No Lack of Capacity or Undue Influence – Will Admitted to Probate

Chang Estate v Chang 2013 BCSC 976 is a well considered judgement of Justice Dardi, who had extensive experience in estate litigation prior to her elevation to the Bench.

The testatrix,a widow, died in 2007 at age 98. She and her late husband had four children, and their only daughter the plaintiff, was the youngest. Their three sons were the defendants.

In 1998 the deceased and her husband purchased a house and put one son on title as a joint tenant with his parents. The testatrix and her husband never did live in that property, and that particular son collected the rent and prayed paid the property taxes and expenses , until 2004 when the testatrix paid two thirds of the property taxes and utilities.

In 1997 that sons, son sued his grand mother and grandfather over a dispute that had arisen regarding the property.

The matter went to trial in July 1999 and was dismissed.

The testatrix found those events very distressing and in January 1998 she and her husband severed the joint tenancy , leaving that son with a one third interest as a tenant in common.

 

The testatrix executed her will in July 2000, and her husband executed a reciprocal will at the same time.

The plaintiff was appointed the executrix, and the son with the one third interest in the property was given a $10 bequest, with the remainder of the estate being divided 30% to the plaintiff, 30% to one brother and 40% to the other brother.

 

The will explain the reasons for the minimal bequest to the one son, saying the testatrix and her husband had provided much assistance to him and had given him one third of the Surrey property, from which he had collected all of the rents for his own use.

 

The will also said that he and his family house have caused us much grief, heartache, and unhappiness and shame.

 

The plaintiff applied to prove the will and codicil dated July 2005 in solemn form.

 

The son challenged the validity of the will and codicil on the grounds that the testatrix lacked testamentary capacity and that the will was a product of coercion and or undue influence.

 

The court held that the testatrix had proved on the balance of probabilities that the will was executed in compliance with the statutory formalities, that the testatrix knew and approved of the contents of the will, and that she had testamentary capacity.

 

The professionals who prepared the will gave evidence, and it was proven that both documents were executed after having been read to the testatrix, who appeared to understand the contents.

 

The law presume the testatrix knew and approved of the will and possess the requisite testamentary capacity.

 

The evidence of the testatrix physician and those who prepared the documents and attended upon execution also established attempted testamentary capacity.

 

No suspicious circumstances arose in the facts established by the evidence, nor was there any evidence of undue influence by the plaintiff or anyone else.

Legal Framework

[25] The Supreme Court of Canada in Vout v. Hay, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 876 clarified the principles with respect to the burden of proof in litigation regarding contested wills. The Court articulated the considerations which govern the interrelation of the doctrine of suspicious circumstances and the issues of testamentary capacity, knowledge and approval, undue influence and fraud.

[26] In an action for proof of will in solemn form, the party propounding the will must prove on a balance of probabilities that the will was executed in compliance with the statutory formalities, that the will-maker knew and approved of the contents of the will and that the will-maker had testamentary capacity: Vout at paras. 19-20.

[27] In order to make a valid will, the will-maker must have a “baseline level of mental acuity” or a “disposing mind and memory”, sufficient to appreciate and comprehend the nature and effect of the essential elements of the testamentary act. This encompasses an appreciation of the claims of the persons who are the natural objects of her estate and the extent of her property of which she is disposing: Laszlo v. Lawton, 2013 BCSC 305 at para. 185; Banks v. Goodfellow (1870), L.R.5 Q.B. 549; Leger v. Poirier, [1944] S.C.R. 152 at 161. The assessment of whether a will-maker possesses testamentary capacity is a highly individualized inquiry and is a question of fact to be determined in all the circumstances: James v. Field, 2001 BCCA 267 at para. 51; Laszlo at para. 197.

[28] In certain circumstances, the propounder of the will, in discharging the burden of proof, is aided by a rebuttable presumption of validity. If the will was duly executed in accordance with the requisite statutory formalities after being read over to or by a testator who appeared to understand it, it is presumed the testator possessed the requisite testamentary capacity and knew and approved of its contents:Vout at para. 26.

