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Moore v Sweet

On November 23, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Moore v. Sweet, 2018 SCC 52, in which the majority imposed a remedial constructive trust on the proceeds of a life insurance policy in favour of the life insured’s former spouse. The life insured, and owner of the policy, Lawrence Anthony Moore, had orally agreed with his former spouse, Michelle Constance Moore, that he would retain her as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, if she paid the insurance premiums. She did so, paying approximately $7,000 in premiums after her separation from Mr. Moore. He broke his promise to her, by appointing his new common-law spouse, Risa Lorraine Sweet, as the irrevocable beneficiary. The policy paid out $250,000. At death, Mr. Moore’s estate was insolvent.

These facts raised some interesting issues of law and policy. Both Ms. Moore and Ms. Sweet were innocent parties. There is no question that Ms. Moore could sue his estate for his breach of the agreement, but that would be a hollow victory, given that the debts of his estate exceeded the assets. In order for her to receive what she bargained for, the proceeds of the life insurance proceeds, she would need to persuade the court to impose a trust on the proceeds, but on what basis? In Canada, constructive trusts are most frequently imposed when someone proves that another has been unjustly enriched. This is not the only basis on which a constructive trust may be imposed: it may be imposed when someone has acted wrongfully. In other words, it may be imposed on someone who holds property in circumstances when it is against good conscience for them to do so. I would argue that constructive trusts may also be imposed in other circumstances.

Ms. Moore was initially successful, but the majority of the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the application judge’s decision. The Court of Appeal held that she was limited to receiving the amount of the premiums she paid. She appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, the majority of which based its decision on unjust enrichment, holding that it would be unjust for Ms. Sweet to retain the insurance proceeds.

To succeed in a claim of unjust enrichment, Ms. Moore need to prove that Ms. Sweet was enriched, that Ms. Moore suffered a corresponding deprivation, and that there was no juristic reason for the enrichment. Madam Justice Cote, for the majority, found both that Ms. Sweet was enriched by the receipt of the insurance proceeds, and that Ms. Moore suffered a corresponding deprivation, having paid the premiums. It is not necessary that the enrichment be the same amount as the deprivation, nor, Madam Justice Cote wrote, does “the corresponding deprivation element…require that the disputed benefit be conferred directly by the plaintiff on the defendant.”

Much of the controversy in this case revolved around the third element: whether there was a juristic reason for the enrichment. The approach mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Garland v.Consumers’ Gas Co., 2004 SCC 25, is to consider first whether the defendant is entitled to retain the benefit on the basis of an established category for juristic benefit, such as a gift, a statutory, common law or equitable obligation. For example, if I give you a $100 as a birthday present, you are enriched and I have suffered a corresponding detriment, but my intent to make a gift is a juristic reason that you are entitled to retain the $100. Similarly, there is a juristic reason for the government to retain my taxes, namely the legislation pursuant to which I am required to pay the taxes. The burden is on the person making the claim to show that there is no juristic reason in accordance with an established category. If not, the person defending the unjust enrichment claim may then show that there is some other reason he or she should be able to retain the benefit which may include the expectations of the parties and public policy.

In this case, the insurer was required to pay the proceeds to Ms. Sweet in accordance with the Insurance Act, which includes protections of the proceeds against creditors of the deceased. Are the provisions of the legislation a juristic reason for Ms. Sweet’s enrichment? The minority thought so; the majority not.

Madam Justice Cote distinguished between the obligations of the insurer to pay out the proceeds to the designated beneficiary and the right of the beneficiary to retain the proceeds as against the claimant, in this case, Ms. Moore. She wrote:

[73]                          Accepting that contractual rights to claim policy proceeds can exist outside of the Insurance Act,can an irrevocable designation under the Insurance Act nonetheless constitute a juristic reason for Michelle’s deprivation? In my view, it cannot. This is because the applicable statutory provisions do not require, either expressly or implicitly, that a beneficiary keep the proceeds as against a plaintiff, in an unjust enrichment claim, who stands deprived of his or her prior contractual entitlement to claim such proceeds upon the insured’s death. By not ousting prior contractual or equitable rights that third parties may have in such proceeds, the Insurance Act allows an irrevocable beneficiary to take insurance money that may be subject to prior rightsand therefore does not give such a beneficiary any absolute entitlement to that money (Shannon, at p. 461). Put simply, the statute required that the Insurance Company pay Risa, but it did not give Risa a right to keep the proceeds as against Michelle, whose contract with Lawrence specifically provided that she would pay all of the premiums exclusively for her own benefit. Neither by direct reference nor by necessary implication does the statute either (a) foreclose a third party who stands deprived of his or her contractual entitlement to claim insurance proceeds by successfully asserting an unjust enrichment claim against the designated beneficiary — whether revocable or irrevocable — or (b) preclude the imposition of a constructive trust in circumstances such as these (see Central Guaranty Trust Co. v. Dixdale Mortgage Investment Corp. (1994), 24 O.R. (3d) 506 (C.A.); see also KBA Canada).

[74]                          On this basis, the applicable Insurance Act provisions are distinguishable from other legislative enactments that have been found to preclude recovery, such as valid statutory provisions requiring the payment of taxes to the government (see GST Reference, at pp. 476-77; Zaidan Group Ltd. v. London (City) (1990), 71 O.R. (2d) 65 (C.A.), at p. 69, aff’d [1991] 3 S.C.R. 593). In that context, the plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim must fail because the legislation permits the defendant to be enriched even when the plaintiff suffers a corresponding deprivation. The same cannot be said about the statutory framework at issue in this case, however; there is nothing in the Insurance Act that justifies the fact that Michelle, who is contractually entitled to claim the policy proceeds, is nevertheless deprived of this entitlement for Risa’s benefit.

Madam Justice Cote held that there were no other juristic reasons for the enrichment.

Mr. Justice Gascon, writing for the minority dissent, would have held that the provisions of the Insurance Act constituted a juristic reason for Ms. Sweet’s enrichment. The designation was made in accordance with the Insurance Act, which also provided protections from creditors for an irrevocable beneficiary. It was his view that Ms. Moore’s claim was purely contractual, and she had no equitable claim to the proceeds. She had a claim against Mr. Moore’s estate in contract, but a contractual claim was insufficient grounds for the court to impose a constructive trust in unjust enrichment. Mr. Justice Garson emphasized the importance of certainty if that the legislation provides.

I should note that Madam Justice Cote declined to consider whether a good conscience constructive trust for wrongful acts could have also been imposed (I think it could), or whether there were other categories of constructive trust.

The result is that Ms. Moore is entitled to the insurance proceeds.

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