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Banton v. Banton (Part 1)

I have recently reread the case of Banton v. Banton, 1998 CanLII 14926, a decision of Mr. Justice Cullity of the Ontario Supreme Court. This case may be referred to as a predatory-marriage case. What interests me most, though, is the interplay of legal issues. Mr. Justice Cullity considers in his decision the capacity to make a will, and the impact of delusions on capacity, undue influence, the capacity to marry, the validity of a residence trust, and the use of a power of attorney to settle a trust. I think this case is well worth a few blog posts. I will start with the challenges to the validity of two wills.

Until a couple years before his death, George Banton had a loving, trusting relationship with his five children. He had made a will in 1991, in which he left the residue of his estate to be divided equally among his children. He had appointed his two sons, Victor and George Jr. as attorneys under an enduring power of attorney.

In 1990, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and then had several operations, including surgery to remove his testicles in November 1993, after which his mental functioning deteriorated. He also had significant hearing problems. In 1994, while in a retirement home he met a waitress, somewhat younger than he (she was 31, and he, 88). Her name is Muna Yassin. They married on December 17, 1994. He left his new wife his estate by will dated December 21, 1994, and then he made an identical will on May 4, 1995.

He and Ms Yassin met with a solicitor on December 19, 20 and 21. On the first meeting the solicitor was concerned about the age difference and asked for a marriage certificate, which they brought in the next day. The solicitor testified that his recollection was that on Dec 20, he met with Mr. Banton alone in the boardroom and that was his practice. Mr. Banton instructions were that he wished to leave everything to Ms. Yassin, and if she predeceased him to the Salvation Army.

When he made the 1994 will, in reply to his solicitor’s question about why he was not leaving anything to his children, Mr. Banton said that they were not interested in him, were only interested in his money, and only paid attention to him after he became involved with Muna Yassin. He made similar statements to others, and later in a guardianship proceeding he made allegations of abuse against his sons.

There was little evidence about the 1995 will, which was made in the context of the guardianship proceedings, and was identical to the 1994 will.

The children challenged the wills, alleging that their father did not have capacity to make the wills, and that Ms. Yassin procured the wills by the exercise of undue influence.

Mr. Justice Cullity set out the legal criteria of capacity to make a valid will:

[55] The principles for determining testamentary capacity were summarized in the celebrated passage from Banks v. Goodfellow (1870), L.R. 5 Q.B. 549 (Q.B.) as follows:It is essential to the exercise of such a power that a testator shall understand the nature of the act and its effects; shall understand the extent of the property of which he is disposing; shall be able to comprehend and appreciate the claims to which he ought to give effect; and, with a view to the latter object, that no disorder of the mind shall poison his affections, pervert his sense of right, or prevent the exercise of his natural faculties—that no insane delusion shall influence his will in disposing of his property and bring about a disposal of it which, if the mind had been sound, would not been made [at p. 565].

Mr. Banton was able to describe his assets to his solicitor, and Mr. Justice Cullity found that he knew the nature and effect of wills and had a sufficient understanding of his assets to make a will.

The validity of the wills turned on the question of whether he was able to “comprehend and appreciate” the claims of his children, or whether he was influenced in making the wills by insane delusions.

Mr. Justice Cullity described insane delusions in the following paragraphs of his decision:

[61] I have already held that virtually all of these allegations of George Banton about his children’s motives and behaviour were unfounded. The additional statement to Muna about his poor relationship with his children prior to the marriage was quite extraordinary but, given his other allegations and despite my findings with respect to Muna’s credibility which I will refer to later in these reasons, I cannot exclude the possibility that it was made. The question is whether his allegations about his children should be characterized as “insane delusions” in the sense in which that term has been used traditionally in this area of the law. The reported decisions contain many attempts at definition of which the following have often been cited with approval:Delusion is insanity where one persistently believes supposed facts (which have no real existence except in his perverted imagination) against all evidence and probability and conducts himself however logically upon the assumption of their existence. [Am. & Eng. Cycl., Vol. 9, p. 195, cited by Sedgewick J. in Skinner v. Farquharson (1902), 1902 CANLII 87 (SCC), 32 S.C.R. 58 at p. 76.]

… insane delusions are of two kinds; the belief in things impossible; the belief in things possible, but so improbable, under the surrounding circumstances, that no man of sound mind would give them credit; to which we may add, the carrying to an insane extent impressions not in their nature irrational. [Prinsep v. Dyce Sombre (1856), 10 Moo. P.C. 232 at p. 247, 14 E.R. 480.] [62] As the second of these passages indicates, “insane” delusions are not limited to beliefs that are so bizarre that their content, by itself, evidences mental disorder. The precise connotations of the language employed in 19th Century cases—many of them involving instructions to juries—may not be entirely consistent with modern linguistic usage. Such delusions include beliefs whose extreme improbability is apparent only when the surrounding facts are known. These are obviously the more difficult cases. Delusions with respect to the behaviour and attitudes of the deceased’s relatives are relatively common in the reported cases and they often fall into this category. Dr. Silberfeld acknowledged that George Banton’s allegations about his children could be delusions. In all cases where delusions of this kind are alleged to exist there will be a question whether the belief should be characterized merely as quite unreasonable, on the one hand, or as something that, in the particular circumstances, no one “in their senses” could believe: Macdonell, Sheard and Hull on Probate Practice (4th ed., by Rodney Hull, Q.C., and Ian Hull, 1996) at pp. 33-34. Cases on either side of the line include Royal Trust Co. v. Ford (1971), 1971 CANLII 139 (SCC), 20 D.L.R. (3d) 348 (S.C.C.), where the will was upheld, and Harwood v. Baker (1840), 3 Moo. P.C. 282, 13 E.R. 117, and Re Zabudny, [1958] O.W.N. 68 (H.C.), in which wills were set aside. The correct approach to the question is, I believe, accurately stated in Atkinson on Wills (2nd ed. 1953):

The nature of the belief is not necessarily the turning point, or even the apparent lack of a basis for such belief. Rather the question is whether, considering all the facts and circumstances, it is fairly shown that the will proceeded from and on account of a deranged mind [at p. 246].

Mr. Justice Cullity found that Mr. Banton’s beliefs about his children were delusions, and these delusional beliefs were the basis of Mr. Banton’s decision to exclude them. Accordingly, the wills were invalid.

He also found that Ms. Yassin unduly influence him. This finding was based on circumstantial evidence of her behavior when contrasted with her testimony. Although she portrayed herself as passive, there was evidence of her actively trying to get his bank to allow him to make large withdrawals, of her isolating him from his children and grandchildren during a time period he was living with her, and of providing most of the instructions on his behalf when he was contesting guardianship proceedings by the Public Guardian and Trustee.

Ms. Yassin did not benefit under the wills. But there are twists in this story.

To be continued.

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