There’s one thing that Lionel Tupman wished he’d known in law school: that estate law is a litigator’s dream. As a student, he was only aware of the solicitor side of the practice area, which includes — to name a few examples — preparing wills, estate planning, trusts and powers of attorney. And, frankly, he found those tasks boring.
But after graduation, he found a job at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (which later merged with Dentons) in Toronto. He quickly learned that the barrister side of the practice area — which deals, in general, with contested wills or trusts and disputes among beneficiaries — is fascinating. “The work is never dull,” says Tupman, “There is so much human emotion to it.” Some cases include allegations of undue influence, where one party claims that a will was created under duress or coercion; in other cases, a power of attorney might have abused that authority (“Mum’s got $3 million in the bank and not using it — maybe I’ll just help myself to it”).
One year ago, he co-founded his own estate-litigation firm: Tupman & Bloom LLP. The firm has already increased in size and currently has five lawyers. Tupman says that estate litigation is a rapidly expanding field and he anticipates further growth. He also plans to take on an articling student. Here, he explains what it takes to excel in estate law and why it’s one of the fastest growing practice areas.
What’s a typical day like in estate litigation?
“At our firm, someone is in court at least three days out of every a week,” says Tupman. “And we split the rest of the time between drafting and meeting with clients, either at the office or on the phone.”
Can you describe a memorable case?
Tupman once had a client whose parent had died two years earlier with an estate worth more than $5 million. The client was completely in the dark: he hadn’t seen the will or heard from the relative who had been named estate trustee.
So Tupman started by writing letters directly to the trustee, who wasn’t forthcoming. Next, he asked the court to provide a copy of the will and a timeline for the distribution of the assets.
“When we got the accounting, it was clear that the trustee was helping himself to the money,” says Tupman. He then argued that the trustee had breached his fiduciary duty and, in the end, his client received the inheritance to which he was entitled.
Tupman explains that this case is emblematic of his broader practice. “More and more, people are accused of, or they actually do, have their hand in the cookie jar,” he says. His firm acts for both fiduciaries and beneficiaries engaged in disputes of this nature.
What kind of lawyer would be well suited to estate law?
It’s critical to have a solid combination of academic knowledge and emotional intelligence. Emotions often run high. “The root of a dispute can go back 30 years,” says Tupman. “Even when clients get what they want, they may never repair the damage that the dispute has done to their relationships.” It’s also essential to know the Rules of Civil Procedure thoroughly, since this area is complicated and often involves emergency issues requiring real-time litigation.
What’s the job market like in this area?
In Toronto, we’re on the cusp of a massive wave of estate-law litigation. There are two central reasons: demographics (the aging baby boomers) and sky-high home prices. “With most homes in Toronto now worth at least $1 million, most estates are worth fighting over,” says Tupman. “There’s so much work in the area that it’s not uncommon for estate lawyers with three of four years of experience to set up their own practice.”
What do you like best about your work?
“I like when we’re able to uncover mysteries and right the wrong somebody’s doing,” says Tupman. “We’re not caped crusaders, but we’re definitely making a difference. In this area, the devil is always in the details. As far as I am concerned, on a daily basis we see some of the most interesting disputes in the profession.”