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A $50 million painting of Shakespeare – the administration of estates involving one of a kind assets

A case review of Meuse v. Taylor1

The main asset of the estate of Mary Sullivan is the Sanders Portrait, a 400 year old portrait purportedly of William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime and has been appraised at $50 million USD.

Ms. Sullivan died on April 6, 2020. Her last will and testament named her husband as the executor of her estate and in the event he predeceased her – which he did – her cousin. Ms. Sullivan’s cousin renounced, which left the second alternate, her long-time accountant Mr. Taylor, to administer the estate.

Mr. Taylor accepted the appointment and five months later was met with an application brought by Mr. Meuse (a beneficiary) who sought to remove him.

Mr. Meuse advanced an interesting, albeit unsuccessful argument. He argued that achieving the maximum value of the Sanders Portrait is the key issue for the Estate and that Mr. Taylor lacks the expertise and competence to obtain a fair market value for the Portrait. Mr. Meuse was supported by the residuary beneficiaries of the estate. Mr. Meuse argued that he would be a better choice.

Justice Gomery dismissed Mr. Meuse’s application and, in doing so, clarified a fundamental aspect of the law with respect to executors and estate trustees.

At paragraph 16 of his decision, Justice Gomery writes:

“A good deal of Mr. Meuse’s argument on this application focussed on why he would be a better choice than Mr. Taylor as the trustee of Mrs. Sullivan’s Estate. This application however, is not a beauty contest between the parties. My task is not to decide whether Mr. Meuse is better qualified than Mr. Taylor to sell the Sanders Portrait, whether the beneficiaries have more confidence in him, or whether he would otherwise be a better estate trustee than Mr. Taylor. Approaching the application this way would amount to second-guessing Mrs. Sullivan’s choice of trustee. The choice of trustee is presumptively good unless there is compelling evidence that leads me to conclude that allowing Mr. Taylor to continue in this role endangers the Estate. If I reach this conclusion, then and only then would I consider whether Mr. Meuse should replace Mr. Taylor”.2

Justice Gomery’s comments capture the crux of the issue – it is not a beauty contest. The question is not whether the estate trustee chosen by the deceased is the most qualified person for the job. Rather the deceased’s choice should be honoured unless doing so endangers the estate.

Mr. Meuse’s argument – that Mr. Taylor should be removed because he has no specialized knowledge of Elizabethan art or the sale of such art – is founded on a fundamental misapprehension of the role of an estate trustee in general and the role of the trustee of this particular estate.

“A trustee is not expected to have subject-matter expertise about the estate’s assets, experience in administering estates, or any particular training or education…what is important is that the testator had confidence that the individual appointed will carry out the wishes expressed in their will”.3

Meuse v. Taylor is an important illustration of the principles of testamentary freedom. Testamentary autonomy is not just the freedom to choose your heirs, it also includes the freedom to choose who you entrust with the important responsibility of carrying out the wishes expressed in your will.

For an in-depth analysis of whether a trustee can be removed without evidence of bad behaviour, we refer you to Peter Askew’s blog on the topic.

For an in-depth discussion of the removal of an executor for substantial breach of trust, we refer you to James Dunphy’s blog on the topic.

We also refer you to the author’s 2019 blog – Do Conflicts of Interest warrant removal of an Executor for additional reading on the topic.

Footnotes
  1.   2022 ONSC 1436
     
  2.   2022 ONSC 1436 at para. 16
     
  3.   2022 ONSC 1436 at para. 43
     

The author of this blog is David Wagner. David is a partner at Wagner Sidlofsky LLP.

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This blog is not intended to serve as a comprehensive treatment of the topic. It is not meant to be legal advice. Every case turns on its specific facts and it would be a mistake for the reader of this blog to conclude how it might impact on the reader’s case. Nothing replaces retaining a qualified, competent lawyer, well versed in this niche area of practice and getting some good legal advice.
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