Unjust Enrichment and Claims Against an Estate

The recent Superior Court decision of Lata v. Rush et al. provides an interesting reminder of how difficult it is to attack a properly prepared Will, and the circumstances under which a claim for unjust enrichment might still be available to someone who feels short-changed by a deceased. 

Helen Oshchytok died in 2001 at the age of 64 for reasons related to her chronic alcoholism. 

Helen had executed a Will in October, 1997 which included a bequest to her relative, the Plaintiff, Leszek Lata, of a house in Etobicoke. 

Three months before her death, in November, 2000, she executed a new Will giving the house to a friend of hers, Dennis Weber.  Her new Will provided that Lata would receive the sum of $50,000 instead of the house.

After her death, Lata sued Weber, another beneficiary, and the lawyer who had drawn the new Will.  The lawyer died before the trial started, and the trial proceeded only against Weber and other beneficiary.

The deceased had never married and had no children.  She had a long history of alcoholism and had been unable to work for many years. 

Lata was her second cousin.  He was born in Poland and came to Canada in January, 1990.  The deceased and her mother, Nancy Oshchytok, helped with his immigration.  When he arrived, he moved into a small basement apartment in Nancy’s home for which he paid a small amount of rent.  As Nancy was in ill health, Lata cared for her and assisted her free of charge.  Even though he had a full time job, he cleaned the house, did maintenance work and provided personal care. 

Two years later, Lata’s wife and son joined him from Poland.  They continued to live in the basement apartment, and Lata’s wife took over Nancy’s full time personal care. 

One year later, Lata’s wife became pregnant and on the advice of her obstetrician, they moved out of the house so that Lata’s wife could stop doing heavy work that might endanger the baby. Helen then arranged for another couple to move into the house and care for Nancy.

Lata and his wife continued to visit Nancy until her death seven years later.  After that, they had very little contact with Helen. 

According to Lata, Helen and her mother both promised to leave to Lata a house that Helen and her mother owned in Etobicoke in return of the services that he and his wife had provided to Nancy.  Originally, Helen had done exactly that in her 1997 Will.

However, she apparently changed her mind three months before her death, substituting the sum of $50,000 for the house. 

When she died, Helen’s estate was worth about $1 million.  Most of the assets in the estate had been inherited from Nancy.  Most of the estate was left to Weber and another beneficiary, neither of whom were related to Helen.  Weber had done maintenance work and repairs for some of her rental properties. 

Lata challenged Helen’s competence and testamentary capacity and argued that she was unduly influenced by Weber to change her Will.  Alternatively, he argued that she had forgotten her previous obligations and promises to him when she made her new Will, and they should now be given effect.

The trial involved seven days of testimony.  By the end of it, the Court was easily satisfied that Helen knew exactly what she was doing when she changed her Will, and that no one had exercised any undue influence over her.  It was proven clearly that Helen had been upset with Lata for moving out of the basement apartment and ceasing to care for Nancy.

While Helen had acknowledged an intention to provide Lata with the house in Etobicoke, she had apparently indicated to her lawyer and his legal assistant at the time that she changed her Will that Lata did not want the house and would never live in that neighbourhood anyway.  She apparently felt that $50,000 would represent a reasonable down payment for Lata to put on another house of his own choosing.  She felt even more justified in making this change because of Lata’s failure to visit her after Nancy’s death.

As a result, the bequests contained in the Will were upheld by the Court.

Of particular interest, however, is the claim put forward by Lata to quantum meruit damages based on unjust enrichment.  In essence, Lata claimed to have provided housekeeping and personal care services for a number of years, without compensation, and that he was now entitled to such compensation on some reasonable basis. 

As any such compensation stood to come out of Weber’s share of the estate, Weber argued that Lata had agreed to care for Nancy in exchange for assistance in helping him immigrate to Canada.  Weber took the position that Lata had abandoned Nancy when Lata’s wife had become pregnant and thereafter were not at all close to Helen and provided no further services to Nancy.  He argued that the promises to leave the house to Lata were gratuitous promises that were not enforceable.  Finally, he argued that if Lata was entitled to compensation for services rendered, the $50,000 bequest left to him by Helen was more than enough to satisfy any such claim.

The Court accepted Lata’s evidence that he had been promised the house on a number of occasions.  The Court also accepted his evidence that he and his wife had performed valuable services for Nancy, and therefore indirectly for Helen, by caring for Nancy while they lived in her home for about 3 ½ years.  However, the judge did not consider those promises to have established any rights to the Etobicoke property because there was no direct link between his contribution and the property itself. 

However, the judge did conclude that Lata had established a valid claim for compensation for the services and care that he had provided to Nancy, and accordingly that he was entitled to payment for those services. 

At trial, Lata failed to provide any evidence of the monetary value of the services that he rendered in the 3 ½ year period.  The judge felt that in order to award him anything more than $50,000, there would have to be evidence establishing in the value of those services.  In the absence of any such evidence, the judge was unable to conclude that the $50,000 was not adequate compensation and accordingly, the action was dismissed.

The case is interesting for at least two reasons. 

Firstly, it demonstrates that in appropriate circumstances, an aggrieved party (whether a beneficiary or not) can sue an estate and seek compensation for services not appropriate recognized by the deceased.  The fact that the party that will essentially pay the bill is an otherwise innocent beneficiary, since the payment will have to come out of the funds otherwise going to the beneficiary, is irrelevant. 

Secondly, the case demonstrates the flexibility of the equitable remedy of unjust enrichment.  Here we had services rendered to the deceased’s mother, for which compensation was found to be appropriate.  There was very little evidence of the benefit realized by the deceased, from which the compensation was to be paid.  Presumably, a claim for compensation was postponed after Nancy passed away because of the promise made by Helen to leave the Etobicoke house to Lata as compensation for his services.  When that promise was not fulfilled, the Court had no difficulty finding that compensation was payable out of Helen’s estate, even though the services had been rendered to someone other than Helen. 

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