Saskatchewan Estate Litigation Update: McStay v Berta Estate, 2021 SKCA 51

A recent case from the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, reminds us that a Chambers judge cannot decide conflicting evidence on the basis of affidavits. Rather, any weighing of credibility must wait for the later trial.

The case in McStay arose out of a will challenge.  Linda McStay applied for an order requiring her father’s will be proven in solemn form. She asserted that her father lacked testamentary capacity and was unduly influenced by the executor. Thus, she claimed his  will was invalid.

Solemn form refers to the legal proceeding which arises when a will is disputed. Instead simply probating the will automatically (which occurs for most non-contested wills), solemn form means that the will is examined by the Court in detail, to see if there is a genuine issue affecting the will.

Factual background:

Mihaly Berta (the testator) had been born in Hungary in 1957. Ms. McStay was the daughter of Mr. Berta’s first wife. Mr. Berta adopted her when she was seven or eight years old.

The family lived together until Mr. Berta and Ms. McStay’s mother divorced in 1997. Mr. Berta had no other children. Mr. Berta was divorced as of the date of his death and had no dependents.
Prior wills, including one executed in December of 2010, had named Ms. McStay as his executor and sole beneficiary. Mr. Berta and Ms. McStay had become estranged in 2013 and had not spoken in some years.

In 2017, Mr. Berta was diagnosed with terminal cancer and decided that, when the time came, he wished to use medical assistance in dying [MAID] to end his life in a dignified manner. The testator gave initial instructions to his solicitor, Darryl Lucke, for the drafting of a new will in August of 2017, but needed more time to consider the issues.

Mr. Lucke had been Mr. Berta’s solicitor since 2011. Mr. Lucke met with Mr. Berta at the Pasqua Hospital in April of 2018 and received additional instructions regarding the will, including a proposed distribution, but Mr. Berta had not yet come to a final conclusion with regard to the bequests he wished to make.

In May of 2018, Mr. Berta reconciled with Ms. McStay and then they spent considerable time together in the weeks prior to his death.

The making of the Will:

On May 22, 2018, Mr. Berta spoke with Mr. Lucke on the telephone and gave him further instructions regarding his will. As a result of those instructions, Mr. Lucke drafted a new will appointing a friend, Gregory Lipoth as his executor and setting out the following bequests:

  1. $25,000 to a friend who had provided care for him in his final days;
  2. 5% of his estate, to a maximum of $10,000, to another friend;
  3. 5% of his estate, to a maximum of $10,000, to another friend;
  4. 5% of his estate, to a maximum of $100,000, to his sister-in-law in Hungary, with $50,000 to be paid out immediately and the remainder at $5,000 per year;
  5. 5% of his estate, to a maximum of $100,000, to his brother in Hungary, with $50,000 to be paid out immediately and the remainder at $5,000 per year;
  6. 5% of his estate, to a maximum of $100,000, to Ms. McStay, in payments of $2,000 per month for 12 months, with the remaining $76,000 to be placed in a Registered Education Savings Plan for her children; and
  7. 5% of his estate to Mr. Lipoth, for the benefit of Mr. Lipoth’s children’s education.

The executor, in defending the will challenge brought by Ms. McStay, filed evidence relating to the testator’s capacity. For example:

  1. On the morning of May 24, 2018, a doctor at the Pasqua Hospital assessed Mr. Berta’s capacity for MAID and concluded that there were no concerns about his capacity for that purpose;
  2. Lucke attended to Mr. Berta’s bedside in the palliative care unit of the Pasqua Hospital for the signing of the will in the early afternoon on May 24, 2018. He averred that after Mr. Berta read the will, Mr. Lucke explained the provisions and confirmed that they were in accordance with his wishes. Mr. Berta then executed the will. Mr. Lucke’s legal assistant had attended the hospital with him and the two of them witnessed the will.

Decision before the Court of Queen’s Bench:

At the initial hearing in the Court of Queen’s Bench, the Court held that there was no genuine issue relating to capacity. Thus, she dismissed the challenge.

The Queen’s Bench justice found that the will made sense, and the testator had taken care in  crafting its provisions:

[35] The evidence establishes an earlier will from 2013 naming the applicant as executor and sole beneficiary. The notes taken by the lawyer drawing up the will explain the reason for a “basic will”. Thereafter, the testator and applicant were estranged. Beginning in the summer of 2017, the testator planned a new will, and settled on a new executor. The Executor was someone he had known for decades. He discussed his choice with his close friend, Alex Gedo, and with his lawyer. The testator was uncertain about the bequests and did not finally make any determinations for another nine months. When he did make his final determinations, he was facing death. He was in pain and on medication, but there is no evidence he did not understand what he was doing. On the contrary, the evidence shows the testator acted decisively and carefully.

[36] The bequests were consistent with a person taking care in determining “the nature and extent of his property, [and] the persons who are the natural objects of his bounty” (Kapacila Estate, para 33). The applicant is the testator’s daughter. She would expect to benefit, notwithstanding their estrangement. In fact, she did benefit.

