action;
  8. the risks inherent in the transaction;
  9. the amount of the claim;
  10. the defendant’s assets;
  11. evidence that the injunction would have a material adverse effect on an innocent third party; and
  12. the history of the defendant’s conduct.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered Mareva injunctions and preservation orders in in the context of estate and trust litigation in Shakeri-Salah v. Estate of Ahmadi-Niri 2022 BCSC 700.

In Shakeri-Salah, the defendants sought to set aside a Merva injunction and freezing order.  The plaintiff was the widow of the deceased.  She brought an action against her husband’s estate, the trustees of a trust, corporate entities relating to her husband’s business enterprises, her two older sons, and her husband’s personal advisors.  The plaintiff alleged that as the deceased’s spouse she was entitled to a share in the assets accumulated through a joint family venture.  In the five months prior to his death, the deceased took certain steps to purportedly put assets outside the reach of the plaintiff.  He transferred assets into a trust, the beneficiaries of which were his children but not his spouse (the plaintiff).  He severed joint tenancies, commenced a family claim seeking a divorce from the plaintiff, and made a will in which the plaintiff was not a beneficiary.  All of this was done while the deceased’s health was deteriorating and he had a reduced ability to communicate.

The deceased travelled to Dubai and then Iran, where he died several weeks later.  The plaintiff alleged that her sons took their father to these countries to remove him from her and to exercise undue influence over him.  The sons said they were helping their father “escape an unhappy marriage”, and did so at his request.

The plaintiff alleged there was an unwritten trust arrangement and unwritten agreement between her and the deceased.  She claimed a constructive trust over the assets that her husband amassed during the time that they were married.

The plaintiff applied ex parte and obtained a Mareva injunction and freezing order.  The Court ordered that the assets that were the subject of the claim be frozen.  There was also an order requiring the sons and the corporate defendants to set out their respective assets.

The defendants applied to set aside the order.

One of the grounds to set aside a Mareva injunction is material non-disclosure by the applicant.  If there has been material non-disclosure by the applicant, the court may set aide the order without regard to the merits of the application.  The standard is high when a litigant comes to court on an ex parte basis.  The applicant must disclose all important aspects of the evidence because the other side is not their to make their case.  However, not every omission necessarily results in the order being set aside.

The Court in Shakeri-Salah did not agree that there was material non-disclosure.

If there has not been material non-disclosure, the court proceeds with a new hearing (a “hearing de novo”) on the merits of the application.  The applicant must again meet the test for obtaining the injunction.

In Shakeri-Salah, the defendants argued that there was no evidence of dissipation of assets.  The plaintiff argued that while there was no evidence of active dissipation, there was evidence of pre-existing intentions and steps taken by the deceased to deprive her of assets that would have been received by her as spouse and joint tenant.  The court agreed – the deceased, with the defendants’ knowledge and sometimes with their “loyal support” structured his affairs to remove assets from the plaintiff’s reach.  The court relied upon the commencement of family law proceedings, the severance of the joint tenancies, and the will excluding the plaintiff as evidence of the deceased’s intention to put assets out of the reach of the plaintiff.

The Court varied the injunction to remove the sons from the freezing order.  “Considerations of fairness and justice” did not support continuing the interlocutory relief against them personally.  The order remained in place as against the other defendants, i.e. the trustee and the corporations.

The case also includes an interesting discussion of claims for unjust enrichment brought by one spouse against the other.  A spouse who claims unjust enrichment based on a family venture need not have played an active role in a business venture that is alleged to be the product of the family venture.  The deceased’s business efforts built the family’s wealth, but the plaintiff made that possible through her role in the family, entitling her to a remedy for a proportionate share of the wealth built.

B.C. Case Comment: Does the Doctrine of Unconscionable Procurement Apply in B.C.?

The transfer of property into joint ownership with right of survivorship is a common estate planning tool.  But can you take back the transfer after you have made it?  You can make a new will changing the distribution of your estate, but can you undo the transfer of property into joint ownership?

This is what a 91 year old father tried to do (unsuccessfully) in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Sandwell v. Sayers 2022 BCSC 605.  The father tried to argue that the doctrine of unconscionable procurement applied.

The doctrine of unconscionable procurement provides that where there is a transfer of significant benefit that the recipient actively caused to occur, there must be proof of the donor’s full comprehension and understanding of the effects of the transfer for it to be upheld.

The onus is on the party attacking the transaction to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that it was unconscionably procured.  Once the party challenging the transaction has established a significant benefit and the active involvement on the part of the person obtaining the benefit in the procurement or arrangement of the transfer, then there is a presumption that the donor of the gift did not truly understand what she was doing in making the transaction.

Turning to the facts in Sandwell, the plaintiff father had two children, a son and the defendant daughter.  In December 2020, the father transferred an interest in his home in Kelowna to his daughter, making them joint tenants.  He later brought legal proceedings to get the property back into his sole name.

The father lived alone at the property.  The father was in good health.  There was no issue with his capacity at the time of the transfer.

