Posts tagged ‘agreement’

September 4, 2015

More Trouble with Pension Benefits After Death

In a previous post, we looked at the issue of the definition of a “spouse” under the Pension Benefits Act where a deceased had divorced and was living in a common law relationship with another partner.  One of the key takeaways from the case was the importance of designating beneficiaries under pension plans so that the intentions of the pensioner are clear.  The importance of designation was emphasized again in the recent Nova Scotia Court of appeal case of MacEachen v. Minnikin.

In that case, under a separation agreement spouse number 2 was to be designated as beneficiary under the deceased’s Canada Post pension and he was not to change that designation before such time as he might remarry.  If he did not remarry, spouse number 2 would remain as beneficiary.  If the pensioner did remarry, spouse number 2 agreed under the separation agreement that “she will execute any and all necessary documents in order to release her as a beneficiary in the aforementioned plan”.

As you might guess, the pensioner did remarry but took no action to either change the beneficiary designation with the plan administrator or to require spouse number 2 to execute any document(s) to release her as a beneficiary.  Following the pensioner’s death, spouse number 3 brought an action seeking entitlement to survivorship benefits under the pension on the basis of unjust enrichment.  Both the Court at first instance and the Court of Appeal found in favour of spouse number 2.  On a legal analysis, spouse number 3 was not able to establish the elements of “unjust enrichment”.  However, for our purposes, it is the factual findings of the court that illustrate the lesson from this case.

With respect to the separation agreement, the Court found that the provision dealing with a release of spouse number 2 as beneficiary did not act to create a change of beneficiary but required further action (i.e. the deceased doing something to get that release in writing).  Furthermore, under the separation agreement the pensioner retained control over when a beneficiary change would be requested under the plan.  He also knew that he would be required to advise the plan administrator in writing of a change of beneficiary.  The pensioner had taken steps to change beneficiary designations under an insurance policy so presumably had turned his mind to beneficiary issues in some manner.  Given these findings, the Court was loathe to make a finding that would overturn the written beneficiary designation under the plan.

Could a tighter drafting of the separation agreement have changed the outcome of this case; for example stating clearly that upon the pensioner remarrying, spouse number 2 is deemed to have released any interest in the pension? – perhaps.  The obvious answer though it is that, for estate planning purposes, all potential assets must be addressed in their own context and parties cannot rely on other contracts to govern entitlement.

November 26, 2014

Whose Life Insurance is it Anyway?

A trial decision from the British Columbia Supreme Court recently caught my eye because it dealt with the interesting interplay between life insurance policies and separation agreements.  In Milne Estate v. Milne, a separation agreement required a husband to maintain a life insurance policy in his name, naming the wife as beneficiary.  He later changed the beneficiary to a new common law spouse.  This is not an entirely uncommon occurrence.  The husband died before his obligations under the separation agreement ceased.

The issues in the case were as follows:

  1. Because the husband was required by the separation agreement to name the wife as beneficiary, could the new beneficiary be deemed to hold the insurance proceeds as constructive trustee for the wife?
  2.  Was the estate liable for breach of contract?
  3. If the estate was liable for breach of contract, what is the measure of damages? – the full amount payable under the policy or only such amounts as are required to meet the policy holder’s obligations under the separation agreement?

In dealing with the issue of a constructive trust, the Court cited and followed the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Soulos v. Korkontzilas.  Soulos holds that, under the umbrella of good conscience, constructive trusts are recognized as a remedy for wrongful acts such as fraud and breach of duty of loyalty, as well as to remedy unjust enrichment. However, the Court went on to state that the remedy should be used restrictively, and set out four criteria for the imposition of a constructive trust:

  1. The defendant must have been under an equitable obligation, being one recognized by courts of equity, in relation to the activities giving rise to the assets in her hands
  2. The assets held by the defendant must have resulted from a breach of her equitable obligation to the plaintiff;
  3. The plaintiff must show a legitimate reason for seeking a proprietary remedy, either personal or related to the need to ensure that others like the defendant remain faithful to her duties; and
  4. There must be no factors which would render imposition of a constructive trust unjust in the circumstances.

