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When “insane delusions” may impact on the validity of a will: Sweetman v. Williamson Estate

Sweetman v. Williamson Estate[1] provides an excellent review of the law on testamentary capacity and, in particular, when “insane delusions” may impact on the validity of a will. It also provides an interesting look at the use of hearsay evidence in estates matters that may be of interest to those practicing in this area. The case is lengthy as Justice Gray meticulously reviews the evidence and the law in concluding that the testator did not have the requisite testamentary capacity.

Overview of the Facts

The action was brought by the daughter of Martin Arthur Williamson (the “Testator”), challenging the validity of his will on a number of grounds including testamentary capacity and undue influence, and made claims for proprietary estoppel and as a dependent under the Succession Law Reform Act.

The Testator was married to his wife, Josephine, for over 30 years but they had been separated for seven years at the time of his death. They never divorced. They had one child, a daughter, who was the plaintiff in the proceedings (the “Plaintiff”). The Plaintiff has two children. They are the Testator’s only grandchildren.

After his separation from Josephine, the Testator lived with his common-law partner, Grace.

The Testator owned a successful business. On his death, his estate was worth approximately $7.5 million.

The Plaintiff had worked in the Testator’s business for many years, leading up to the birth of her two children.

The Testator had a seizure on July 20, 2010. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died on December 24, 2010. The tumours in the Testator’s brain grew quickly and he had small holes in his brain (lacunes). The Testator suffered from numerous medical issues as a result of his illness and the medications used to treat it.

The Testator made two wills after his diagnosis, one in August, 2010 (the “August Will”) and one in September, 2010 (the “September Will”, and together with the August Will, the “Wills”). He did not leave anything to the Plaintiff in either of these wills. In the August Will, he gave the bulk of his estate to Grace. In the September Will, he left the bulk of his estate to a number of friends.

Analysis

Hearsay

As a preliminary matter, Justice Gray dealt with the issue of hearsay evidence in an interesting way. As is often the case in estates matters, a great deal of hearsay was introduced by the parties.

In the course of the trial, the parties operated under a shared assumption that all evidence of a hearsay nature, particularly as it related to statements made by the Testator, was admissible. Justice Gray reviewed the law on point and came to the conclusion that the shared assumption was correct. Fundamentally, he found that hearsay evidence is admissible as it relates to the state of mind of a declarant.[2] “If the mental state of the declarant is directly in issue at trial, then statements of his or her mental state are generally admissible in proof of the fact.”[3]

Testamentary Capacity

The case was decided on the issue of whether the Testator had testamentary capacity at the time he made the Wills.

The Court found that there were suspicious circumstances with respect to knowledge and approval, and testamentary capacity.[4] As a result, the rebuttable presumption was overcome and the onus was shifted to the propounders of the Wills to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that the Testator had knowledge and approved of the contents of the Wills, and had the necessary testamentary capacity.

The Court reviewed the test to be met to prove testamentary capacity: that it is not sufficient to show that a testator had the capacity to communicate his or her testamentary wishes but that those wishes were the product of a sound and disposing mind. In order to have a sound disposing mind, a testator must:[5]

  1. understand the nature and effect of a will;
  2. recollect the nature and extent of his or her property;
  3. understand the extent of what he or she is giving under the will;
  4. remember the persons that he or she might be expected to benefit under his or her will; and
  5. where applicable, understand the nature of the claims that may be made by persons he or she is excluding from the will.

There was an abundance of medical evidence in this case. Justice Gray reviewed it in detail and found that the fact that a testator may have an illness that affects his or her brain, such as a brain tumour, is not enough to demonstrate that he or she lacks testamentary capacity.[6] However, in this particular case, the evidence was significant as a starting point as the rapid progression of tumours, and their effect on him, raised a serious question as to whether they may have affected his testamentary capacity earlier.[7]

The Hall Factors

Justice Gray reviewed the evidence in respect of each of the factors set out in Hall.

Understand the Nature and Effect of a Will

The Court found that the Testator understood the nature and effect of a will.[8]

Recollect the Nature and Extent of his or her Property

The Court had concerns that the Testator did not recollect the nature and extent of his property. On the day he executed the August Will, he thought his business was worth only $1.5 million. Immediately upon leaving the meeting with his lawyer, he had to call his accountant to find out what his estate was worth.[9]

Understand the Extent of what he or she is Giving Under the Will

The Court found that it was doubtful that the Testator understood the extent of his estate. He had short-term memory loss, including difficulty in remembering names and birthdates, and spelling of names. Almost immediately after executing the August Will, he thought that what he was leaving to Grace was too much. During the meeting with the lawyer concerning the September Will, he still demonstrated memory loss. Before this meeting he did not know to whom he should leave the residue. After executing it, he still seemed uncertain as to whether it really reflected his wishes and wanted reassurance that he could still change it if he wanted to.[10]

Remember the Persons that he or she Might be Expected to Benefit Under his or her Will / Understand the Nature of the Claims that may be Made by Persons he or she is Excluding from the will.