[29] This presumption may be rebutted by evidence of “well-grounded suspicions”, referred to in the jurisprudence as “suspicious circumstances”, relating to one or more of the following circumstances:

(i) surrounding the preparation of the will;

(ii) tending to call into question the capacity of the will-maker; or

(iii) tending to show that the free will of the will-maker was overborne by acts of coercion or fraud: Vout at para. 25.

[30] If suspicious circumstances are established, then the presumption is spent and the legal burden of proof reverts to the propounder of the will. The propounder of the will then reassumes the legal burden of proving knowledge and approval, as well as proving testamentary capacity, if the suspicious circumstances reflect on the mental capacity of the will-maker to make a will: Woodward v. Grant, 2007 BCSC 1192 at para. 108. In order to discharge the burden, the propounder of the will is required to dispel the suspicious circumstances that have been raised: Ostrander v. Black (1996), 12E.T.R. (2d) 219 at para. 30 (Gen. Div.).

[31] In Vout, the Court affirmed that if a court determines that suspicious circumstances exist, the applicable standard of proof is a balance of probabilities. However, the evidence must be scrutinized in accordance with the gravity of the suspicion raised in any particular case.

[32] In order to rebut the presumption of validity, those attacking the will must meet the threshold of demonstrating that there is some evidence “which, if accepted, would tend to negative knowledge and approval or testamentary capacity”: Vout at para. 27; Maddess v. Racz, 2009 BCCA 539 at para. 31. The court in Scott v. Cousins (2001), 37 E.T.R. (2d) 113 (Ont. S.C.J.) describes the requisite evidence as that which “excites the suspicion of the court”. A “general miasma of suspicion that something unsavoury may have occurred” is insufficient to rebut the presumption of validity; the evidence must raise a “specific and focused suspicion”: Clark v. Nash (1989), 61 D.L.R. (4th) 409 at 425 (B.C.C.A.).

[33] The court in Laszlo provides the following instructive observations regarding the doctrine of suspicious circumstances at para. 207:

Suspicious circumstances have been found to exist in a wide array of situations and are not necessarily sinister in nature. There is no checklist of circumstantial factors that will invariably fit the classification. Commonly occurring themes include where a beneficiary is instrumental in the preparation of the will (especially where the beneficiary stands in a fiduciary position to the testator), or where the will favours “someone who has not previously been the object of [the testator’s] bounty and does not fall within the class of persons testators usually remember in their wills, that is to say their next of kin.

Undue Influence

[34] When undue influence or fraud is alleged, the party opposing probate always bears the legal burden of proving on a balance of probabilities the affirmative defence of undue influence: Vout at para. 28. It is important to appreciate that in these circumstances, the doctrine of suspicious circumstances and the shifting of the burden of proof has no application.

[35] In order to invalidate a will on the grounds of undue influence, the asserting party must prove that the influence exerted against the will-maker amounted to coercion, such that the will did not reflect the true intentions of a free will-maker and was not the product of the will-maker’s own act. The undue influence must constitute coercion which could not be resisted by the will-maker and which destroyed his or her free agency. It is well-established on the authorities that if the will-maker remains able to act freely, the exercise of significant advice or persuasion on the will-maker or an attempt to appeal to the will-maker or the mere desire of the will-maker to gratify the wishes of another, will not amount to undue influence: Maddess v. Racz, 2008 BCSC 1550 at para. 324 aff’d 2009 BCCA 539; Freeman v. Freeman (1889), 19 O.R. 141 at 155 (C. A.); Scott at para. 112.

Trevor Todd

Trevor Todd is one of the province’s most esteemed estate litigation lawyers. He has spent more than 40 years helping the disinherited contest wills and transfers – and win. From his Kerrisdale office, which looks more like an eclectic art gallery than a lawyer’s office, Trevor empowers claimants and restores dignity to families across BC. He is a mentor to young entrepreneurs and an art buff who supports starving artists the world over. He has an eye for talent and a heart for giving back.

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