All About Estates

Incomplete and Unprocessed Beneficiary Designation Held Valid

Anna Chen, Associate, Gowling WLG (Canada) LLP

In the recent decision, The Estate of William Harper,[1] the Court was asked to determine whether a two page beneficiary designation form that was missing its first page (the page on which the account number would be indicated) and not processed by the financial institution was valid.


William Harper, deceased (the “Deceased”), died on September 5, 2019.  At the time of his death, he was separated from his spouse Dona Jean Murphy (“Murphy”).  The couple had one child, Robin Harper-Slate (“Harper-Slate”).  Murphy also has a daughter from a previous relationship, Erin Forsyth (“Forsyth”).  The Deceased did not formally adopt Forsyth.  The Deceased died intestate, and therefore Murphy and Harper-Slate were the only beneficiaries of the Deceased’s estate.

The Deceased held three accounts at National Bank Financial (“NBF”), a cash account, a registered retirement savings plan account (the “RRSP”), and a life income fund account (the “LIF”).  At issue in the proceeding was a beneficiary designation form (the “Disputed Form”) that appeared to designate Forsyth as the beneficiary of the Deceased’s RRSP.  The Estate was previously the designated beneficiary for the Deceased’s RRSP.

The Disputed Form had the following issues:

  • It is a two-page document but it is missing the first page (on which the account number would be indicated);
  • It was never processed by NBF and NBF could not locate a copy in its records, and as a result, its statements and records indicate the Deceased’s estate remained the beneficiary of the RRSP; and
  • The copy of the Disputed Form in the Deceased’s financial advisor’s possession is different than the copy in the possession of Forsyth, whereby the former had more information.

There was evidence that the Deceased had contacted a lawyer to prepare a will in the months before his death to leave his estate to Forsyth.  The lawyer provided a draft will that she recommended he reproduce in holographic form before a more up-to-date formal will could be drafted and signed.  On June 19, 2019, the Deceased’s lawyer emailed him and told him that if he did not sign a new will, then Murphy would be entitled to the first preferential share of $200,000 of his estate, the residue would be divided equally between Murphy and Harper-Slate, and Forsyth would receive the RRSP by virtue of being the named beneficiary.


Issue #1:  Can the designation be valid if it was not located by the financial institution?

Answer #1: Yes.

In answering this question, the Court referred to the decision of Ray-Ellis v Goodtrack et al.[2]  In Ray-Ellis, the original beneficiary designation form (changing the beneficiary from the deceased’s wife to the deceased’s parents) was never located and the wife remained the beneficiary on the deceased’s locked-in retirement account.  In that case, the Court held that the Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”)[3] does not require that a beneficiary designation form be registered or even sent to the banking institution.  As long as the statutory requirements of the beneficiary designation are fulfilled, it does not matter that the original cannot be located by the bank.  Following this decision, the Court in Harper also held that the fact that the Disputed Form cannot be located by NBF is of no consequence.

Issue #2:  Is the Disputed Form Valid?

Answer #2:  Yes.

Murphy argued that the Disputed Form was invalid for a number of reasons: (a) it was vague as it was missing its first page and that was the page on which the account number would be indicated; (b) the financial advisor’s evidence was unreliable; (c) the authenticity of the Disputed Form was disputed; and (d) the intent of the Deceased was not clear.

The Court did not agree that the Disputed Form was vague, if viewed in the context of all evidence.  The requirements under s. 51(1) of the SLRA state that a beneficiary designation can be by way of a signed instrument or by will.  Under s. 51(2), it states that a designation under a will is effective only if it relates expressly to a plan, either generally or specifically.  It does not contain the same requirement with respect to an instrument, presumably because that instrument is assumed to expressly relate to a particular plan.

The Court held that by relying just on the Disputed Form itself and evidence provided by NBF, the Disputed Form was clearly to change the beneficiary designation for an RRSP account at NBF, and the Deceased only had one RRSP account at NBF.  Further, the Court held that the designation reflected the Deceased’s intention based on the communication between the Deceased and his lawyer.  The Deceased signed the Disputed Form making Forsyth the beneficiary of the RRSP only.  He was aware as late as June 2019, that without doing anything else, that would be the extent of Forsyth’s inheritance.

In respect to the issue of the copies of the Disputed Form being different, the Court held that they appear to be the same form but the financial advisor’s copy had more information.  The Court held that it appeared Forsyth’s copy was not the full copy as the Deceased added more information to the form before he gave it to his financial advisor.  This evidence was not challenged by the other parties and no one disputed the signature was the Deceased’s.

The Court therefore held that the Disputed Form is sufficient in the circumstances to designate as a beneficiary for the RRSP as contemplated by s. 51 of the SLRA.  The Court accordingly ordered that Forsyth is the beneficiary of the RRSP.

[1] The Estate of William Harper, 2024 ONSC 1052.

[2] Ray-Ellis v Goodtrack et al., 2021 ONSC 3102

[3] Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S. 26.

About Gowling WLG LLP


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.