Sunday, August 22, 2021

Supreme Court of British Columbia Gives Effect to an Unsigned Draft Will During Covid-19

Getting wills signed during Covid-19 has been a challenge, especially for persons in retirement communities and care homes when visitors are restrictions. The process those of us who are estate-planning lawyers like to follow of meeting our clients in person to review the final drafts of their wills and act as one of the two witnesses has often been thwarted. No doubt many wills have gone unsigned for months, with the increased risk of death before the wills are completed.

In a recent decision, Bishop Estate v. Sheardown, 2021 BCSC 1571, the Supreme Court of British Columbia gave effect to a draft will that was left unsigned because of Covid-19 restrictions. Section 58 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act allows the court to give effect to a document or other record in British Columbia even though the document has not been signed and witnessed in accordance with the formal requirements for making a valid will. This provision has been used in a wide variety of contexts to give effect to a document if the court is satisfied that the document is authentic and reflects the deliberate or fixed and final intentions of the now deceased person. As I have written before, it may be difficult to satisfy a court to give effect to a draft will prepared by a lawyer months before the person died, without a good explanation of why the lawyer’s client didn’t make an appointment with her lawyer to sign the will. In Bishop Estate, there was a good explanation: Covid-19.

On June 27, 2014 Marilyn Carole Bishop and her husband made wills in which each left everything to the other, and if the other had died, to the Kelowna General Hospital Foundation. The Bishops did not have any children. Mr. Bishop had been treated at the Kelowna General Hospital, and their gifts to the Foundation reflected their gratitude for his treatment. 

After Mr. Bishop’s death, Ms. Bishop’s nephew Robert Sheardown and his wife, Deborah Sheardown, moved to Kamloops, nears where Ms. Bishop resided. They became very close and they assisted her.

In February 2020, Ms. Bishop met with her lawyer to revise her will. She told her lawyer, Matthew Livingston, that she wanted to give most of here estate to the Sheardowns. She wanted to give a gift to their daughter and was considering modest gifts to some o charities. She said the gift to the Kelowna General Hospital Foundation was her husband’s idea and she had no connection to Kelowna, which she considered two far away.

Mr. Livingston drafted a will for her, with some questions. She delivered a note to him setting out Ms. Sheardown’s full name, that she wanted to give a brooch to her great-niece and “No charities at this time.”

On March 17, 2020, she booked an appointment for March 20, to sign the final draft will, which reflected the changes as set out in her note. On March 19, she cancelled her appointment. By that time, the care home in which she lived had prohibited residents from leaving other than for medical appointments, and did not permit visitors, in order to protect residents from Covid-19. Ms. Bishop died on July 20, 2020, without signing her will.

The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation argued that the 2020 draft will should not be given effect. They argued that the words “No charities at this time,” implied that Ms. Bishop had not demonstrate a fixed and final intention. However, Madam Justice Matthews that wills are by their nature revocable, and the issue is whether the intentions are fixed and final at the relevant time. It is not necessary for someone to decide that they would not change the will in the future.

In finding that the document did reflect Ms. Bishop’s fixed and final intentions, Madam Justice Matthews carefully reviewed the facts:

[38]         It is evident that Ms. Bishop reviewed the draft that Mr. Livingston sent to her on February 12, 2020. Her handwritten note that she delivered on March 3, 2020, directly responded to each of Mr. Livingston’s questions in the comment boxes in the first draft.

[39]         In her note, Ms. Bishop did not suggest any new changes to the will; she simply filled in the blanks that Mr. Livingston had left for her. The first was to fill in Ms. Sheardown’s middle name. The second was to specify a gift for the Sheardowns’ daughter, whom Ms. Bishop had already mentioned that she would like to give a gift to. Although Mr. Livingston had discussed the possibility of a registered education savings plan for her, Ms. Bishop ultimately decided to give her a gold brooch.

[40]         The same can be said of Ms. Bishop’s third instruction, “no charities at this time”. When she met with Mr. Livingston, Ms. Bishop indicated that while she did not want to give a gift to Kelowna General Hospital Foundation, she might want to make a couple of modest gifts to specific charities. In the month that followed, Ms. Bishop decided she did not want to make charitable gifts.  This is not problematic. The gifts initially proposed were relatively minor: $10,000–$20,000 for each of Thomson Rivers University and the Firefighters’ Burn Fund. At most, this represented approximately 7% of her total estate.

[41]         Kelowna General Hospital Foundation submits that the language of “at this time” indicates that Ms. Bishop’s intentions lacked finality. I am not satisfied that it demonstrates that her intentions were not final. As Dickson J. notes in Young Estate at para. 35, a fixed and final intention cannot mean that the intention is irrevocable, since wills are, by their nature, revocable until the testator’s death. Rather, the intention need only “be fixed and final at the material time”.

[42]         Accordingly, the mere mention of “at this time” is not enough to overcome the considerable evidence that suggests that her intentions were fixed and final. Her instruction was not an equivocation; it was a clear expression of her fixed and final intention at the time she delivered the note on March 3, 2020. Of course, in this case, the material time stretches beyond March 3 to the date of Ms. Bishop’s death; nevertheless, as I will discuss, nothing suggests that Ms. Bishop’s intention to not give to any charities changed in that time.

[43]         Ms. Bishop did not request any substantive changes to the draft. The manner in which she responded to Mr. Livingston’s questions suggests that she was satisfied with the unexecuted 2020 will and was prepared to execute it. When she was asked if she wanted to review it again in advance of an appointment to sign it, she made an appointment to sign it. In the circumstances, it cannot be said that the unexecuted 2020 will “was not seen, or read, or written, or in some way authenticated, or adopted”: George v. Daily (1997), 143 D.L.R. (4th) 273 (Man. C.A.) at para. 56.

[44]         It is relevant that the unexecuted 2020 will makes considerable sense in the circumstances: Hubschi Estate (Re), 2019 BCSC 2040 at para. 40. Based on the evidence, it is unsurprising that Ms. Bishop would wish to name the Sheardowns as the executors and primary beneficiaries of her estate and to remove Kelowna General Hospital Foundation as a beneficiary.

[45]         The document and the context in which it is made has the hallmarks of fixed and final testamentary intention in that bears the title of a will, it was made by a lawyer retained by Ms. Bishop for that purpose, it revokes her prior wills, it directs how her remains are to be dealt with, it names executors and beneficiaries including an alternate beneficiary. The beneficiaries make sense in the context of Ms. Bishop’s relationships. Ms. Bishop’s response to Mr. Livingston’s questions provided him with the information necessary to complete the draft.

Accordingly, the Sheardowns will receive Ms. Bishop’s estate.

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