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.

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.

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.

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.

Case Comment: B.C. Court Dismisses Attempt by Estranged Spouse to Set Aside Property Transfer and Vary Will

I am often contacted by executors or beneficiaries of an estate when they have been served with what they consider to be a “nuisance claim”. Unfortunately, the death of a loved one may present an opportunity for others to bring unmeritorious claims. The estate may be large enough to attract claims that should never have been made, and the person who would have the best evidence to oppose the claims (the deceased person) is dead.

A typical example is someone surfacing and claiming to be the deceased’s spouse for the purpose of bringing a wills variation claim or other claim. This person may be a former spouse of the deceased, a casual romantic partner, a roommate, or even a stranger. I have previously written about the test to determine whether someone has standing as a “spouse” to bring a wills variation claim here.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently dismissed a dubious claim by a person claiming to be a current spouse of the deceased (but was found not to be one) in Lee v. Chau 2021 BCSC 70. In Lee, the deceased transferred his real property into joint tenancy with his adult children as joint tenants. His children said that he intended the transfer to be a gift, that their father’s relationship with the plaintiff ended many years before, and their marriage was a sham. The plaintiff argued that she was the deceased’s wife for 19 years. She claimed that the defendants held the property in resulting trust for her benefit, and she also sought to vary the deceased’s will to make provision for her.

The Will included the following rather scathing clause explaining why the deceased made no provision for the plaintiff:

“I am giving nothing to NU LEE [the plaintiff] whom I married on May 30, 1995, as although we were married, she refused to consummate our marriage or live with me as husband and wife and on March 1, 1996, she left me and returned to Taiwan, China and has not returned. I believe that she married me for the sole purpose of facilitating her entry into Canada as a landed immigrant. She has never and refused to consummate our marriage and we have at no time lived together as husband and wife relationship”.

The Court concluded that the deceased understood the effect of transferring property into joint tenancy, and that by doing so he intended to gift his property to his children. The Court gave clear indication that it did not think much of the plaintiff’s attempt to claim an interest in the property. In addition to quoting the above passage from the will, they relied upon the following evidence that the plaintiff was estranged from the deceased:

  • The plaintiff’s extended absence from the property for many years before the deceased’s death;
  • Her full-­time residence outside Canada for more than three years before his death;
  • Her ignorance of his terminal illness;
  • Their lack of contact immediately before his death, and
  • The fact that he died without her knowledge.

The Court also held that the plaintiff was not the “spouse” of the deceased at the date of death, and therefore did not have standing to bring a wills variation claim. The plaintiff was ordered to pay the defendants’ costs. While the Court did not use the words “nuisance claim” or say that the claim was a frivolous or vexatious one, the judge was clearly not impressed by the plaintiff’s attempts to come back and try to make a claim against the property and the deceased’s estate.  This decision confirms that the B.C. Courts are fully prepared to dismiss claims that they consider to be without merit.

The Final Hurdle: Passing of Accounts and Determining the Executor’s Fee

Once contentious estate claims have been determined, such as challenges to the validity of a will or wills variation claims, there is one final hurdle for the executor: the passing of accounts and determination of the executor’s fee.

The B.C. Trustee Act provides that a personal representative is entitled to remuneration to a maximum of five percent of the gross aggregate value, including capital and income, of all of the estate at the date of the passing.  An executor is also entitled to a fee for annual care and management of the estate which must not exceed 0.4% of the average market value of the estate assets.

In determining the fee payable, the court will consider the magnitude of the trust or estate, the care and responsibility involved, the time occupied in administering the trust or estate, the skill and ability displayed, and finally, the success achieved in the result. The fee is to be determined based upon the reasonable value of the services rendered, subject to the five percent cap.

If the beneficiaries do not consent to the form of accounts and the fee sought by the executor, then the executor must seek the approval of the court.

If there have been contentious court proceedings relating to an estate, there may be lingering resentment or continued conflict when the matter proceeds to the final passing of accounts. This gives the parties one last thing to fight about.

