Mon to Fri -9.00 am to 5.00 pm
201-401 Glenmore Rd,Kelowna, BC V1V 1Z6

Supreme Court Civil Rules Amendments Change Procedures in Estate Litigation

When you complete your estate planning with a lawyer, you will generally receive a reporting letter, which explains the work completed. The letter will also typically contain cautions against doing certain things like writing on or marking the Will or removing the staples from the Will.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for will-makers to write on or otherwise make various markings and changes on their originally executed wills. This may be done by accident or it may be done in an attempt by the will-maker to alter or revoke all or portions of their Will. This problem is compounded when the will-maker makes these markings without telling anyone and the issue is only discovered after the time of death. This is not a new problem. The courts have battled with how to deal with this issue for a very long time.

The recent case of Re: Levesque, 2019 BCSC 927 , involved the application of white-out to cover one of seven residual beneficiaries. A disagreement arose between the remaining beneficiaries as to how to deal with the application of the white-out. Unfortunately, the white-out marking was not signed by the will-maker and by two witnesses as required by the Wills, Estates and Succession Act.

In cases where there is a marking on a will, there is a rebuttable presumption that the marking on the Will was made subsequent to the execution of the Will- see the discussion in Gillis v Ardies, 2009 BCSC 215 and in particular para 23. Evidence to the contrary including evidence from the witnesses to the Will is important. For example a witness to the Will may be able to provide evidence as to whether or not the marking on the Will existed at the time of execution of the Will.

Generally speaking, substantive, unsigned and un-witnessed markings on a Will are not effective. However there is a long-standing exception that provides that when a will-maker goes to the trouble of obliterating a word or phrase in a Will, so that it cannot be read upon ordinary inspection, the Will is admitted to probate with the words that are no longer apparent being left blank. In British Columbia, this exception is discussed in s. 54 of WESA. As explained by Mr. Justice Gomery in Re: Levesque, 2019 BCSC 927 at paras 24 – 28:

[24] Alterations to a will are addressed in s. 54 of the WESA. Essentially, it requires that an alteration made after the will was executed must be signed by the will’s maker whose signature must be witnessed by two witnesses, in each other’s presence and in the presence of the maker. These requirements may be avoided:

a) Under s. 54(4)(a), if the alteration is not substantive;

b) Under s. 54(3)(a), if the alteration has made a word or provision illegible; or

c) Under s. 54(3)(b), if the alteration is made effective by an order pursuant to s. 58.

[25] The Alteration in this case is substantive and s. 54(4)(a) does not apply.

[26] The exception in s. 54(3)(a) for alterations that make a word or provision illegible dates back to the English Wills Act, 1837 (1 Vict. c. 26, s. 21). It was determined by the English courts, in reasoning that has been adopted in British Columbia, that the words or provision in question must be impossible to read by ordinary inspection of the document, without chemical or other analysis; Springay Estate (Re), [1991] B.C.J. No. 984 (S.C. Master).

[27] In this case, an affiant has sworn that the provision in question listing Ms. Nixon as a beneficiary can be read under the white-out by holding the Will up to the light. I have inspected the Will and come to the same conclusion. I find that the Alteration has not made the provision illegible within the meaning of s. 54(3)(a).

[28] The Alteration is therefore ineffective unless it is made effective by an order pursuant to s. 58.

Given that the name under the white-out could still be read by ordinary inspection by holding the Will up to a strong light source, Mr. Justice Gomery then considered the application of s. 58 of the WESA. This section may be used by the Court to find that the marking on a will represents the testamentary intentions of the will-maker to “revoke…[a] testamentary disposition of the deceased person” and for the Court to order that the marking is effective as though it had been properly made “as a revocation, alteration or revival of a will of the deceased person.” At paras 30-37 he explained:

[30] The leading decision concerning the matters to be considered in deciding whether to make an order under s. 58(3) is Estate of Young, 2015 BCSC 182. The reasoning in Estate of Young was approved by the Court of Appeal in Hadley Estate (Re), 2017 BCCA 311, aff’g 2016 BCSC 765. In Estate of Young, Madam Justice Dickson identified two issues. The first is whether the document – in this case, the Alteration – is authentic. I have already found that the Alteration was made by the Deceased and the requirement of authenticity is satisfied.

[31] Dickson J. identified the second issue as the core issue. She relied on a decision of the Manitoba Court of Appeal addressing equivalent legislation to the WESA in George v. Daily (1997), 143 D.L.R. (4th) 273. She stated, at paras. 34-36:

  • [34] … The second, and core, issue is whether the non-compliant document represents the deceased’s testamentary intentions, as that concept was explained in George.
  • [35] In George the court confirmed that testamentary intention means much more than the expression of how a person would like his or her property to be disposed of after death. The key question is whether the document records a deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to the disposal of the deceased’s property on death. A deliberate or fixed and final intention is not the equivalent of an irrevocable intention, given that a will, by its nature, is revocable until the death of its maker. Rather, the intention must be fixed and final at the material time, which will vary depending on the circumstances.
  • [36] The burden of proof that a non-compliant document embodies the deceased’s testamentary intentions is a balance of probabilities. A wide range of factors may be relevant to establishing their existence in a particular case. …

[32] Accordingly, the question I must address, on a balance of probabilities, is whether the Alteration was a deliberate or fixed and final expression of the Deceased’s intention to remove Ms. Nixon from her Will.

[33] Carefully dabbing white-out over the provision in question was undoubtedly a considered and deliberate act on the part of the Deceased. She was applying the white-out to the original Will. It was not a casual act. The only reasonable inference is that her intention was to remove the provision from the Will.

