The recent decision in Whelan v Chaszewski, 2021 SKQB 286 offers guidance for a situation in which two competing parties want to be appointed to administer an estate. The lesson from Whelan is that a court will not generally appoint a party who has a potential conflict of interest in the Estate (that is, a conflict between their interest personally, and their interest as a neutral administrator).
Michelle Whelan and Peter Chaszewski applied to be appointed as administrators of the Estate of their father Michael Chaszewski. Michelle and Peter also sought an order against their adoptive brother, David Chaszewski, including an inquiry into David’s actions relating to the estate since 2015, and an order evicting David from the mobile home owned by the Estate.
David in turn applied for his own order appointing him as administrator of the Estate.
The facts may be summarized as follows:
- Michael Chaszewski had passed away on March 6, 2015;
- The deceased died without a will;
- Michelle and Peter are the deceased’s biological children and David was his adopted son;
- After Michael’s passing, David moved into the Residence with his family. He did not pay rent to the Estate;
- Shortly after David moved into the Residence, Peter asked David to pay $500 per month as rent for his use of the Residence until the Estate was settled. David refused unless it was part of a legal settlement of the Estate;
- David did what he describes as extensive renovations on the Residence. He paid all property taxes, fire insurance, utilities, and maintenance costs since moving in. David also began taking care of the Estate, albeit without any formal authority to do so. He dealt with Michael’s personal items, paid a small mortgage on the Residence and some outstanding utilities and looked after property taxes etc;
- In July of 2021, Michelle and Peter filed an application for letters of administration in SUR 134 of 2021, Judicial Centre of Estevan;
- There had never been a distribution from the Estate. David said that he hoped to obtain a loan to pay out Michelle and Peter’s share of the Residence once the Estate can be lawfully administered, and that he intended to continue to reside there.
The most important issue before the Court was who would be appointed as administrators of the Estate.
The Court first identified the test which governed the appointment of an administrator where there were competing applications. The Court adopted the following test:
- The first duty of the court is to place the administration of an estate in the hands of the person who is likely best able or best suited to convert it;
- An administrator must act with “detachment and even handedness” not be tainted by an actual or perceived conflict of interest.
The court recognized that there were some factors which favored David’s application to be appointed administrator. David had stepped in and began administering the estate when no one else was doing so. He had information about the Estate. In addition, David lived in the jurisdiction where the assets are located.
However, the court decided not to appoint David. The Court held that the key consideration was the ability to convert the assets of the Estate to the advantage of the beneficiaries – including by making the appropriate necessary distributions. The Residence is by far the largest asset of the Estate. It belonged to all those who are beneficially entitled to the Estate.
The Court held that David was not focused on the best interests of the Estate. The Court found the below facts:
- David’s resistance to paying occupation rent showed that David had not been focused on realizing the best value for the beneficiaries in a timely way;
- The biggest issue was that David was not taking any steps to realize the value of the Residence and to distribute it to the beneficiaries. Michelle and Peter were however motivated to do so;
- David was in a conflict of interest position which compromised his ability to be neutral and made it inappropriate for him to be appointed as administrator. He was conflicted in at least four particular ways:
- Michelle and Peter want to sell the Residence so its value can be realized and distributed, while David wants to continue to live there;
- It was in David’s interests that the purchase price or value of the Residence to be divided is as small as possible, as he intends to keep the property and may be able to keep the difference between the current market value of the Residence and the amount paid out to the other beneficiaries;
- Michelle and Peter want to receive occupation rent for the six years that David has been living in the Residence, which David does not want to pay; and
- If occupation rent is to be paid, it was in David’s interests for the amount of that rent to be as low as possible, while it was in Michelle and Peter’s interests for the rent to be as high as possible.
As such, David was in a conflict-of-interest position which compromised his ability to be neutral. He should therefore not be administrator.
The Court also ordered that David provide an accounting. It noted that David had had de facto control over the Estate since Michael’s death in March of 2015. His dealings with Estate property are entirely within his knowledge, and for this reason, it is appropriate that he provide a formal accounting of his actions.
Whelan reminds beneficiaries that they cannot take the law into their own hands. Here, David had no right to simply “move into” the home after the deceased died. David needed first to obtain the agreement of all beneficiaries. Because David unilaterally moved in and then became potentially indebted to the Estate for rent, David was in a conflicted position as a potential administrator.