Litigation of any kind can be an expensive and time-consuming process, and estate litigation often comes with an added layer of complex emotions. Sometimes, parties attempt to resolve their disputes outside of the courtroom through alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation. Alternatively, a party may apply to the court for a summary judgment on a matter. Summary judgment is a process through which a party can ask a judge to make a determination if all of the evidence can be submitted in affidavit form and the court finds that there is no genuine issue that requires a trial.
A recent decision from the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta shows how a court will determine whether granting summary judgment is appropriate in an estate litigation context.
Estate representative looks to have beneficiary voided from will
In the case of Magnuson Estate, the applicant, “JM,” was the personal representative of the deceased’s estate. The respondent, “CA,” was a residual beneficiary in the testator’s will. JM applied to the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta seeking to void CA’s residual gift because JM believed CA caused the deceased’s death.
Before commencing its analysis, the Court reviewed the principles of summary judgment and public policy concerns that may warrant the voiding of a gift in a will.
Alberta’s Rules of Court allow for a party to apply for summary judgment if there is no merit to a claim (or part of that claim). The applicant has to show this is true on a balance of probabilities. Once this is done, the other party may put its best foot forward to show that there is a genuine issue warranting a trial.
A wrongdoer may not be compensated for their wrong
With this in mind, the Court turned to the issues before it. The first issue was whether public policy disentitles a beneficiary to a gift if the beneficiary caused the testator’s death. The second issue was whether the evidence established that CA’s claim as a beneficiary had no merit due to his conduct that would disentitle him from any benefit under the deceased’s will.
The Court explained that public policy does not tolerate people being compensated for their crimes or wrongdoing. This policy was also upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada as recently as the 2002 decision of Oldfield v. Transamerica Life Insurance Co. of Canada.
In 1961, the Supreme Court of Canada held in Nordstrom v. Baumann that a civil court may make a determination of criminal conduct insofar as it impacts the criminal forfeiture rule even when a criminal conviction has not been entered. Additionally, the finding of criminal conduct in this case would not impact the outcome of a criminal trial. This means that someone can be removed as a beneficiary for criminal conduct relating to the testator’s death but may still be found not guilty in a court of law for that crime.
Beneficiary named as suspect in deceased’s death
The Court reviewed the facts of the case, which established that CA started a relationship with the deceased in 2012. The parties were married shortly after that. The deceased made a will in May 2021, which purported to leave the entire residue of her estate to CA. Shortly after the will was executed, the deceased and CA purchased a joint life insurance policy, which provided for a payment of $2,000,000 in the event that one of them predeceased the other.
The deceased passed away on November 25, 2022. While her death was originally thought to be the result of a farm accident, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the “RCMP”) later identified CA as a suspect in her death. CA was subsequently arrested and charged with First Degree Murder in the death of his wife.
Estate representative believes the beneficiary is responsible for the testator’s death
CA has not yet been found guilty of a crime, but JM told the Court that a representative from the RCMP advised him that CA confessed to causing the death of the testator. However, this statement was not supported with any evidence.
Instead, JM provided the Court with a newspaper article dated December 21, 2022, which stated that “Wetaskiwin County resident Corey Anderson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Anderson was remanded in custody.” However, the article is silent with respect to the alleged confession.
Based on these pieces of information, JM has concluded that CA was responsible for the testator’s death.
Hearsay evidence does not satisfy the evidentiary burden for summary judgment
The Court had trouble accepting the evidence of the confession as it was merely hearsay evidence, as the confession was not made directly to JM; therefore, its validity could not be ascertained.
The Court said that while the criminal charges against CA may be substantiated:
“…a criminal charge is not persuasive evidence of the facts of the underlying allegation. The charge is an allegation, not proof. While the charge reflects someone’s assessment of possible evidence against Mr. Anderson, the evidence is largely undisclosed before me. It is also trite law that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
The Court concluded that JM had not met the evidentiary burden in establishing that summary judgment is appropriate due to there being no genuine issue to be resolved at trial. While JM was unsuccessful at this stage, it remains to be seen whether or not the issue proceeds to trial.
The Calgary Estate Planning and Litigation Lawyers at DBH Law Provide Trusted Representation in Estate Disputes
Dealing with the death of a loved one is a difficult process in itself, and the grieving process can be made more complex with the added responsibility of administering the estate. The experienced wills and estate lawyers at DBH Law can help you satisfy your responsibilities as an estate executor are by providing responsive and concise advice through each stage of the administration process. In the event that an estate dispute arises, we will advocate to preserve your rights and work to obtain a quick and appropriate resolution. Whether you are seeking to prepare your estate plan or have questions about the probate process, contact us online or by phone at 403.252.9937 to schedule an initial consultation with one of our team members.