[37] The Will also demonstrated an “orderly desire as to the disposition of [the testator’s] property” (Kapacila Estate, para 33). Everyone mentioned in the Will had a strong connection to the testator. The bequests went to four friends – three of whom the applicant does not object to – his brother, his sister-in-law and his daughter. The errors in the will were minor and do not raise a concern the testator did not know what he was signing.

[emphasis added]

The Court also found that there was no genuine issue relating  to undue influence:

[40] Presumptive undue influence is established “where the relations between the donor and donee have at or shortly before the execution of the gift been such as to raise a presumption that the donee had influence over the donor” (Culbert Estate at para 137). As stated by the Lawyer, the testator was “independent and strong-minded”. His doctors described him similarly. There is no suggestion the testator’s will was overborne by the Executor or anyone else. I do not find suspicious circumstances in the making of the Will.

Decision before the Court of Appeal: 

The Court of Appeal disagreed. It held that there were numerous aspects of the evidence that were controverted on material points. As a result, the Court of Appeal held, the only realistic option was a trial to determine the true facts.

Examples of these conflicts included the below:

  1. McStay visited Mr. Berta in the hospital twice on that day, once around noon and again later in the afternoon. She averred that he was heavily medicated and his behaviour was not consistent with his typical behaviour. She observed that he was sedated, not alert and kept dozing off. It was difficult to have a conversation with him. Thus, this conflicted with the evidence that the testator had been of wholly sound mind;
  2. McStay averred that Mr. Lipoth himself told her that he had many in-depth conversations with Mr. Berta about the will and the designated percentages and that Mr. Berta did not understand the percentages versus the dollar amounts (in short, Ms. McStay suggest that Mr. Lipoth may have been too involved in the making of the will, which he denied);
  3. There was a factual disagreement on just how close the testator had been to Mr. Lipoth (Ms. McStay suggested that they were not close, whereas Mr. Lipoth suggested that they were);
  4. The previous wills named Ms. McStay as the sole beneficiary and executor. However, the final will signed on May 24, 2018, was significantly different than the prior wills. The Court implied that this was a fact requiring further investigation.

From the above, the Court concluded that there  were conflicts on material issues:

[50]  As can be seen from the above examination of the evidence, there were significant conflicts regarding Mr. Berta’s mental state at the time the will was signed, his intentions, his relationship with his daughter and her children, his relationship with Mr. Lipoth and his children, the actions and role of Mr. Lipoth and the circumstances surrounding the making of the will. These are not mere contradictions on immaterial issues. There are major conflicts in relation to material issues that could affect a determination of capacity and undue influence. Despite these conflicts, the Chambers judge determined the evidence was overwhelming in favour of upholding the validity of the will. In the face of this controverted evidence on material issues, the only way she could have done so was by engaging in a weighing exercise by, inferentially, conducting an evaluation of credibility.

[emphasis added]

The Court held that the Queen’s Bench justice had engaged in an impermissible weighing of credibility, based on affidavit evidence. As the Court of Appeal held, the “conflicts in the evidence on material points were simply too pronounced to support a finding that there was no genuine issue for trial unless there were adverse findings of credibility.” (para 51) For  the Queen’s Bench justice to make “adverse findings of credibility” was impermissible  on the basis of affidavits.

As such, the appeal was allowed and a trial was directed, to prove the last will and testament in solemn form.

Ms. McStay received her costs of this appeal, payable from the estate, on a solicitor–client basis. However, the costs of the Queen’s Bench application were ordered to be costs in the cause. This meant that a future  trial court would decide if Ms. McStay should get her prior Queen’s Bench costs out of the estate.

Lesson learned:

McStay is an interesting decision for estate litigators. The evidence before the Court of Queen’s Bench, supporting the testator’s capacity and intent, appeared to be very strong evidence. It was not necessarily surprising that the Court of Queen’s Bench found no genuine issue requiring a trial.

After all, there is established case law reminding us that solemn form is a lengthy and expensive process and should not be entered into without sufficient foundation. Otherwise a substantial portion of an estate is at risk of being wasted in litigation. Moreover, the executor offered sworn evidence from a lawyer, and medical records, showing that the testator had sound mind. This is very powerful evidence from independent parties, and is not likely to change in any future trial.

Moreover, there was also evidence from friends of the testator that the testator had indicated his intention to name Mr. Lipoth as his executor, and leave money to Mr. Lipoth’s children, etc. (paras 37-38). It is difficult for a challenge to portray such intentions as being suspicious, when the deceased himself told others that these were his wishes.

However, there are no certainties for those who go to court, as McStay shows. Thus, the lesson appears to be that defenders of wills should be confident they have un-challenged evidence on all major factual issues. Otherwise, there is the chance that a Court may place the will into the expensive process of solemn form.

James Steele’s preferred practise area is estate litigation, including will challenges, executor disputes, power of attorney issues, etc. Contact James Steele at 1-306-933-1338 or j.steele@rslaw.com. The above is for general information only. Parties should always seek legal advice prior to taking action in specific situations. 

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The Saskatchewan Estate Law blog is dedicated to providing practical, real-world information on Estate Law issues that affect Saskatchewan residents. The blog is written by RS lawyer, James Steele, whose practice focuses on estate litigation.

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Articles & Research Saskatchewan Estate Litigation Update: McStay v Berta Estate, 2021 SKCA 51