COVID-19: B.C. court closures and estate litigation

On March 30, 2020, the B.C. Supreme Court posted an updated notice regarding suspension of court operations. A copy of the notice can be found here.

Effective March 19, 2020 and until further notice, regular operations of the Supreme Court of British Columbia at all of its locations have been suspended. All civil and family matters scheduled for hearing between March 19, 2020 and May 1, 2020 have been adjourned, unless the court otherwise directs. Courthouses are still open, but all persons are strongly discouraged from attending at the courthouse unless absolutely necessary or ordered by the court. In person registry services have been suspended.

It remains the case that limitation periods have been suspended, as discussed in a previous post found here.

The court will now hear only essential and urgent matters. The notice outlines the procedure to request a hearing of an essential or urgent matter. Certain listed matters are presumed to be “essential” or “urgent”, and the court has discretion to hear other matters not listed (or decline to hear a matter presumed to be essential or urgent). A judge will decide whether a matter is essential or urgent and is to be heard.

Some elder law and estate litigation matters may fall within certain of the “essential” or “urgent” categories, which include:

  1. Refusal of treatment and end of life matters;
  2. Emergency adult guardianship and committeeship orders, including under the Adult Guardianship Act and Patients Property Act. A substitute decision maker may need to be appointed to manage the financial and personal affairs of an incapacitated person on an urgent basis; and
  3. Urgent injunction applications or preservation orders. While these are relatively rare in the estate litigation context, as an example there may be a real likelihood that a personal representative or other person intends to cause irreparable harm by disposing of or destroying estate assets.

In certain circumstances, a beneficiary may seek the urgent removal of an executor, to protect the welfare of the beneficiaries. However, there must be a strong case for urgency if the matter is to be set for hearing at this time.

Most estate litigation matters will not be considered urgent or essential, and so any court hearings will have to wait until the court resumes regular operations.  In the meantime, parties can take other steps in the litigation, such as filing and serving pleadings, exchanging documents, and conducting examinations for discovery, so that legal proceedings continue to move forward and are ready to go to a hearing when the courts reopen to all matters. Parties are also still free to negotiate or mediate (including by video) to attempt to resolve matters.

These circumstances are quickly changing (and the state of emergency will eventually be cancelled), and so any affected party should regularly check the B.C. Supreme Court website.

Admitting to Probate a Document or Record That Does Not Meet the Requirements of a Will

One of the most anticipated changes to B.C. estate litigation legislation was the introduction of s. 58 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act [“WESA”], which allows the court to “cure deficiencies” in a will.  This permits the court to admit to probate a document or record that does not meet the technical requirements of a will.

Prior to the passing of WESA, will-makers were required to comply strictly with certain formalities relating to the execution and attestation of a will.  If these formalities were not met, the will was not valid, and the will-maker’s testamentary intentions would be defeated even if those intentions were clear.

Section 58 of WESA provides that the court may determine that a document or record (including an electronic record) represents the testamentary intentions of a deceased person, and order that it is fully effective as though it had been made as the will or part of the will of the deceased person.

For an order to be granted, the court must be satisfied that (1) the document is authentic, and (2) the document represents the deceased’s testamentary intentions.  The section does not require any minimum level of execution or other formality, although the further a document departs from the formal requirements the harder it may be for the court to find it embodies the deceased’s testamentary intentions.  Regardless of form, the document may be admitted to probate: a handwritten letter, unwitnessed and unsigned, an email, a text message or other instant message, a scribbled “to do” note, a draft Word document.

By way of recent example, in Bizicki Estate 2019 BCSC 2142 the court admitted three notes left by the deceased in his room stating his wish that his girlfriend receive the money in his bank accounts and other personal property.  Two of the notes were undated.  Two of the notes were unsigned.

In Hubschi Estate (Re) 2019 BCSC 2040, another recent court decision, the court admitted an entry found on the deceased’s home computer that read “Get a will made out at some point. A5 – way assets split for remaining brother and sisters. Greg, Annette or Trevor as executor.”

As a result, even when there is no formal will there may be a document or record which sets out the deceased’s testamentary intentions, which may be admitted for probate.  It is important to conduct a careful search of a deceased’s records, including electronic records, to locate any such document.

Testamentary Capacity – When is someone able to make a will?