This was the case in the recent decision of In the Matter of the Estate of Nehar Singh Litt, deceased 2020 BCSC 1921. In Litt, the executor was one of six beneficiaries, all of whom are siblings. The deceased had left each of his four daughters $150,000. The residue of the estate (the total estate was valued at $9 million) was left to his two sons. The daughters brought a wills variation claim, and the court divided the estate 60% in favor of the daughters, and 40% in favor of the sons. I previously wrote on this decision in a post found here. The judgment in the wills variation matter can be found here.

The executor sought to pass his accounts, and he sought total remuneration of $654,449.34 for both parents’ estates.  The court observed that there was “considerable animus” between the executor and his siblings, and so it was not surprising that the executor was not able to obtain the consent of the beneficiaries to the fee that he sought and a hearing was required.  The court heard evidence and reviewed each factor over a three day hearing. Although the executor displayed skill and ability in handling the estate, and achieved success overall in maximizing the estate’s assets and income over a period of three years, the court held that the remuneration sought was excessive, and reduced the executor’s fee to $400,000.

Case Comment: The Importance of Putting Agreements with Family Members in Writing

Contracts between family members are enforceable if the parties intended to create legal relations, just like any other contract. The problem is that communications in the family context are often no more than statements of intent or wishes, which do not rise to the level of a binding agreement. Arrangements between family members are often more casual, and may not be reduced to writing. The “agreement” may also be more akin to a gratuitous promise, where only one party is truly receiving a benefit form the “deal”. All of this creates problems when it comes time to try to enforce an alleged agreement with a family member.

The B.C. Supreme Court case of Siemens v. Munroe, 2020 BCSC 1862 is a recent example of this. In Siemens, a 31 year old son alleged that his mother breached an agreement that he would receive an interest in property registered in his mother’s name. The mother had approached her son and proposed that she move into a suite in her residence, and allow her son and his family to move into the main floor of the house. The mother would keep the equity she had built up in the property, and the mother and son would share the costs of the mortgage and utilities. Subject to the mother’s equity, the son would become a 50% owner in the residence.

The agreement was never reduced to writing.

The parties proceeded with the agreement. The son and his family moved in, and the son paid his share of the mortgage payments and utilities. However, there were difficulties adding the son’s name to title. The son became frustrated, and the relationship between mother and son deteriorated. The son sent a series of “unfortunate and hurtful” text messages to his mother.

First, the Court considered whether there was a binding agreement between the parties and concluded that there was no such agreement.   A promise that was made because of the familial relation of the parties, or out of “natural love and affection” cannot form the basis of a contract. There must be actual consideration exchanged between the parties. While both the son and the mother suggested they were entering into the arrangement to assist the other, the Court observed that the son really benefited more from the arrangement. His family got a larger home, for less than the cost of their smaller condominium, and they were able to rent and later sell their condominium.  There was also not sufficient certainty on all of the terms of the agreement to create a binding contract.

However, the son was entitled to a 50% interest in the property (after deducting the mother’s prior equity), on the basis of unjust enrichment. The mother was enriched through the son’s contribution to the mortgage payments.

The mother consistently (including at trial) acknowledged that subject to her equity she still considered her son to have a 50% interest in the property. Her statement that she was morally bound by the arrangements did not create a contract between the parties. However, it was an important factor when considering an equitable claim in unjust enrichment, where the court will look at the parties’ reasonable expectations.

A theme throughout the judgment was the emotional toll that this has taken on the relationship between the mother and son. The judge notes at the beginning of her reasons that the case cried out for a creative solution that the parties could unfortunately not reach. She deliberately refrained from repeating the text messages sent by the son to her mother in her reasons, “as doing so would serve no useful purpose.”

It can be awkward to insist that that arrangements with your own family members be reduced to writing, and we have an tendency to avoid uncomfortable discussions. This case is a good reminder that the failure to have those conversations up front may result in greater discomfort (and a lawsuit) down the road.

Case Update: Removal of Reproductive Material from a Deceased Person

I previously discussed a case in which the petitioner wife applied for an order that her deceased husband’s sperm be removed from his body to be used for reproductive purposes by his wife. The application was dismissed.  The wife was not entitled to receive her deceased husband’s sperm for reproductive purposes because he had not provided his written consent during his lifetime. The post can be found here.

