Friday, May 12, 2006

Robson Estate

Ruth Robson made a will on November 10, 1992, in which she left a substantial gift to the “ First Presbyterian Church in the City of White Rock.” After she died on September 2, 2003, her executor sought to carry out her intentions as she set them out in her will.

There was just one little problem. There was no such church as the “First Presbyterian Church in the City of White Rock.” There was the “St John’s Presbyterian Church” in White Rock, the “First Presbyterian Church” in New Westminster, and the “First United Church” in White Rock. But there was no “First Presbyterian Church” in White Rock. Not when the will was made, and not at Ms. Robson’s death.

The executor asked the Supreme Court of British Columbia to decide if the gift would go to any of these churches.

The simple solution might appear to be to ask the lawyer who drew up the will what Ruth Robson said she intended. But the rules for interpreting wills are not that simple. Except in very limited circumstances, the court cannot admit direct evidence of intent. The general rule is that testimony of what the deceased said she intended in her will is not admissible. The rationale for this rule is that to allow direct evidence of intention would circumvent the technical requirements of the Wills Act RSBC 1996, c.489(see my previous post on those requirements here).

However, evidence of other circumstances that show what the deceased probably intended is admissible.

In Robson Estate (Re), 2006 BCSC 673, Madam Justice Dillon considered the evidence that Ms. Robson had been a member of the First United Church in White Rock, but became a member of the St. John’s Presbyterian Church in White Rock in December 1985. After becoming a member of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in White Rock, she attended regularly and made a large donation to that church.

After considering the evidence of the surrounding circumstances, Madam Justice Dillon concluded that Ruth Robson intended the gift to go to the St. John’s Presbyterian Church in White Rock. Although Ms. Robson had made a mistake in her description of the church, the evidence was sufficiently cogent for the court to determine her intentions and allow the executor to carry them out.

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