What Exactly Is Estate Litigation?

lawyer holding model house

Estate litigation is a specialized area of law that deals with disputes arising from the administration of a deceased person’s estate. In Ontario, Estate litigation often proceeds by way of an application for directions, which makes it distinct from other forms of civil litigation.

Challenging a Will

One of the most common scenarios in estate litigation involves a challenge to the validity of a will. These challenges can be based on various grounds, including:

  1. Lack of Testamentary Capacity: A common ground for challenging a will is arguing that the testator (the person making the will) lacked the mental capacity to understand the implications of their actions when creating the will.
  2. Undue Influence: Estate litigation may also involve claims of undue influence, suggesting that someone exerted pressure or control over the testator, leading to changes in the will that do not reflect the testator’s true wishes.
  3. Fraud or Forgery: Challenges may arise if there are suspicions of fraud or forgery related to the creation or modification of the will.
  4. Improper Execution: While there is now newly reformed legislation which can save a will from improper execution, there are still formalities that should be followed and can cause a Will to be challenged.
  5. Public Policy: Our freedom to distribute our estate is not absolute. There have been cases where the court has set aside an otherwise valid Will due to policy concerns such as discrimination.

Dependant Support Claims

Estate litigation can also encompass claims for dependant support. The law in Ontario recognizes that certain individuals, such as common-law partners, and step-children, may be entitled to financial support from the deceased’s estate if they were dependent on the deceased for their needs.

In Ontario, common-law spouses and step-children are not entitled under the legislation to a portion of the estate of a deceased where there is no Will. To assert their claim to an estate, litigation often ensues.

The court will consider various factors, including the claimant’s relationship with the deceased, their financial circumstances, the deceased’s obligations, and the assets and liabilities of the estate. If the court finds in favor of the claimant, it may order that the estate provide adequate financial support or maintenance to meet the claimant’s needs.

Dependant support claims are intended to strike a balance between the deceased’s wishes as expressed in their will (if there is one) and the legal obligation to provide for dependent family members.

Claims from Disappointed Beneficiaries

In addition to will challenges and dependant support claims, estate litigation can involve disputes from beneficiaries who are disappointed with their share of the estate. These beneficiaries may argue that they were unfairly treated under the terms of the will or that the estate’s administration was mishandled.

Claims from Married Spouses

A married spouse has the option to take what is provided to them under the legislation, or if there is a Will, under the Will. A married spouse also has the option within 6 months of the death of the deceased to elect to equalize their net family property pursuant to the Family Law Act like a divorce proceeding.

Claims for Constructive Trust

A constructive trust is a legal remedy that is imposed by a court to ensure that a person who holds property (typically real estate) in their name, but who acquired or retained that property through unjust enrichment, is holding the property in trust for someone else.

In simple terms, the deceased person benefitted from the potential claimant putting their time or money into a piece of real estate, to their own detriment, and did not receive the benefit that should have awarded when the person passed away.

Estate Trustee Disputes

Estate trustee disputes arise when two or more individuals who have been appointed as estate trustees (also known as executors) under a deceased person’s will or by a court cannot agree on how to manage the deceased’s estate.

Disagreements between co-estate trustees can arise for various reasons, such as differing opinions on asset distribution, selling estate assets, or managing debts and expenses. These disputes can hinder the efficient settlement of the estate.

If the conflicts persist, a party with a legal interest in the estate (such as a beneficiary or creditor) can apply to the court to have one of the estate trustees removed. The court will consider several factors in deciding whether removal is warranted, including:

  • Evidence of misconduct, neglect, or breach of fiduciary duty by one of the trustees.
  • The best interests of the estate and beneficiaries.
  • The ability of the trustees to cooperate and administer the estate effectively.

A Niche Practice Area

Estate litigation is a niche practice area within civil litigation. Lawyers who specialize in this field possess a deep understanding of estate and trust law, as well as the unique procedures and rules that govern estate litigation in Ontario. There are many pieces of legislation that govern in this practice area as well as common law decisions that impact how that legislation applies.

Given the complex nature of these cases, it’s essential to seek experienced legal counsel when facing estate-related disputes.

Estate litigators in Ontario are well-versed in the intricacies of this area of law and play a crucial role in ensuring that the deceased’s wishes are respected and that rightful beneficiaries receive their due.

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