The recent Saskatchewan Court of Appeal decision in Bell v Bell, 2023 SKCA 53 upheld a Court of Queen’s Bench decision, in which a Chambers Judge had dismissed a will challenge.

Factual background:

In his application in Queen’s Bench, Wayne Bell had challenged the will of his mother, Laurette Bell. Wayne had argued that Laurette lacked testamentary capacity and was unduly influenced at the time of her will’s execution on January 8, 2020 (“Will”). The Will effectively excluded Wayne and his immediate family as beneficiaries to Laurette’s estate.

The relevant factual background before the Court included the below:

  1. Several years before Laurette’s death, a rift arose between her, Wayne, and his siblings, primarily over two matters. The first matter involved an allegation that Wayne misused business funds and assets for his and his immediate family’s personal use.  The second matter was a conflict between Laurette and Wayne’s daughter Dawn, over an allegedly unpaid loan owed by Dawn to Laurette. Dawn asserted that she had repaid the loan in full in October of 2004. However, Laurette remained doubtful as to whether it had in fact been repaid;
  2. In January of 2020, Laurette executed the Will, at age 87. She specified that Wayne and his children were not to receive any portion of her estate. She did so with the assistance of lawyer Wayne Bernakevitch, who noted no issues with Laurette’s testamentary capacity. At the same time, she raised concerns with Mr. Bernakevitch about Wayne’s conduct in relation to the business;
  3. Laurette had executed a different will approximately four months prior, also with Mr. Bernakevitch’s assistance;
  4. In his evidence relating to capacity, Wayne noted that Laurette was very elderly, and was increasingly forgetful, and had on one occasion, just months prior to the execution of the Will, become confused and disoriented after attending a coin shop;
  5. On the issue of undue influence, Wayne asserted that his brothers had made disparaging comments about him to Laurette, specifically alleging that he misused business funds and assets. He argued this was evidence that Laurette was unduly influenced;
  6. However, the evidence of Wayne’s siblings was that Laurette was capable and independent until shortly before her death in August of 2021. Her son Garth had moved in with Laurette in December of 2020, and remained until she moved into a care home and subsequently palliative care. Garth deposed that Laurette made all her own decisions, booked her own appointments, paid all her bills, and expressed her wishes clearly until the date of her death;
  7. The lawyer who drafted the Will, Mr. Bernakevitch, deposed that, upon execution of the Will, he made note that Laurette was “quite competent and quite adamant about” her exclusion of Wayne and his immediate family from the Will. Mr. Bernakevitch noted that when Dawn raised in a letter to Mr. Bernakevitch the issue of undue influence in relation to the alleged loan, Mr. Bernakevitch recorded in his notes “undue influence on her is unfair to her. She is very capable and doing this of her own initiative”. Bernakevitch further averred that Laurette was concerned about Wayne misusing business funds, as well as the debt she believed Dawn owed her.

In his appeal, Wayne focused on two grounds of appeal:

  1. Did the Chambers judge err by improperly weighing controverted evidence and making credibility findings?
  2. Did the Chambers judge err by misapprehending the evidence or disregarding material evidence?
Decision of the Court of Appeal:

Issue 1: Did the Chambers judge err by improperly weighing controverted evidence and making credibility findings?

On the first issue, the Court of Appeal held that the Chambers Judge had been careful not to determine contested points, including whether the loan to Dawn had in fact been repaid, or whether Wayne had misappropriated assets and funds of the business. Rather, the Chambers Judge remained focused on whether Wayne had adduced some evidence that could negate testamentary capacity or tend to prove undue influence.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal concluded that at no point in his analysis did the Chambers Judge overstep the confines of this stage one evidentiary focus.

Basically, the Chambers Judge assessed Wayne’s allegations in their most favourable light, but held that such allegations still did not amount to “any evidence which, if accepted at trial, would tend to negate testamentary capacity or establish undue influence”.

The Court of Appeal appeared to agree that the below allegations by Wayne simply did not raise a genuine issue of capacity or undue influence:

  1. Regarding the loan to Dawn, even if Laurette was mistaken in the belief that the loan was still outstanding, it did not lead to the conclusion that Laurette was not competent to execute the Will. The Chambers Judge concluded that many people forget details of the past, and the fact that one may have been mistaken does not mean that a person is incompetent or not capable of executing a valid will;
  2. Even if Laurette had forgotten some names and may have gone in the wrong direction after leaving a coin shop on one or more occasions, this was not evidence of a lack of testamentary capacity (i.e. capacity about one’s property and intentions for it);
  3. Even if Laurette was wrong about her presumptions and perceptions about Wayne, there was no evidence that there was influence that would have overburdened her will.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal agreed that the Chambers Judge had been faced with no conflicting evidence on relevant points. There was uncontroverted relevant first-hand information from all of Laurette’s children (except for Wayne and Melanie). Moreover, Bernakevitch, a senior lawyer, had met with Laurette and had found her to have testamentary capacity.

In short, the Chambers Judge had properly been careful not to weigh conflicting evidence or make findings of credibility. The Chambers Judge had enough uncontroverted evidence before him, to enable him to “weed” out a claim that did not have sufficient merit to proceed to trial.

Issue 2: Did the Chambers Judge err by misapprehending the evidence or disregarding material evidence?

Further, Wayne argued that the Chambers judge had disregarded material evidence which demonstrated “suspicious circumstances”, and called for a trial. Wayne pointed to the following evidence:

  1. Laurette had executed a different will four months prior in 2019;
  2. Wayne’s brothers admitted to discussing with Laurette allegations that Wayne misused business assets and funds prior to the execution of the Will;
  3. Bernakevitch was aware of the Bell family conflict but asked no specific questions to assess undue influence or Laurette’s competency at the time of the Will; and
  4. Wayne deposed to a conversation in which Laurette’s daughter, Linda, had expressed concerns with Laurette’s mental state, and that Linda did not specifically deny having that conversation in her affidavit (despite her other comments that she viewed her mother to be capable and competent until her death).

Wayne essentially argued that these facts were suspicious, and called for cross-examination (which a trial process would offer).

However, the Court of Appeal held that the Chambers Judge had not disregarded material evidence. The Chambers Judge was alive to all material evidence, but had properly concluded that such evidence did not negate testamentary capacity or supporting undue influence.

For example, the Court of Appeal simply did not find it suspicious that Laurette had executed two wills in the space of approximately four months. The Court of Appeal also rejected the argument that Mr. Bernakevitch should have questioned Laurette more rigorously about her family dynamics at the time of the execution of the Will. Such an argument did not properly reflect that the evidentiary onus here was on Wayne alone.

As such, there had been no requirement in law for cross-examination to reconcile all collateral and narrative aspects of both sides. On the crucial points – that of testamentary capacity and voluntariness at the making of the Will – the Chambers Judge had properly concluded that the firsthand evidence was uncontroverted.


Bell is an example of a case where the challenger no doubt had genuine concerns about what caused his mother to remove him from the Will. Such is a natural emotional reaction. That said, Bell reminds us that circumstantial concerns about unexplained actions by a testator (even if the testator’s actions are shocking to a disinherited family member) are not the same as firsthand evidence of incapacity or actual coercion on the date of the signing of the Will.

Courts will generally require firsthand evidence of incapacity, or of coercion before the Court will subject a Will to the expense and delay of trial. If a challenger adduces evidence which is more circumstantial, than firsthand, the Courts may find that there is no genuine issue.