[34] There is no evidence that the Deceased was not of sound mind and lacked testamentary capacity at any point before she gave up custody of the Will in June 2018 or indeed before she died.

[35] The likelihood is that the Deceased applied the white-out after she learned of Ms. Nixon’s marriage in January 2018. This was nine years after she had made the Will and it is probable that she had forgotten Ms. Leung-Levesque’s advice about altering the Will, or she may not have taken it seriously. The case reports record many cases in which makers of wills attempt to alter them without complying with the formal requirements. This tendency of will makers to ignore the requirements of the statute is one of the reasons s. 58 was added to the legislation with the enactment of the WESA in 2009, allowing the Court to approve non-complying alterations and amendments where the will-maker’s intentions and continuing capacity to make a will are clear.

[36] If the Deceased applied the white-out in the immediate aftermath of learning of Ms. Nixon’s marriage, she took no steps to reinstate or unrevoke the gift to Ms. Nixon after that. She maintained an affectionate relationship with Ms. Nixon, giving her a marriage gift and congratulating her on her marriage to “a good hard-working man”. It may be that she no longer felt that Ms. Nixon needed special provision as she had felt nine years earlier. This is speculation. The facts I am left with are that the Deceased made the Alteration deliberately, in the knowledge that she was altering the original Will, with the intended effect that Ms. Nixon was removed as a Beneficiary.

[37] I conclude that the Alteration was a deliberate or fixed and final expression of the Deceased’s intention to remove Ms. Nixon from the Will. Giving effect to the Deceased’s expressed intention, it is therefore appropriate to order that the Alteration be made effective pursuant to s. 58(3) of the WESA.

Mr. Justice Gomery also provided a useful summary of how costs are typically dealt with in applications where the parties are forced into litigation as a result of the conduct of the Deceased i.e. revoking a beneficiary in the Will without complying with the formal technical requirements, which forced the co-executors to apply to the court for directions. Specifically paras 38 – 41 read:

[38] The co-executors seek an order for special costs, payable from the Estate. Ms. Leung-Levesque, Wayne Levesque and Ms. Nixon oppose.

[39] In Lee v. Lee Estate (1993), 84 B.C.L.R. (2d) 341, Master Horn discussed costs orders in probate or administration actions such as this. At para. 13 he stated:

  • … In such cases where the validity of a will or the capacity of the testator to make a will or the meaning of a will is in issue, it is sometimes the case that the costs of all parties are ordered to be paid out of the estate. This is upon the principle that where such an issue must be litigated to remove all doubts, then all interested parties must be joined and are entitled to be heard and should not be out of pocket if in the result the litigation does not conclude in their favour. The estate must bear the cost of settling disputes as a cost of administration. This is the reasoning which underlies such cases as Re Dingwall (1967) 65 D.L.R. (3d) 43 (Ont. H.C.) and McNamara v. Hyde [1943] 2 W.W.R. 344 (B.C.S.C.) and Re Lotzkar Estate (1965) 51 W.W.R. 99 (B.C.C.A.). The question to be asked in such case is whether the parties were forced into litigation by the conduct of the testator or the conduct of the main beneficiaries.

[40] The Court of Appeal quoted Master Horn’s reasoning with approval in Vielbig v. Waterland Estate (1995), 1 B.C.L.R. (3d) 76 at paras. 41-45. [41] In my view, this is a case in which the parties were forced into litigation by the conduct of the Deceased. Her alteration of the Will gave rise to a dispute among the beneficiaries of the Will. It was reasonable for the executors to apply to the Court to resolve the dispute. All parties’ costs should be paid from the Estate and the executors’ costs should be assessed as special costs; Mawdsley v. Meshen, 2011 BCSC 923 at paras. 35-40.

Another useful broader summary of how costs are handled in estate litigation matters can be found in Mr. Justice Silverman’s discussion in Jung v HSBC, 2007 BCSC 1740 at para 106-107:

[106] The case law in estate proceedings supports the following general approach:

1. The costs of and incidental to a proceeding will follow the event unless the court otherwise orders.

2. If the cause of the litigation originated from the conduct or errors of the testator (i.e., unclear wording or validity of the will), then the costs of all parties will generally be paid from the estate on a full indemnity basis.

3. If there were circumstances which provided reasonable and sufficient grounds to have brought the action relating to questions of capacity or allege undue influence or fraud, the court will not normally make an order for costs against the unsuccessful party.

4. In an action under dependent relief legislation (i.e., where the proceedings are adversarial in nature and are not brought about by the actions of the testator), costs follow the event.

5. All costs awards are subject to the court’s discretion and an overriding test of reasonableness.

[107] Underlying the above structure is the acknowledgement that probate actions are unlike other actions. They are meant to discern the true intentions of someone who is deceased, and give effect to them if possible. Such actions occupy a special status: Atchison v. Inkster (1983), 1983 CANLII 313 (BC CA), 47 B.C.L.R. 222, 15 E.T.R. 1 (C.A.).

Since the coming into force of s. 58 of WESA, we have developed a useful body of cases, which have begun to outline how far the courts will exercise their power to cure documents and Wills, which are not made in compliance with the strict formal requirements of WESA. It will be interesting to see how the case law develops in the future as the courts are presented with challenging fact patterns.

The case is an important reminder to consult with a lawyer anytime that you are considering making a Will or changes to your existing Will. The costs of having to make court applications regarding improperly completed Wills can be significant; both in terms of the legal costs and the accompanying stresses carried by families during the court proceeding.

Need legal help in the Okanagan?

We are based in Kelowna, however our firm is pleased to assist clients throughout British Columbia, Canada, on a number of matters. Contact our Kelowna lawyers today and see how SabeyRule can help with your legal needs

© 2024 Sabey Rule LLP.