Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Rule in Cherry v. Boultbee

If you wait too long to sue on a debt, your claim may be statute-barred by the applicable limitation legislation. But can the personal representative of a deceased person require a beneficiary to bring into account an amount the beneficiary owed to the deceased even though the limitation period for the deceased to bring a claim has expired?

The answer in British Columbia is yes.

The principle is known as the rule in Cherry v. Boultbee, and was recently applied by Madam Justice Church in Re: Johnston Estate, 2017 BCSC 272.

The applicant and the respondent in Johnston Estate were the two sons and sole beneficiaries of their father, William Leonide Johnston's will. William Johnston had lent the respondent son $70,000 in 1996 and the respondent had not made any payment since 2000. Under the applicable limitation legislation, William Johnston's claim would have been statute-barred. (There have been significant changes to British Columbia's limitation legislation in respect of debts.) The applicant, as his father's personal representative following his father's death, sought to have a debt brought into account and deducted from his brother's share.

In holding that the applicant was entitled to deduct the amount owing from the respondent's share, Madam Justice Church described the rule in Cherry v. Boultbee as follows:

[28]         The applicant relies on what is commonly referred to as the rule in Cherry v. Boultbee which provides that where a legatee of a share of the residue is a debtor of the estate, he or she is not entitled to receive his or her legacy without bringing his or her debt into account.   The rule derives from the case of Cherry v. Boultbee (1839), 4 My. & Cr. 442.  It is an equitable principle designed to ensure fairness.  The purpose of the rule was to prevent a beneficiary who owed money to an estate from receiving more than his or her fair share of the estate.  In the case of Re: Akerman, Akerman v. Akerman, [1891] 3 Ch. 212, Kekewich J. stated: 

A person who owes an estate money, that is to say, who is bound to increase the general mass of the estate by contribution of his own, cannot claim an aliquot share given to him out of that mass without first making the contribution which completes it.  Nothing is in truth retained by the representative of the estate; nothing is in strict language set off; but the contributor is paid by holding in his own hand a part of the mass, which, if the mass were completed, he would receive back.

[29]         The rule has been held to apply even where the debt is statute-barred: see  Re: Akerman.

The respondent argued that the rule no longer applied in Canada, citing a decision of Mr. Justice Clark in the Alberta case, Re: Moody Estate, 2011 ABQB 222. But Madam Justice Church declined to follow Moody Estate:

[36]         With all due respect to Clark J., I cannot agree with either his reasoning or his conclusion.  In my view, he begins his analysis from the premise that the “rule permits an executor to recoup the amount owing, even though the deceased would have been unable to do so.”  In my view, that is not an accurate description of the application of the rule.  The rule in Cherry v. Boultbee does not confer on the estate any right to recoup the amount owing but rather operates to ensure fairness in the distribution of an estate, recognizing that the relationship between a testator and his or her beneficiaries is typically not at arm’s length.   The fundamental purpose of the rule is to ensure that beneficiaries are treated fairly and it embodies the principal that he who seeks equity must do equity.  As the court noted in Re: Akerman, nothing is being retained by the representative and nothing is being set off but rather, the contributor is paid by what he is holding in his own hand.  The court in Re: Goy & Co Ltd. [1900] 2 Ch. 149, also noted that the claimant has in his own hands that which is applicable to the payment and should pay himself out of that.  The question of whether the testator or the estate can recover the debt or whether the debt is statute barred is therefore largely irrelevant to the application of the rule.  In my view, the change in approach to limitation provisions by the Supreme Court of Canada in Tolofson does not affect the application of the rule in Cherry v. Boultbee.

In the result, the respondent's debt will be brought into account when his father's estate is distributed. 

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