In the context of this action, the Court found that these criteria were not met.  While it found that relationships between separated spouses can (in the right circumstances) result in fiduciary obligations, once formalized in a separation agreement, the obligations are primarily contractual and equity will not apply.  That was the finding in this case and the Court was therefore unwilling to impose a constructive trust on the new beneficiary.  The new beneficiary was entitled to the insurance proceeds.

As for the issue of contract, the Court did find that the failure to maintain the life insurance policy in the name of the former spouse resulted in a breach of the separation agreement for which the estate was liable for damages.  The issue was the measure of damages – was it the full amount payable on death under the insurance policy, or only such amounts as the deceased was liable for under the separation agreement, being primarily support obligations?

After reviewing relevant Court of Appeal decisions in Ontario and British Columbia, the Court concluded that the level of damages depended on the wording of the separation agreement.  If the separation agreement stated that the life insurance policy was to act as security for the obligations of the deceased under the separation agreement, the level of damages would be determined by and limited to those obligations.  However, if the obligation to maintain an insurance policy was not stated to be security for the obligations of the deceased, the level of damages for the breach is the full amount payable under the policy.

In this case, while there were certain connections in the separation agreement between support obligations and the requirement to maintain the insurance, it was not clearly stated in the agreement that the policy was to act as security for the performance of the husband’s obligations.  Following the Ontario Court of Appeal in Turner v. DiDonato, the Court found that the obligation to maintain life insurance was a stand-alone obligation; i.e. not security for the husband’s obligations under the separation agreement.  As result, the wife’s entitlement to damages against the estate was the full amount payable upon death under the life insurance policy.

The end result is certainly interesting as the death benefit is in effectively payable twice.

February 21, 2013

The Effect of Pre-Nuptial Agreements on Estate Administration

On intestacy, can a spouse’s statutory entitlement to a deceased spouse’s estate be curtailed by the terms of a pre-nuptial agreement? Maybe – as you would expect, it depends on the terms of the agreement.

The Ontario Superior Court recently dealt with this issue in the case of Caron v. Rowe. The deceased (Paul) died intestate. Paul and his wife (Andrea) had entered into a pre-marriage agreement which included the following provisions:

The Home shall forever remain in Paul’s personal estate, including, but not limited to, all interest, rents, profits and proceeds of disposition which may accrue from the Home; and,

Paul shall have, at all times, the full right and authority, in all respects the same as he would have if not married, to use, enjoy, manage, gift, sell, assign and otherwise convey the Home without interference, approval or other consent from Andrea and the Home shall remain forever free of claim by Andrea with the exception that she shall have the right to live in the Home for a reasonable length of time following the legal separation of Paul and Andrea, if ever, such occupation not to exceed a term of six (6) months.

The issue for the Court was whether these provisions of the agreement disentitled Andrea to the home on Paul’s death, such that it would go to those next entitled on intestacy, being Paul’s parents. The Court held that, in these circumstances, it did not.

In reviewing the law, the Court found that the terms of a pre-nuptial agreement can disentitle a spouse to her or his right to estate property, but only where there are “direct and cogent words to that effect”. The reason for requiring such specificity arises from a finding that the entitlement of a spouse on death is substantial and is encoded in legislation, in Ontario the Succession Law Reform Act. Therefore, while parties can contract out of that right, they can only do so where the agreement clearly shows such an intention. In other words, the contract must deal with the parties’ rights in the event of death.

Here, the Court found that in reading the pre-nuptial agreement as a whole, it dealt with the respective rights of Andrea and Paul on separation and dissolution of the marriage but did not specifically address Andrea’s rights as a surviving spouse. She is therefore entitled to Paul’s entire estate.