The Court dealt with the fourth and fifth criterion together. Justice Gray found that it was clear that the Testator knew that his daughter and grandchildren were persons who could potentially have a claim and he knew he was excluding them. However, the fact that he preferred to benefit people with whom he had a more tenuous connection suggests that he lacked real awareness of the moral claims that only his daughter and grandchildren would have.[11]

The Court went on to find that the Testator’s dispositions were, to some extent, affected by delusions.

Insane Delusions

It is clear that a person who suffers from insane delusions may not have testamentary capacity. However, the case law in respect of this issue is fairly limited. In this case, Justice Gray completes a thorough analysis of the law with respect to insane delusions.

Generally speaking, “a delusion is an irrational belief in a state of facts which no rational person would believe.”[12] The mere fact that a testator has delusions does not invalidate his or her will: a delusion must influence the testator in the making of the will.[13]

The issue of insane delusions was raised in Banks v. Goodfellow.[14] In that case, the testator suffered from certain delusions relating to evil spirits. Because the delusions were not related to the contents of the will, they did not lead to the conclusion that the testator lacked testamentary capacity.[15]

The concept of insane delusions has been discussed in a number of other cases. The case law demonstrates that in order for delusions to invalidate a will (by leading to a conclusion that the testator lacked testamentary capacity) the delusions must relate to the contents of the will.[16]

In a similar case, Banton v. Banton,[17] Justic Cullity, discussed the apparent delusions of the testator. In Banton, the testator left nothing to his children. The testator believed his children were not interested in him, they were only interested in his money and had only started paying attention after he began to associate with his new wife. He also believed that his children neglected to provide care and companionship to him for some period of time. All of this was contrary to the facts and reality. Justice Cullity held that:

By itself the existence of a testator’s insane delusions will not invalidate a will. To have this effect, the delusions must have affected the dispositions of the will.[18]

George Banton believed his unfounded allegation that his children were not interested in him and were only interested in his money. These beliefs were not only contrary to all the evidence and probabilities: they were in direct conflict with what he must have known if he had not been cognitively impaired.[19]

In the result, Justice Cullity concluded that Mr. Banton’s insane delusions affected the dispositions of the will, and invalidated the will.

Here, Justice Gray found that the Testator’s dispositions were affected, to some extent, by delusions. Specifically, the Testator believed that:

  1. his daughter did not have a disability when the evidence overwhelming demonstrated that she did and had done for many years;
  2. the Plaintiff had frozen his assets and raged at her for doing so, believing that she was her mother. His assets were not frozen;
  3. his grandchildren were being looked after by their wealthy father and that they did not need his money;
  4. his common-law partner, Grace, was only with him because of the money and not because she cared for him.

The Court found that all of these beliefs were delusions as they were untrue and irrational, and had affected the dispositions made in his Wills.

Conclusion

In the result, based on the preponderance of evidence and the presence of delusions, the Court held that the Testator did not have the testamentary capacity to execute either Will. Justice Gray went on to dismiss the claims of undue influence, proprietary estoppel and dependent support pursuant to the Succession Reform Act.

[1] 2016 CarswellOnt 9878 (Ont. SCJ) [Sweetnam].

[2] Sweetnam at paras 768-774.

[3] Sopinka, Lederman & Bryant, The Law of Evidence in Canada (3rd Ed., 2009), at p. 330.

[4] See Sweetnam at para 782 for a recitation of the suspicious circumstances.

[5] Hall v. Bennett Estate (2003), 64 O.R. (3d) 191 (CA) at paras 14 and 1 [Hall].

[6] Sweetnam at para 789.

[7] Sweetnam at para 806.

[8] Sweetnam at para 824.

[9] Sweetnam at paras 825-826.

[10] Sweetnam at para 827.

[11] Sweetnam at para 829.

[12] At para 790. Banks v. Goodfellow.

[13] Sweetnam at para 790.

[14] (1870), L.R. 5 Q.B. 549 (QB Div).

[15] Sweetnam at paras 790-791.

[16] See Skinner v. Farquharson (2002), 32 S.C.R. 58; Ouderkirk v. Ouderkirk, [1936] S.C.R. 619; Re MacLeod Estate, (1989), 94 N.S.R. (2d) 148

[17] Banton v. Banton (1998), 164 D.L.R. (4th) 176 [Banton]

[18] Banton at para 34.

[19] Banton at para 35.

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