The petitioner appealed the decision and the B.C. Court of Appeal recently released their reasons for judgment dismissing the appeal at L.T. v. D.T. Estate 2020 BCCA 328. The Court of Appeal accepted that the deceased husband would have consented to the use of his reproductive material after his death if he had considered the issue during his lifetime. However, he did not provide this consent during his lifetime, and the prohibition on the removal of a person’s reproductive material without consent is criminal in nature. The legislation is clear: without the deceased person’s consent, the reproductive material cannot be used.

The Court dismissed the appeal with regret, acknowledging the painful and tragic circumstances confronting the wife. The Court granted a stay of the order for 60 days to permit the parties to consider their position on an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Bernard and Honey Sherman Estates: Supreme Court of Canada Hears Arguments on Whether to Allow Public Access to Court Files for High Profile Estates

Court records, including documents filed in probate and estate proceedings, are open to the public. Access to the court, including access by the media, is a fundamental principle which is guaranteed by the Charter.  However, court filings in estate matters inevitably touch upon private and sensitive matters.  This raises the competing interests of balancing privacy and safety interests with the principle that the courts are open to the public.  In British Columbia, the open courts principle is paramount and will usually outweigh the right to privacy in estate matters.

In B.C., an application for a grant of probate must include the will, which means that once an application for probate has been filed, anyone can access and read the filed will. An application for a grant of probate or administration (if there is no will) must also include a list of all of the assets and liabilities of the estate. As a result, anyone can access the court file to determine the identity of estate beneficiaries and the assets of the estate, and determine, by inference, what each beneficiary stands to receive.

The same openness principle exists in contentious estate litigation proceedings. Estate litigation, which is often between family members, relating to determination of the validity of the will, issues of testamentary capacity or undue influence, and variation of wills can be highly contentious and highly emotional. This frequently results in the airing of personal and private matters in the courts, which means they become public.

Sealing orders limiting access to court records are available but rarely granted, as they are an exception to the open courts principle. A party seeking a sealing order has a heavy onus to show (1) the order is necessary to prevent a serious risk to an important interest which cannot be protected by an alternative method, and (2) the salutary effects of the confidentiality order outweigh its deleterious effects.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions on whether the media ought to have access to the court files relating to the estates of Bernard and Honey Sherman, who held substantial wealth at the time of their high profile murders.  Their murders remain unsolved.  The hearings were widely reported in the media (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/barry-honey-sherman-court-estate-1.5752296).

The Sherman case was highly publicized, and the victims held considerable wealth at the time of their deaths (they were billionaires). Does this mean that they entitled to a greater degree of privacy than the average deceased person and their estate? The estate argued that in these circumstances the risk went beyond the typical privacy concerns, focusing on (1) the risk of publicity in this particular case, and (2) the fact that the murders remained unsolved.

In the Sherman proceedings, an Ontario Superior Court judge made orders without notice sealing certain court files relating to the Sherman Estates. The next month, the Toronto Star Newspaper and one of its reporters brought an application to terminate or vary the sealing orders. The judge dismissed the motion and upheld the sealing orders.

The Toronto Star appealed the order to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The trustees of the estate argued that (1) there is a need to protect the privacy and dignity of the victims of violent crime and their loved ones, and (2) there was a reasonable apprehension of risk to those who have an interest in receiving or administering the assets of the deceased.  The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and set aside the sealing orders on two main grounds.

First, privacy concerns cannot, without more, justify an order sealing material that would normally be available to the public. This makes sense. Most will-makers, executors and beneficiaries would prefer that estate matters remain private, but that is not consistent with Canada’s open court principles.

Second, the Court of Appeal did not accept that because the identity and the motives of the murderers was unknown, it follows that the trustees and beneficiaries were also at risk. This was found to be speculation , and did not provide a basis for a sealing order.

The Supreme Court of Canada has now heard the arguments on appeal, and they have reserved judgment and will release their decision at a later date. Stay tuned.