Consider the following:  Your mother has always told you that she intended to leave her estate to you and your sister in equal shares.  However, when she dies a wills search reveals that she executed a will approximately one year before her death.  At that time, she was residing in a care facility, and was suffering from mild dementia (although her dementia got much worse in the period leading up to her death).  In this will, she leaves her entire estate to charity.  A noble act, but completely inconsistent with what she told you.  There is a previous will (before any degree of dementia), which distributes her estate equally between you and your sister.

A will-maker must have testamentary capacity

In order to make a valid will, a will-maker must have a baseline level of mental acuity sufficient to appreciate the nature and effect of the testamentary act, referred to as testamentary capacity.  If a testator lacks testamentary capacity at the time that he or she makes a will, then that will is invalid.

When it appears that a testator has left an unusual will, has excluded a beneficiary who ought to have been included, or has made changes to a previous will at a time when their level of capacity is questionable, then the issue of testamentary capacity should be considered.

If a will is held to be invalid because the testator lacked testamentary capacity, then the previous will – made when the testator still had capacity – would continue to be in effect (if such a will exists).

Test for testamentary capacity

The test for testamentary capacity is set out in Banks v. Goodfellow, a decision from the England Queen’s Bench from 1850.  This test continues to be applied today.  The test for testamentary capacity requires the following from the testator at the time the will is made:

  1. understanding the nature of the act of making a will and its consequences;
  2. understanding the extent of one’s assets;
  3. comprehending and appreciating the claims of those who might expect to benefit from the will, both those to be included and excluded;
  4. understanding the impact of the distribution of the assets of the estate; and
  5. that the testator is free of any disorder of mind or delusions that might influence the disposition of his or her assets.

If any of the above requirements are not met, then the testator lacks the capacity to make a valid will.

Otherwise incapable people may still have testamentary capacity

The issue of whether a testator has the capacity to make a will is a highly individualized and fact-specific inquiry, which will depend upon the circumstances of each case.

The test for testamentary capacity is a very specific test.  For example, it is not the same as the test for whether someone is incapable of managing their own affairs.  Although it is recognized that dementia can impair a testator’s mental powers such that he is not capable of making a will, a diagnosis of dementia, standing alone, does not automatically mean that a testator lacks testamentary capacity.  Similarly, a person who is declared incapable of managing his or her affairs pursuant to adult guardianship legislation or suffers a chronic psychotic illness such as schizophrenia may still have the capacity to make a valid will.  Isolated memory or other cognitive deficits on their own do not establish a lack of testamentary capacity.

The relevant considerations are those set out above, from the Banks v. Goodfellow case – the testator must appreciate the extent of her assets, the consequences of her will, and the effect of including and excluding certain persons who might expect to benefit from the will.

Timing is key when considering testamentary capacity

When considering whether a testator had testamentary capacity, timing is key.  The two relevant times are: (1) when the testator gives instructions to draft the will, and (2) when the will is signed.

There are cases in which a testator will have capacity to give instructions, but loses capacity before the will is signed.  In those cases, the will may still be valid so long as, at the time of execution, the testator was capable of comprehending that she was executing a will drawn in accordance with her previous instructions (when she had capacity).

Proof/evidence of testamentary capacity

How does one prove (or disprove) capacity?

Testamentary capacity is not a medical diagnosis; it is a legal threshold.  Accordingly, scientific or medical evidence – while important and relevant – is neither essential nor conclusive in determining the presence or absence of testamentary capacity.

The evidence of lay witnesses (such as the observations of family and friends at the relevant time) is often considered by the court when determining whether a testator had testamentary capacity.

Where available, the court will rely upon evidence from the solicitor who prepared the disputed will.  It is important that the drafting solicitor keep detailed notes when capacity is an issue – the will may not be disputed for many years after it is prepared, and the drafting solicitor may have prepared hundreds or even thousands of wills in the meantime, and he or she may have no independent recollection of the testator and the will that they prepared.  In that case, the drafting solicitor must rely upon the file and their notes.

If testamentary capacity is shown, that is not necessarily the end of the matter

Even if the requirements for testamentary capacity are met, there still may be other concerns surrounding the execution of the will.  In particular, where an individual’s mental capacity is diminished, he or she will be more vulnerable to undue influence.  A claim of undue influence can be made in addition to, or in the absence of, a claim that a testator lacked testamentary capacity.