Can a written note authored by someone prior to committing suicide also serve as the person’s Last Will? This question was addressed in a recent Supreme Court decision in which the deceased’s handwritten suicide note was discovered in her vehicle after her body was found washed up on the banks of the Fraser River.
The handwritten note referred to it being a Will, asking the deceased’s wishes be respected and then directing that her contents and a specific bank account be given to her common law husband, that a brother receive her RRSP, and her other siblings “get nothing”.
S.37 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”) sets out the formal requirements for the validity of a Will:
37 (1) To be valid, a will must be
(a) in writing,
(b) signed at its end by the will-maker, or the signature at the end must be acknowledged by the will-maker as his or hers, in the presence of 2 or more witnesses present at the same time, and
(c) signed by 2 or more of the witnesses in the presence of the will-maker.
(2) A will that does not comply with subsection (1) is invalid unless
(a) the court orders it to be effective as a will under section 58 [court order curing deficiencies],
(b) it is a will recognized as valid under section 80 [validity of wills made in accordance with other laws], or
(c) it is valid under another provision of this Act.
S.58 of WESA empowers the court to order that a document that does not strictly conform with S.37 has the same legal effect as a Will.
58 (1) In this section, “record” includes data that
(a) is recorded or stored electronically,
(b) can be read by a person, and
(c) is capable of reproduction in a visible form.
(2) On application, the court may make an order under subsection (3) if the court determines that a record, document or writing or marking on a will or document represents
(a) the testamentary intentions of a deceased person,
(b) the intention of a deceased person to revoke, alter or revive a will or testamentary disposition of the deceased person, or
(c) the intention of a deceased person to revoke, alter or revive a testamentary disposition contained in a document other than a will.
(3) Even though the making, revocation, alteration or revival of a will does not comply with this Act, the court may, as the circumstances require, order that a record or document or writing or marking on a will or document be fully effective as though it had been made
(a) as the will or part of the will of the deceased person,
(b) as a revocation, alteration or revival of a will of the deceased person, or
(c) as the testamentary intention of the deceased person.
(4) If an alteration to a will makes a word or provision illegible and the court is satisfied that the alteration was not made in accordance with this Act, the court may reinstate the original word or provision if there is evidence to establish what the original word or provision was.
When considering, pursuant to S.58 of WESA whether a document that does not confirm with S.37 of WESA is legally enforceable as a Will, the Court must be satisfied that the document is authentic and secondly that the document reflects the deceased’s deliberate and final expression as to disposal of his/her property.
In the case at hand, the Court readily found that the note was authentic as it was in the handwriting of the Deceased and then proceeded to consider whether the note represented the fixed and final intention of the deceased as to the disposal of the property upon death. The Court found that the note did represent the fixed and final intention of the deceased for the following reasons:
(a) The deceased refers to the note as being her Will;
(b) The deceased asks that her common law and sibling respect her wishes, leading the court to find this as a direction for them to act on his behalf;
(c) The note is in the deceased’s handwriting and signed by her, indicating her approval of the content of the note;
(d) The note was made in contemplation of death;
(e) The note was found near where the deceased’s body was found indicating an intention that the note be found;
(f) The note makes bequests of significant assets of the deceased’s estate;
(g) The note provides identifying information about the deceased’s assets; and
(h) The note’s language conveys finality.
As a result of the afore-going reasons, the Court found the note to have the legal effect as being the Will of the deceased.
While the circumstances of this case are particularly tragic, people do often leave documents that evidence what they desire to occur with their property upon death that do not conform with S.37 of WESA and in these cases, it is strongly recommended to obtain legal advice in a timely manner to ensure that the deceased’s intentions are honoured.
If you discover such a note in your loved one’s possessions after death, timely legal advice and representation can be had by contacting Vancouver/Burnaby probate, inheritance and estate litigation law lawyer Andrew Rebane at Resolutions Law Corporation, firstname.lastname@example.org or 778-372-7107