In order to prove a claim in unjust enrichment against an estate, the onus is on the plaintiff to prove on a balance of probabilities a benefit to the estate, a corresponding deprivation to her, and the absence of a juristic reason for the benefit and deprivation. With respect to the first requirement, it cannot be assumed that just because a person incurred time and/or expense that related in some way to estate property, that this actually benefitted the property. It may be that despite the plaintiff’s efforts or expense, they did not actually enhance or maintain the value of the property. If that is the case, there is no claim in unjust enrichment.
This was the case in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Benson v. Power 2021 BCSC 409. In Benson, a mother and father operated a cattle ranch over ten parcels of land near Golden, B.C. until their deaths in 2013 and 2016. The father held nine of the parcels, and the mother held one of the parcels. Both parents left their estate to their four children in equal shares. One of the children died in 2018, but left four children of his own (who as a result would each receive 1/16 of each estate).
One of the daughters, Penny Benson, obtained probate of both estates. Following her father’s death and then her mother’s death, she continued to operate the ranch has her parents had done. In doing so, the court observed that she (1) comingled her personal funds with estate funds, (2) did not act promptly to administer her parents’ estate, and (3) was in a conflict of interest as a result of her stated wish to acquire estate property. She was removed as sole executor by court order, and replaced with a person who was not a beneficiary under the wills.
Ms. Benson discussed with the new executor her desire to purchase certain estate properties. They were unable to reach an agreement, and so the new executor entered into agreements to sell the properties to his half-sister, who was also one of the grandchild beneficiaries who would receive 1/16 of the estate. This included the main ranch property with the family home where the deceased parents had lived. Ms. Benson had resided on this parcel since 1996, and moved from a manufactured home on the parcel to the family home after her parents’ deaths.
To prevent the sale of the property to the grandchild, Ms. Benson started an action alleging a 10% interest the parcel, and filed a certificate of pending litigation against title. She argued unjust enrichment: that her many hours of labour and the contribution of her personal funds have benefitted her father’s estate, particularly the parcel at issue, to her detriment. She argued that from the time her father’s health began to fail, she and her family performed all or almost all of the maintenance work on the estate properties (which she estimates amounted to hundreds of hours). She also claimed to have paid various expenses from her own funds.
As noted above, the onus is on the plaintiff to establish a benefit to the estate, a corresponding deprivation to her, and the absence of a juristic reason for the benefit and deprivation. Ms. Benson argued that her labour and money to continue operating her parents’ ranch benefited her father’s estate (including the parcel at issue), to her detriment. However, the evidence actually established that she operated the ranch at a loss. It was also impossible to say what time and money was necessary or related to the ranch operations, how much was related to Ms. Benson’s own family (including their own cattle), and how much this enhanced the value of the estate parcel (if at all). The court also alluded to (but ultimately did not have to specifically address) the fact that Ms. Benson and her family lived on the parcel rent-free.
As a result, Ms. Benson was unable to establish a benefit to the estate, and therefore was unable to prove a claim in unjust enrichment. Her claim was dismissed, and the certificate of pending litigation was cancelled.
This case is a reminder that just because you are spending time and money in relation to assets or property belonging to an estate, the court will not assume that this is actually a benefit to the estate which entitles you to claim in unjust enrichment. You must actually prove that your work or expense contributed value to the estate property. This may also be further complicated if you are also receiving a personal benefit form your efforts or expense.