Back in 2008, the father had executed a transfer of his home to his son for $1.00.  The transfer was never registered, and the original documents were retained by the lawyer who drafted them.  The daughter discovered copies of the documents, along with a note that read “this transfer will not be used except with your consent or in the event that your health fails and there is no likelihood of your recovery.”  The daughter brought this to the attention of her father.  The father claimed that his daughter told him that his son could take his property and leave him broke.

The daughter and the father attended the office of a notary.  The daughter claimed that the father made the appointment, because he wanted to sign over half the property to her (and she would get the rest of it when he died).  The father claimed that the daughter told him that she made an appointment with a notary and that he should go with her, and when he arrived, the notary was expecting him and had prepared documents adding the daughter to the title to the property.

The notary was alive to concerns of undue influence, and he recorded these concerns in his notes.  He met with the father alone and reviewed the pros and cons of transferring title into joint tenancy.  He told the father to take some time to think about it (which he did).

After the initial consultation, the father called the notary and said that he did not want to proceed with the transfer.  A few days later he left four voicemail messages for the notary indicating he wanted to proceed with the transfer, and the daughter also emailed the notary to say that her father wanted to proceed with the transfer.  The transfer was registered.

The father now argued that the transfer into joint ownership ought to be set aside under the doctrine of unconscionable procurement – the daughter caused the transaction to occur (to her benefit) and he did not fully understand the effects of the transaction.  The daughter argued that not only were the requirements of the doctrine not met, but the entire doctrine is not good law and should not be applied in B.C.

The Court went through the history of the doctrine of unconscionable procurement, noting that it was popular in the 1800s and early 1900s, but is rarely mentioned in current case law.  It has been referenced in a few recent cases (and I have noticed that lately it is being pled in more claims), but there has been no detailed analysis of whether the doctrine still has any place in British Columbia.  One concern is whether the courts should endorse claims brought beyond such “traditional” grounds of attack on transactions, such as undue influence, incapacity and resulting trust.

In Sandwell, the Court had “real doubt” about the place of the doctrine of unconscionable procurement in British Columbia law.   However, if the doctrine of unconscionable procurement exists and has any place in B.C., it did not assist the father in this case.

First, at best the daughter arranged the appointment with the notary (although that was disputed) and caused him to fear his son might take his home.  This was not enough to satisfy the requirement that there be “active involvement by the person obtaining the benefit in the procurement or arrangement of the transfer.”

Second, the father failed to present any evidence which indicated a misunderstanding of the impact of his actions.  He did not provide evidence that he failed to understand the effect of transferring the property into joint ownership.

The Court also refused to set aside the transfer on the basis of unjust enrichment.

The Court expressly stated that it did not intend to make a decision that applies beyond the scope of the facts that were before it.  As a result, the B.C. Courts have not stated that the doctrine of unconscionable procurement does not apply in British Columbia.  However, Sandwell contains a strong analysis and argument in support of why the doctrine should not apply in British Columbia, or should only apply in very limited circumstances.

What are the Consequences When a Beneficiary is a Witness to the Will?

Is it appropriate for a beneficiary in a will to witness the execution of that will? The law in B.C. presumes that a gift to the witness of a will or their spouse is void, unless the court declares otherwise.

To be valid in B.C., a maker-maker must sign their will or acknowledge their signature in the presence of two or more witnesses present at the same time, and those witnesses must also sign the will in the presence of the will-maker (but keep in mind the recent changes to allow electronic wills in B.C., discussed here).

Section 40(2) of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act provides that “a person may witness a will even though he or she may receive a gift under it, but the gift may be void under section 43.”   Section 43 provides that “unless the court otherwise declares”, a gift in a will is void if it is to a witness to the will-maker’s signature or the spouse of that witness.  On application, the court may declare that such a gift is not void and is to take effect, “if the court is satisfied that the will-maker intended to make the gift to the person even though the person or his or her spouse was a witness to the will.”

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered this issue in Wolk v. Wolk 2021 BCSC 1881. In Wolk, the deceased left his estate to his parents. His parents were two of the three witnesses to the will. The will explained the purpose of the gift, which including making that the parents were expected to make provision for the will-maker’s daughters.

The issue for the court was whether the gift to the parents was void since the parents witnessed the signing of the will.  The central concern is testamentary intent: what did the will-maker actually intend? Extrinsic evidence is admissible for establishing the will-maker’s intention.

In Wolk, it was “readily apparent” that the will-maker intended for the two witnesses to receive his estate even though they signed as witnesses. The will-maker “expressly articulated” the basis for the gift in the will. The will-maker also changed his beneficiary designations to make similar provision for his parents. The Court concluded that the gifts to the will-maker’s parents were valid, even though the parents signed as witnesses.

If possible, a will-maker should arrange for witnesses who are not beneficiaries under the will, as the presumption is that any gift to a witness is void. However, this may not be practicable. There may be no one else available, or there may be urgency (i.e. a will made on the will-maker’s deathbed). If it cannot be reasonably avoided and a named beneficiary must witness the will, there is a remedy, but it is an added complication and of course there is no guarantee that an application to declare the gift valid will be successful.