In Meuse v. Taylor, 2022 ONSC 1436, the Court considered the grounds for removing an estate trustee.
The events giving rise to the Application involved a purported portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. If authenticated by an interested buyer, the portrait had a potential value of USD $50,000,000; if simply a 400-year of painting, the value would be far less.
The portrait was the primary asset of the estate of Mary Sullivan. The respondent, David Taylor, the testator’s long-time accountant, was the sole executor of the estate. Jim Meuse, a beneficiary of the estate, considered Mr. Taylor unqualified to realize the portrait’s value or otherwise administer the estate, and so brought an application to remove and replace Mr. Taylor as estate trustee.
Various individuals and professional firms claimed an entitlement to the eventual sale proceeds of the portrait, including members of the Sullivan family with an ownership claim, and a major law firm, Gowlings WLG LLP, who provided legal services in connection with the portrait in the amount of approximately $1,000,000.
Legal Principles Relevant to Trustee Removal
In considering the application, the court reviewed the law applicable to trustee removal. The court is empowered to appoint a new trustee in substitution or in addition to an existing trustee under s.5 of the Trustee Act and also has the inherent jurisdiction to do so.
The principles applicable to removing executors are:
(1) the court will not lightly interfere with the testator’s choice of estate trustee;
(2) clear evidence is required that removal of the trustee is necessary;
(3) the court’s main consideration is the welfare of the beneficiaries; and
(4) the estate trustee’s acts or omissions must be of such a nature as to endanger the administration of the trust.
Removal should only result on the clearest of evidence. It is not sufficient for the applicant to show that the trustee made mistakes or neglected past duties. The standard is not perfection; rather, the question is whether the estate is likely to be administered properly, in accordance with the trustee’s fiduciary duties, and with due regard to the interests of the beneficiaries. Removal is not intended to punish the trustee for past misconduct but rather to protect the assets of the trust and the interests of the beneficiaries.
The preference of the beneficiaries is relevant only to the extent there is evidence of the executor’s hostility toward them or the relationship between the executor and the beneficiaries is so broken that it may impede the administration of the estate. Mere conflict between the executor and the beneficiaries is insufficient to warrant removal.
Applying the above principles to the case at hand, the court noted that its task was not to decide whether Mr. Meuse would be a better choice than Mr. Taylor . This was not a ‘beauty contest’ between the parties and it was not the court’s role to second guess the testator’s decision.
In term of whether Mr. Taylor should be removed, the court referred to the various positive steps Mr. Taylor had already taken since he assumed the role of executor. The court also reviewed and dismissed each of Mr. Meuse’s allegations and complaints against Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Meuse’s primary complaint was that Mr. Taylor was unqualified to administer the estate as he had no specialized knowledge of Elizabethan art or the sale of such art, and so could not make reasonable or informed decisions about the sale of the portrait. The court dismissed this argument as founded upon a fundamental misapprehension about the role of estate trustees. An executor is not required to have subject-matter expertise, or even expertise in administering an estate. If a trustee lacks knowledge or expertise in a relevant area, they can retain the appropriate experts.
In this case, the sale of the portrait, while a critical aspect of the estate’s administration, was only part of the executor’s duties, as the estate administration involved complex legal, accounting, insurance and tax issues. However, a lack of expertise in some relevant areas did not disqualify Mr. Taylor from administering the estate. The court also dismissed Mr. Meuse’s allegation that Mr. Taylor demonstrated incompetence in arranging to sell the portrait, or that Mr. Taylor intended to sell the portrait below its market value or so as to realize its full value for the estate.
The application was therefore dismissed, and the court awarded substantial indemnity costs against Mr. Meuse, due to various unsubstantiated allegations he made against Mr. Taylor, including that Mr. Taylor misled the testator.
A court will presumptively respect a testator’s choice of executor and a beneficiary is not entitled to remove a trustee simply because they question the trustee’s qualifications or believe they could do a better job. To justify removal, there must be clear evidence of the trustee’s misconduct so as to jeopardize the trust property, or clear evidence of the trustee’s hostility toward the beneficiaries that impacts upon the administration of the trust. Absent such evidence, a beneficiary brings such an application at their peril.