The passing of a loved one can drastically alter family dynamics and unveil challenging and often emotional terrain, particularly when a dispute results in estate litigation. The division of assets, the interpretation of a will, and settling estate matters can profoundly impact familial relationships, especially if individuals question the deceased’s final wishes. Estate disputes among family members have become increasingly prevalent, raising questions about inheritance, fairness, and, most importantly, the preservation of family bonds.
Whether rooted in contested wills, allegations of undue influence, or disagreements over the distribution of wealth, these disputes often require a nuanced approach to navigate the complexities involved. This blog explores the lengths parties might go to to challenge estate administration and asset distribution. It also highlights how Ontario courts may address these matters, particularly where disgruntled family members act unjustly.
In the matter of Fanelli v. Fanelli-Bruno, the deceased changed her will almost one year before her passing. Her original will directed the estate be divided equally between her son and daughter. However, the updated will left her estate to be distributed in equal shares to her two adult children, as well as her daughter’s two minor children. The daughter was also named as estate trustee.
The deceased’s estate was worth approximately $300,000. Under the new will, all four beneficiaries would receive $75,000 each.
The matter was brought before the Court when the deceased’s son commenced a claim alleging that his mother’s will was changed due to undue influence from her daughter and that his mother lacked capacity to make changes.
In support of this allegation, the son pointed to the fact that the deceased was battling terminal cancer and had been prescribed morphine to dull her pain. However, the Court found this was insufficient to prove the deceased did not understand her decisions or was unaware of her assets. The Court noted the applicant gave:
“… no evidence indicating that [the deceased] was not managing her own affairs. She was not in end-stage palliative care or in and out of consciousness on high doses of medication. Rather, this was almost a year before [the deceased] died.”
The deceased’s son also claimed that there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the deceased’s will change and her use of a new lawyer to do so, as the new lawyer was a relative of the sister’s husband. He referenced an incoherent conversation between the daughter and the deceased in which the daughter stated her mother didn’t want to use her previous lawyer because he was dying. The son alleged this demonstrated that his sister manipulated the deceased into revising her will.
When the Court reviewed the evidence, it found that the conversation referenced by the son was inadmissible hearsay, particularly as it had been related to the son by his uncle (who had not provided an affidavit). Further, the Court found the conversation as relayed was nonsensical as it started from an incorrect assertion that the son was not in the deceased’s will.
The Court acknowledged the deceased did not neglect her son in her will, as he was left with a 25% share of her estate. However, the will was updated to include her grandchildren, as the son had no children of his own. The Court also noted that the deceased changed her will almost one year in advance of her death, and it was not changed suddenly, nor was there evidence to suggest that the deceased was “fragile or vulnerable to her daughter when she did so.”
Additionally, the deceased’s daughter resided in California while the son lived with his mother. There was no evidence to suggest the daughter did anything more than help her mother find a lawyer to help her revise her estate plan. Accordingly, the Court wrote that it was “not aware of any rule or presumption that if a deceased person leaves less than an equal amount among her children, that is suspicious in itself.”
Regarding the son’s action in commencing litigation against his sister and the estate, the Court emphasized that a claim of undue influence is a “fact-heavy, serious allegation of wrongdoing that is tantamount to fraud.” However, in this case, the son adduced no evidence to make such assertions. The Court found that the applicant “embarked on a long, expensive fishing expedition into his mother’s most private information” and had not established any justification for his legal action.
When addressing the issues of costs, the Court noted the son incurred nearly $60,000 in legal fees to “chase a maximum claim of $85,000”. As a result of his actions, his sister incurred $90,000 in fees to protect her children’s inheritances from their grandmother.
The Court determined that if fees incurred by the daughter (on her own behalf and on behalf of her children, as respondents) were indemnified by the estate, they would (as the majority beneficiaries of the estate) effectively bear 75% of that amount. Accordingly, the Court ordered the son to pay $74,000, which represented 82% of his sister’s legal fees. This was also intended to emphasize the Court’s disapproval of the son’s vexatious actions in bringing the litigation.
This decision reminds those involved in estate disputes and estate litigation that courts will consider the circumstances of the matter when making findings and costs awards. It also shows that courts will not shy away from punishing a litigant who seeks a favourable finding from hearsay rather than facts satisfying the minimum evidentiary standard.
The trusted estate litigation lawyers at Campbell Litigation understand that commencing a competency challenge or asset distribution dispute requires extensive investigation, testimony, and supporting evidence. We help clients understand and navigate the legal process involved when an estate dispute results in costly litigation while highlighting additional legal issues and potential consequences that may arise. To learn how we can assist you, contact us online or by phone at 519-886-1204 to learn how we can help you.