Did Testator’s Chronic Alcoholism Affect His Ability to Make a Valid Will?
In a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision involving a Wills and Estates matter, one of the main questions was whether the testator – a man named Jack – was so impacted by his chronic alcoholism and the after-effects of a heart attack that he did not have the legal capacity to validly make the Will that entirely excluded his wife Loretta.
In Dujardin v. Dujardin, Jack and his brother Noel jointly owned and operated farm property that had been in their family since 1958. They both executed mirror Wills stating that upon their death, they would leave their equal interests in the farm to each other. Jack’s first Will of this nature, which he executed prior to his marriage to Loretta in 2000, excluded her from the Will completely. A second Will, which he made in 2009 after having a heart attack two years earlier, likewise excluded her in favour of his brother Noel. (However, he did designate her as the sole beneficiary of a RRIF valued at $123,000 at the time of his death).
Loretta challenged the validity of Jack’s Will, but her claims were dismissed at trial. On appeal, she argued that the trial judge had been wrong to rule inadmissible the evidence of a doctor who had concluded Jack lacked the capacity to make the will, due to his chronic alcoholism and heart attack-related cognitive impairment.
The Appeal Court was left to evaluate the premise for the doctor’s conclusions, as against the other established facts. As the Court put it:
Jack had a difficult relationship with alcohol. The evidence established that, during the day, he was a productive worker. However, when he finished his work in the late afternoon, Jack would go into the Town of Aylmer to have a couple drinks. When he returned home, he drank into the night, until he fell asleep. Noel testified that Jack purchased 40 ounces of liquor each day.
That said, the Court also noted evidence showing that Jack could function well enough notwithstanding his excessive drinking:
Despite his alcohol use, the evidence established that, around the time he executed his 2009 wills, Jack was able to function properly at work and in his business dealings. A parade of witnesses from the local farming community testified that, while they knew that Jack liked to drink, they noticed nothing wrong with his cognitive functioning.
Against this background, the Court addressed Loretta’s objections that the trial judge had erred in ruling the doctor’s evidence as to Jack’s testamentary capacity inadmissible.
On this point the Court noted doctor had never met Jack, but rather was relying only on his medical history and hospital records to conclude that he suffered from “Organic Brain Syndrome.” This, the doctor concluded, had impaired Jack’s cognitive ability to comprehend and understand the contents of any legal document that he signed in 2009. Also, based on Jack’s pattern of drinking, the doctor had surmised that he was either drinking or experiencing withdrawal when he attended his lawyer’s office to sign the Will.
Unfortunately for Loretta, the Court of Appeal found that these conclusions by the doctor were – at best – speculative. For example, Jack’s heart attack had occurred almost two years before he signed the Will, and there was no convincing evidence that this event affected his cognitive ability. Nor was there compelling proof that Jack suffered from “Organic Brain Syndrome” as speculated. Overall, the trial judge had not been wrong to exclude the doctor’s evidence was inadmissible.
The Court also took a broader look at the Will’s legal validity under the law. Once a Will is proven as having been “duly executed with the requisite formalities, and having been read over to or by a testator who appeared to understand it”, it will be generally presumed that the testator knew and approved of the contents, and that he had the necessary testamentary capacity. The onus to prove these elements falls to the proponent of it – in this case, Jack’s brother Noel.
Although were some suspicious circumstances relating to Jack’s mental capacity at the time he signed his Will, Noel had addressed them to the court’s satisfaction by the evidence of the other witnesses who were present.
The Court dismissed Loretta’s appeal, but pointed out that she may be able to make a claim under Family Law legislation.
For the full text of the decision, see:
At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders. For more information, visit us at RussellAlexander.com