Sunday, March 27, 2022

Avoidable Legal Expenses in Estate Disputes


Its easy for legal expenses in emotional estate disputes to get out of hand. Some are surprised when I tell them that legal expenses can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although I generally associate expenses in that range with cases that go through a full trial, even without a trial, disputes can result in disproportionate expense. In some cases much of the expense can be avoided by forthright, early communication among the parties.

My point is illustrated by a recent assessment of lawyers’ bills in Mulder Estate, 2022 BCSC 406. This dispute was between the daughter of the deceased will-maker and her two brothers. The daughter, Leondra Ponnusamy, was named as the executor, and all three were beneficiaries of their mother’s estate. Her brothers, Ronald Mulder and Robert Mulder, asked for records of their mother, Alma Mulder’s bank accounts predating her death. Their sister refused, taking the position that as executor she did not have provide records of transactions that occurred before death. They claimed that she failed to repay $20,000 in loans. The also claimed that $35,000 that their mother had given to her was a loan, which she had to repay, rather than a gift, as she claimed. They further alleged that she received another $150,000 from their mom, and that she owed that amount to the estate.

Ultimately the dispute was settled out of court, after she did provide records, including records showing that she did not receive $150,000 and that she repaid the $20,000. But by then, the parties had incurred combined legal bills of about $300,000 in a $1.3 million estate. The sister had two lawyers involved, and the brothers had one lawyer.  

Although the Registrar did reduce the bills to some extent (25% for one lawyer, 20% for another and 5% for the third), the main point is that most of this could have been avoided.

Registrar Nielsen disagreed with the position the executor took initially that she had no obligation to provide disclosure of records prior to her mother’s death. She had a fiduciary duty, or in other words a duty of loyalty, to beneficiaries, and the circumstances called for full disclosure. Had she done so at the outset, the dispute could have been resolved with far less expense.

Registrar Nielsen wrote:

[63]         During the course of her evidence, the executor stated that she did not want her brothers seeing the per-death financial records as Ron and his wife Tammy had meddled in Alma’s finances while she was alive, and Alma had confided in Leondra that she resented this. Disclosure of the records would essentially be an affront to her mother’s memory. It is difficult to equate this stance with the definition and duties of a fiduciary provided by Dr. Waters [from Waters’ Law of Trusts in Canada, 4th ed].

[64]         In my view this was a case that cried out for full financial disclosure at the outset when it was first requested. The executor was both executor and beneficiary, and she had a pre-death history of receiving both gifts and loans from the deceased. Her relationship with her brothers had been fractured before she became executor, and Alma had indicated to Ron that Leondra was having financial difficulties. Mistrust in these circumstances was inevitable. It was not, in the words of Dr. Waters, “in the interests of the estate, or the beneficiaries” to withhold the financial information in these circumstances, from two of the three beneficiaries. 

[65]         When the executor is also a beneficiary, the fiduciary duty is particularly high when there is a pre-death history of loans and gifts to the executor by the deceased. She had a duty to identify and collect any unpaid debts owed to the estate. She alone had exclusive access to the financial records. Ron and Rob had no right to access those records without her consent, or court order. Without disclosure of the pre-death financial records, they were completely in the dark with respect to any debts owed to the estate, real or imagined.

[66]         As the litigation progressed needlessly, select financial records were disclosed, as the executor saw fit, to prove the allegations of the beneficiaries to be incorrect, or “false”, as submitted by counsel for the executor. Once disproved, the allegations were eventually withdrawn, although not as quickly as the executor would have liked.  

The brothers could also have brought an application to court to get the disclosure to get the documents early on.

What I find remarkable is that, although none of the parties were challenging their own lawyer bills, it took 24 days of hearing time for the bills to reviewed. We don’t know how additional expense the parties incurred arguing about each other’s lawyer’s bills.

Registrar Nielsen noted:

[72]         Following 24 days of evidence and argument in the within proceeding on what should have been the relatively narrow topic of legal fees, with the benefit of hindsight, there is no doubt in my mind that early disclosure of the financial records, when first requested, would have nipped the lion’s share of the subsequent litigation in the bud. The savings to the estate in legal fees would have been considerable. It may have also preserved what was left of the sibling’s fractured, but civil personal relationship.

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