This article concerns the recent British Columbia Court of Appeal decision in Bergler v Odenthal, 2020 BCCA 175 [“Bergler] The appeal concerned the validity of a “secret trust” that Ms. Stuhff, now deceased, had allegedly imposed on her common-law partner, Mr. Odenthal. Secret trusts contain two essential features: “communication by the deceased person to his or her devisee, legatee or intestate heir, and an acceptance by that person of the request that he or she will hold the property in trust for the stated person or purposes.”[1] Acceptance may occur in the form of silence. The secret trust must also meet the usual trust requirements of certainty of intention, objects, and subject-matter.

 

The trial judge held that Mr. Odenthal had accepted Ms. Stuhff’s request that her estate would go to her niece, Susanne Bergler. The trial judge determined the acceptance occurred at the hospital shortly before Ms. Stuhff’s death. Ms. Stuhff’s niece and sister testified that in the days leading to Ms. Stuhff’s death, Mr. Odenthal had told them that Ms. Stuhff told him that she wanted her estate to go to her niece, Susanne. Susanne did not have a career or a home and wanted to go back to school. Ms. Stuhff’s sister testified that Ms. Stuhff told her that Mr. Odenthal was to transfer her estate to the Bergler family when he started a relationship with a new partner.

 

A conflict arose concerning when the estate was to be transferred to the Bergler family. Mr. Odenthal claimed he was to hold Ms. Stuhff’s assets until his death (he was 51 years old). After Ms. Stuhff’s death, Mr. Odenthal received the entire estate as heir on intestacy. He later married and removed Susanne as a beneficiary under his will, leaving nothing to the Bergler family. A relative of Ms. Stuhff testified that he overheard Ms. Stuhff tell Mr. Odenthal that when he ‘had a new chick’, she wanted ‘all her money’ to go back to her family.[2] The relative said he did not hear Mr. Odenthal object to the request. The trial judge found the relative’s evidence to be reliable. According to Mr. Odenthal’s testimony, he told Ms. Stuhff that he would abide by her wishes concerning the distribution of her estate. The trial judge held that this constituted the requisite acceptance for the creation of a secret trust.

 

On appeal, Mr. Odenthal claimed there was no evidence of his acceptance of the secret trust. The Court held that the trial judge did not err in finding that Mr. Odenthal had accepted the secret trust. He was required to transfer the assets either upon death or upon entering into a new relationship, whichever came first. A secondary issue on appeal concerned a property owned in joint tenancy by Ms. Stuhff and Mr. Odenthal. Mr. Odenthal claimed it passed to him automatically upon her death and, as a result, never became part of her estate. The Court held that the creation of the secret trust severed the joint tenancy and that once the secret trust came into existence, “nothing was left to pass by the intestacy to the defendant”.[3] The Court upheld the trial judge’s decision and dismissed the appeal.

[1] Bergler at para 2.

[2] Ibid at para 5.

[3] Ibid at para 40.