In certain circumstances a handwritten document can be effective as a valid will, as our Vancouver estate lawyers have discussed. Similarly, under the right conditions, a handwritten document that does not meet formal requirements can effectively change a will. What about a handwritten suicide note? In Gregoire v. Cordani, 2020 BCSC 276 the court concluded that the suicide note in question was fully effective as the valid will of a BC woman as it represented her fixed and final testamentary intentions as to the disposal of her property on death.
Vancouver estate lawyers discuss the facts in Gregoire v. Cordani
Jean-Claude Gregoire applied pursuant to BC’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13 (“WESA”) s. 58 for an order declaring that a handwritten note signed by Nicola Cordani on the day before her death by suicide was a valid will. Mr. Gregoire lived with Ms. Cordani for several years before her death on September 14, 2018. Ms. Cordani had struggled with depression and anxiety for decades. In 2017, Ms. Cordani’s condition appeared to get worse. She told Mr. Gregoire of her decision to “cut out” her mother and two of her brothers, Steven and Adam, from her life. She stopped communicating with them but remained close with her other brother Michael. On September 13, 2018 Mr. Gregoire returned home from work and Ms. Cordani was not home. On September 16, 2018 the New Westminster Police informed Mr. Gregoire that Ms. Cordani’s body had been found on the banks of the Fraser River and that a handwritten suicide note dated September 13, 2018 had been found in her vehicle. No other will or testamentary document was in existence when she died, so if the suicide note was not effective as a will, Ms. Cordani died intestate (i.e., without a will). Ms. Cordani had no children, so if she died without a will the only persons who could inherit her estate were Mr. Gregoire, if he met the definition of spouse within WESA, and Ms. Cordani’s mother, if Mr. Gregoire did not meet the WESA definition of a spouse.
Suicide note sought to be declared as a valid will
The suicide note was handwritten, dated the day before her death, and contained the deceased’s signature and social insurance number. Key portions of the note are as follows:
Claude Gregoire and [Michael] Cordani. [small area of scratched out writing] This is my will please respect my wishes.
Claude Gregoire common law husband gets my apartment and all its contents. […] HSBC [BANK] Account number
700-[ ] 26,282.06
700-[ ] 7,700.00
Michael Cordani brother Get ALL the rest RRSP account At HSBC
Steven + Adam Cordani get nothing.
The note did not meet the requirements for formal validity of a will in s. 37 of WESA as there were no witnesses. However, as our Vancouver estate lawyers have discussed, WESA s. 58 is a curative provision which provides the court with discretion to order that a record that does not conform with s. 37 is fully effective as a will. To exercise the discretion in WESA s. 58, the court must be satisfied on a balance of probabilities, first that the document is authentic, and second that the document records the deceased’s deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to disposal of his or her property on death.
Suicide note given effect as a valid will
On the first issue, the court was satisfied that the suicide note was authentic. The police were unable to release the original note but provided a certified copy which was filed in evidence along with a copy of the signature page of Ms. Cordani’s passport, and her personal address book with her handwriting. Both Mr. Gregoire and Michael Cordani identified the deceased’s handwriting and signature.
On the second issue of whether the note recorded the deceased’s deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to disposal of her property on death, the court (after citing principles from the leading BC estate law cases of Young Estate and Hadley Estate) considered several factors as persuasive in concluding that the suicide note be declared fully effective as the will of Ms. Cordani. Key factors included:
a) Ms. Cordani titled the document her will and stated her intention that the note be treated as a will. The note states “This is my will please respect my wishes”.
b) The note did not appoint an executor, but specifically addressed Mr. Gregoire and Michael Cordani and told them to “please respect my wishes”. In the court’s view, this was a direction to Mr. Gregoire and Mr. Cordani to act on her behalf.
c) The note was in Ms. Cordani’s handwriting and signed by her, signaling her approval.
d) The note was not witnessed. However, the note referred to Ms. Cordani’s depression and appears to be written in contemplation of taking her own life. In the circumstances, the court found this was likely why the note was not witnessed, and that the lack of witnesses did not evince an intention that this was not to be treated as her will.
e) The note was found in Ms. Cordani’s locked car by the police, near where her body was found, indicating an intention by Ms. Cordani that it be found.
f) The note is dated “Thu 09/13” which corresponds with Thursday September 13, 2018, the date which Ms. Cordani went missing. It was therefore made very close to the time of her death.
g) Ms. Cordani made specific bequests of major assets of her estate. She specifically referred to her apartment and two bank accounts which were given to Mr. Gregoire. The bank statement found in Ms. Cordani’s vehicle showed that the amounts recorded in the note were the exact amounts in those two bank accounts at that time. Ms. Cordani specifically referred to her RRSP and gave it to her brother Mr. Cordani.
h) Ms. Cordani provided identifying information such as her social insurance number, the account numbers of her bank accounts, and the address of her apartment.
i) The language of the note conveyed an air of finality.
j) There were three small scribbled out portions in the note. Given their brevity and placement at the beginning of sentences, and the text that follows, the court was satisfied they were not a wavering of what was intended.
k) Ms. Cordani left nothing to her two other brothers and mother, consistent with the discussions that Mr. Gregoire states he had with Ms. Cordani to the effect that she had decided to “cut out” these people from her life.
l) Both Mr. Gregoire and Michael Cordani stated they had discussions with Ms. Cordani regarding her testamentary intentions. Mr. Gregoire states that he and Ms. Cordani had discussed executing wills, but had not had the opportunity to do this.
m) There were no allegations of testamentary incapacity or undue influence.
Weighing all of the above, the court concluded that the suicide note represented the fixed and final testamentary intentions of Ms. Cordani as to the disposal of her property on death, and ordered the note is fully effective as the will of Ms. Cordani. Given that Mr. Gregoire and Michael Cordani acted reasonably in bringing and responding to the WESA s. 58 petition, both were entitled their special costs of the petition payable out of the estate, pursuant to the usual costs rule in BC estate ligation (see here for posts from our Vancouver estate lawyers on ligation costs).
Bottom line on whether a handwritten document can be a valid will
A handwritten document such as a suicide note which does not meet the formal requirements for a BC will may be effective as the last will of a deceased if the court is satisfied on a balance of probabilities, first that the document is authentic, and second that the document records the deceased’s deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to disposal of his or her property on death.