Sabey Rule Blog

Re Milne Estate

By November 20, 2018 No Comments

I suspect that a recent decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice is causing some consternation among the Ontario estate planning bar. In Re Milne Estate, 2018 ONSC 4174, the Court held that a will was void for uncertainty of subject matter and could not be admitted to probate. The effect of the decision was to frustrate a two-will estate planning strategy to minimize probate fees. In understand that the decision is under the appeal, and I would argue that the reasoning is fundamentally flawed. But it does highlight the risks of using a multiple-will strategy to reduce probate fees.

Using two wills to minimize probate fees has been popular in Ontario for quite some time, and has grown more popular in British Columbia since the Wills, Estates and Succession Act came into effect. The idea is that the will-maker makes one will in which she deals with those of her assets that can be dealt with by her executor (or “estate trustee” in Ontario), without a grant of probate. The most common type of asset is shares and shareholder loans in closely held companies. There is then another will in which she deals with those assets, such as real estate, publicly traded shares and investment accounts for which probate will be required for the executor to deal with the assets. Both Ontario and British Columbia charge probate fees based on the size of the estate. By using a separate will for the closely held companies, there may be significant savings if the will does not need to be probated.

In Re Milne Estate, the Court considered wills made by two spouses, John Douglas Milne, and Sheilah Marlyn Milne, who both died on October 2, 2017. Their wills are described in the reasons for judgment as follows:

[2]           In the present case, each testator created two materially identical wills. The Primary Will settled upon the executors “all property owned by me at the time of my death EXCEPT…. [certain named assets and] any other assets for which my Trustees determine a grant of authority by a court of competent jurisdiction is not required for a transfer or realization thereof” [emphasis added].  The Secondary Will, expressly not revoking the first, settled upon the executors “all property owned by me at the time of my death INCLUDING … [certain named assets and] any other assets for which my Trustees determine a grant of authority by a court of competent jurisdiction is not required for the transfer or realization thereof”.

After their deaths, the Primary Wills, the ones dealing with assets for which probate would be required, were submitted for probate.

The Court determined that in each case the Secondary Will is valid, and the Primary Will is invalid.

The Court’s reasoning is based on the proposition that a “will is a from of a trust.” No authority is cited, and I have never read or heard that before. A will may be used to create a trust, but I don’t think that is the same thing as saying that a will is a form of a trust.

The Court then reasons that trust must meet the three certainties of intention, subject matter, and objects. In this case, the Court found that the primary wills were void for uncertainty of subject matter. As set out in paragraphs 21 through 23:

[21]        The Estate Trustees urge me to find that there is no uncertainty arising from clause (f) of each of the Primary Wills because the “excluded assets are sufficiently defined in the Primary Will to permit their identification by the Estate Trustees”. They submit that there is no discretion of the Estate Trustees involved because they must determine which assets do not require a Certificate and “[t]hose assets are then not governed by the Primary Wills”.

 

[22]        The three certainties necessary for a valid trust must be satisfied at the time the trust is created – in this case, at the time of death. It is not enough to say that the assets subject to the trust will be determined later and will then be governed by one will or the other. There is no requirement to probate a will. Whether the trustees decide that a Certificate is necessary or desirable to dispose of a particular asset is a matter of their discretion and is not ascertainable by objective criteria ascertainable in advance. Bank X may decide not to accept anything less than a Certificate in order to authorize the Estate Trustees to deal with a bank account of the deceased, for example, while Bank Y may be satisfied with a certified copy of the will appointing them.

 

[23]        The Estate Trustees in this case urge me to find valid a will that confers upon them the discretion to determine retroactively whether any particular assets are included in it. Inclusion of all assets in a trust subject to the power to exclude all of them – as has been attempted here – is no different than conferring the power upon the Estate Trustees to determine which if any assets will be subject to the trust. The testator must settle upon the Estate Trustees assets that are specifically identified or are objectively identifiable by reference to the intention of the testator and not the subsequent decision of the Estate Trustees.

I don’t take issue with the assertion that the subject matter of a trust must be certain as at the time of the trust’s creation. However, it does not follow that the assets must be known at the date of death. They must be ascertainable by objective criteria, but that is not the same thing as saying that the assets must be ascertained on death. An executor must often investigate to determine what assets are part of an estate. In this case the estate trustees might not immediately know if an asset fell under the primary will, but it is still ascertainable.

Nor do I agree that conferring a power of appointment on an executor to select assets to comprise a trust renders a trust void for uncertainty of subject matter. Wills commonly contain provisions allowing an executor to allocate the specific assets among beneficiaries, which may include a portion of the estate to be held in trust.

Most fundamentally, the Court conflated the functions of a court of probate and a court of construction, although this was brought to the Court’s attention. The Court addressed this issue as follows:

[18]        The applicants submit that I needn’t concern myself with construction of the will and that any ambiguities regarding the property subject to the will can be dealt with in due course by way of application by the executors for directions. Citing Feeney’s Canadian Law of Wills, (James MacKenzie, Feeney’s Canadian Law of Wills (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada, 2000)) and Oosterhoff on Wills (Albert J. Ooserhoff, C. David Freedman, Mitchell McInnes and Adam Parachin, Oosterhoff on Wills, 8th ed. (Toronto: Thomson Reuters Canada, 2016)), the applicants urge upon me that the probate function of the court is a separate and distinct function from the construction function. The former is concerned with the question of whether there is a will, the fact of its contents and the validity of the process of its execution. The latter concerns the interpretation of the contents of the will and the intentions of the testator with respect to his or her property.

 

[19]        The Court of Appeal has recently reviewed and succinctly summarized the role of the court in relation to probate proceedings in the case of Neuberger v. York2016 ONCA 191 (CanLII). The jurisdiction of the court is not simply to adjudicate a dispute between parties. The court’s role is inquisitorial and the court’s function and obligation is to ascertain and pronounce what documents constitute the testator’s last will and testament:  Neuberger at para. 68.

 

[20]        It follows from this that I am both required and entitled to examine the validity of the will where questions as to same arise from an ex facie examination of the will itself or the evidence filed in support of the application for a Certificate. If the will is invalid on its face, a Certificate may not issue. In the present case, questions as to certainty of subject-matter are raised by the language of the will itself. These are questions that go to the essential validity of the will in question. Such questions, should they arise, are appropriately examined at the probate stage.

The distinct functions are well established, and I fail to see how the Neuberger decisions assist. Yes, the courts have an inquisitorial role, but they are still required to follow and apply the principles of probate law. If a will-maker has capacity, the will meets the formal signing and witnessing requirements of validity, and the will-maker acted freely, and knew and approved of the contents of the will, then the will is admitted to probate. The will might create trusts or may contain gifts that are invalid, but that does not affect the ability of the executor to obtain a grant of probate. Even if all of the gifts in a will were determined to be invalid, the executor would still be entitled to a grant. In such a case, there might seem to be little point to obtaining the grant of probate, but in some cases it would still make sense for the executor to do so in order to confirm her authority to deal with the estate.

I hope this decision will never be followed in British Columbia. But I do think it worthwhile for planners to be a bit more conservative. First, I think a two-will strategy requires a great deal of care and attention. I am concerned that the multiple-will strategy to reduce probate fees has become a bit of the flavour of the day in British Columbia, and is sometimes used when the amount involved does not warrant the complexity. Secondly, I suggest that where it is used, it would be wise to specifically identify the assets that are subject to the will that is not intended to be probated. The will that is not intended to be probated can identify the closely-held companies to which it applies, and use language to include successor companies. The other will, which will be probated, may then exclude those assets.

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