When it comes to distributing a loved one’s assets, the legality of a handwritten will can be a source of dispute in British Columbia. But just how valid is a handwritten note left behind? The recent Skopyk Estate, 2017 BCSC case put this question to the test, as the court was tasked with determining the validity of an undated, handwritten document found on a bulletin board in the deceased’s apartment. Was it a replacement or alteration to their formal will? The outcome of this case offers insight into the legal principles governing the use of handwritten wills and the process of correcting any deficiencies. Get the inside scoop on this intriguing case and learn whether a handwritten will can stand up in court.
If you have questions or concerns about the legality of a handwritten will in British Columbia, the experienced lawyers at Onyx Law Group are here to help. Contact us today for a free consultation.
In British Columbia, a handwritten will, also known as a “holographic will,” can be considered a legally valid document if it meets certain requirements. Section 37(1) of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13 (“WESA”) provides that for a will to be valid, it 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.
Subsection 37(2)(a) provides that a will that does not comply with subsection (1) is invalid unless the court orders it to be effective as a will under s. 58.
Section 58 of WESA authorizes the court to order that a document that does not comply with the requirements of WESA be fully effective as though it had been made in compliance with those requirements. To make such an order, the court must be satisfied that the document represents the testamentary intentions of the deceased. In Skopyk Estate, Madam Justice Forth succinctly stated the applicable legal principles:
 The Court of Appeal has interpreted s. 58 to require that the document must be “a deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention” as to the disposal of property upon death: see Hadley Estate (Re), 2017 BCCA 311 at para. 36 [Hadley]. The factors relevant to the determination of whether a document represents such an expression of intention are context specific: Re Lane Estate, 2015 BCSC 2162 at para. 33. Extrinsic evidence of testamentary intent is admissible on the inquiry as to whether a non-compliant document embodies a deceased’s intent. This may well include extrinsic evidence of events that occurred before, when and after the document was created: Hadley, at para. 40.
In a previous post, I analyzed the decision in Hadley Estate (Re), a case in which a handwritten journal entry was not given effect as a valid will. Follow the link for a discussion of “testamentary formalities” and more on the validity of handwritten wills.
Skopyk Estate was a BC will dispute that came before the courts pursuant to s. 58 of WESA. The nieces of the deceased brought the petition to determine whether an unsigned handwritten document represented the deceased’s intentions to replace or alter his Last Will and Testament dated November 16, 1995 (the “1995 Will”).
The deceased, Russell Skopyk, died on July 16, 2017. Prior to his death, and while in hospital after suffering a heart attack, the deceased told one of his nieces that he was working on his will and that his wishes were different than those in the 1995 Will. After his death, another of his nieces found an undated handwritten document pinned to a bulletin board on the inside of the front door of the deceased’s apartment. The document was not signed by any witnesses nor was it signed at the end by the deceased, yet it purported to change the distribution of the residue of his estate.
In this case, the document clearly did not conform with the formal requirements for the validity of a will as required in s. 37 of WESA (or the formal requirements for the alteration of a will set out in s. 54). Therefore the key question was whether the document represented a deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to the disposal of the deceased’s property upon death. There were several details pertaining to the document itself that supported a finding that it did represent such an expression of intention. For example:
There were also extrinsic circumstances that supported a finding that the document was a deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to the disposal of the deceased’s property upon death, chief of which was evidence of the deceased’s niece. The evidence supported that when facing a serious health risk, the deceased on two occasions expressed to his niece his intention to change the distribution of his property upon death from what he had intended in 1995.
There were some extrinsic circumstances that did not support a finding of true intention. For example, one of the nieces deposed that she found other items on the bulletin board where the document was pinned, including a “to do” list, which did not mention contacting a lawyer to update the 1995 Will. However, upon weighing all of the evidence, Madam Justice Forth was satisfied that the document represented an authentic and deliberate expression of the deceased’s wishes as to the disposition of his property upon his death, and ordered it effective as an alteration of the 1995 Will.
A handwritten will can be effective if the court is satisfied that the document is a deliberate or fixed and final expression of the deceased’s intention as to the disposal of property upon death.
It is important to keep in mind that a handwritten will can be more susceptible to disputes and challenges in court. To ensure the validity and enforceability of your will, it is recommended to consult with a lawyer and have a formal, properly executed will in place. With the help of a legal professional, you can ensure that your testamentary wishes are clearly expressed and protected, and that your loved ones’ future is secure.
Here are some of our tips for avoiding common pitfalls that may lead to BC will disputes after the testator pass away.
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