He signed a will to give a church his Hamilton condo before dying. His partner calls it 'suspicious'
Church's lawyer says everything was done properly, common-law partner can't get condo by contesting the will
Sixteen days before he died, a Hamilton man was in hospital when he signed a handwritten will giving Saint Mina's Coptic Orthodox Church his condo.
Now, the church is in a court battle against his common-law partner, who argues the will was obtained under "suspicious circumstances."
Court documents obtained by CBC Hamilton show Lianne Liu said she only learned of Alphons Malack Guirgues's emergency will two months after it was executed.
The documents outline why Liu claims the will is invalid and the church used its "undue influence" on her dying partner.
The documents also explain why the church's lawyer says Guirgues, 65, wanted to give the church his condo and argues that Liu has no legal leg to stand on while challenging the will.
Two expert lawyers who spoke to CBC also provided analysis on the case, saying others can learn from it, to avoid conflict over wills.
"It is an interesting and sad set of facts ... something that seems to possibly be disturbing that needs to be dug into deeper," said Benjamin Arkin, who's with Arkin Furrow Estate Law LLP.
None of the claims have been proven in court.
Guirgues died in Hamilton in the summer of 2021. He was the owner of La Galleria Canada in downtown's Jackson Square, where he sold picture frames and provided passport picture services.
His only family in the city was his common-law partner, court documents seemingly show. His brother and sister were living in Egypt and a niece was in Ontario, according to the documents. A Nov. 30 court filing states it's unclear if any of those relatives were informed of the court battle.
Guirgues and Liu were together for 13 years and had been living together since 2008. She was his primary caregiver.
Court documents state he also had a condo in Hamilton's Ainslie Wood East neighbourhood that he was renting to someone for $1,500 a month. The condo was worth $150,000 and the mortgage wasn't fully paid.
Man's health was deteriorating before will
Guirgues had been a member of Saint Mina's congregation since 2011, according to the court documents.
Saint Mina's is on Rymal Road East, part of the Coptic Orthodox Church based out of Egypt. An affidavit from Rev. Metias Said Ibrahim — the church's priest — states he knew Guirgues for a decade.
An affidavit from Liu said that around June 2013, Guirgues was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. She said the cancer was in its final stages and she provided him "24-hour care."
Liu said that in April 2021, as his condition worsened, she and Guirgues went to a Service Canada office to indicate they were in a common-law relationship.
She said he had hoped Liu would get his pension and his condo when he died. She said he mentioned she'd get the condo numerous other times afterward.
An affidavit from the church's legal representation states Guirgues also transferred his business to Liu in the summer of 2021 before his death.
By June, his health deteriorated and he was in and out of hospitals, according to Liu's affidavit.
He reportedly discussed donating condo
Despite that, an affidavit from the priest says that in June and July 2021, Guirgues occasionally mentioned wanting to transfer his condo to the church.
"This is a very sensitive topic and I did not want to push Alphons so I did not bring the topic up with him again," reads Ibrahim's affidavit.
An affidavit from the church's legal team states that in July 2021, a month before he died, Guirgues spoke to his real estate agent, Chris Maynard, about giving the condo to the church.
"Chris asked Alphons if that was really what he wanted to do with the condo, and he was clear that he wanted to give the condo to the church," reads the affidavit.
The court documents say Guirgues was working in the store at the time, "was of sound mind," and not only wanted to give the condo away, but understood the implications of doing so.
'I don't want to talk to them'
Liu's affidavit said that by August, Guirgues was in hospital.
At that time, she said, the church's priest started showing up to the hospital to visit and would call Guirgues's cellphone. Ibrahim's affidavit said visiting members of the congregation in the hospital was normal.
Liu said that on Aug. 3 — two days before the will was signed — Ibrahim called Guirgues, but he didn't want to answer.
"Alphons immediately began yelling and crying, stating, 'No, no, no, please turn off my phone, I don't want to talk to them, they are crazy people,'" Liu said in the affidavit.
She said Ibrahim called again an hour later, and she told him Guirgues didn't want to talk.
Ibrahim's affidavit doesn't mention a phone call, but it does say he made a visit the next day, Aug. 4, that was unrelated to the condo.
He said Guirgues "urgently wanted a will to give the condo to the church."
"I did not ask Alphons to give the condo to the church. I did not in any way push him or try to convince him," reads the priest's affidavit.
The emergency will
On Aug. 5, Ibrahim said he returned to the hospital with someone named Aziz Abdelmessih to serve as a witness to the will.
Abdelmessih's affidavit said he knew Guirgues from church and said he's a member of the congregation.
Abdelmessih said Guirgues appeared "to be someone who was about to pass away," but also said he was "fully awake, conscious and aware of what was going on."
He said Guirgues got up and left this room in a wheelchair before signing the "emergency will" in the hospital.
The will, handwritten on a lined sheet of paper, states Guirgues was "fully lucid" at the time and wanted to give the church the condo for free.
"This is my will, free of any inducement or threat signed by myself," reads the will.
Abdelmessih said in his affidavit that he recorded a video of Guirgues signing the will.
Court documents show Liu's lawyers believe something else happened.
"It is believed that Mr. Guirgues was removed from the hospital and taken to an unknown location," the court documents read.
Affidavits from the church's lawyers also state Guirgues reportedly has a condo in the United Kingdom that he gave away to another Coptic Orthodox Church.
Alia Khan, the Hamilton church's lawyer, told CBC Hamilton she has no evidence to prove the claim.
Defence says Liu has no legal right to condo
Khan said the law states that because Liu wasn't married to Guirgues, even if the will is determined to be invalid, she still wouldn't inherit anything.
The court documents don't mention Guirgues having a will before the emergency will.
If he didn't have a will and the emergency will is declared invalid, Guirgues's brother, sister and niece would inherit the condo, according to Ontario government rules — and Liu would not, since the couple were common law.
Khan also argued that Liu has no legal standing to challenge the will. Liu's legal team disagreed with her in the email exchange.
Instead, Khan said, Liu should be proceeding with a dependency claim, which could see her get financial relief for caring for Guirgues.
Expert lawyers weigh in
Charles Ticker, an estate mediator and litigator, and Arkin, with Arkin Furrow Estate Law LLP, told CBC that Liu won't directly benefit from challenging the will because she won't inherit the condo.
Liu would also have to show she has a financial interest in the condo if she wants to contest the will.
Arkin noted she could make a claim to see through the promise Guirgues allegedly made to give her the condo — which is called a proprietary estoppel. Ticker said that's separate from a will challenge.
Ticker said the claim for dependent support could actually see the court transfer the condo's title to Liu.
The court documents state that if Liu doesn't make a dependant support claim by Jan. 31, she would have missed the deadline to do so.
Matthew Marantz, Liu's lawyer, said in a statement to CBC that Liu "continues to consider her legal options."
Arkin said the case offers a major takeaway for others.
"If you don't carefully consider your estate planning, there's a stronger possibility your family, friends and others around you are going to end up in a fight over your estate."