In estate litigation, spouses have certain rights and available remedies. If there is a will, the spouse of the deceased is entitled to bring a claim to vary the will if it does not make adequate provision for the surviving spouse. If there is no will (i.e. an intestacy), then the spouse is entitled to a preferential share of the estate.
It is increasingly common to see the issue of standing, i.e. whether a person is actually a “spouse,” make its way before the B.C. Courts. I have previously written on this issue here.
The B.C. Court of Appeal considered this issue again in the recent decision of Mother 1 v. Solus Trust Company Limited 2021 BCCA 461. “Mother 1” asked the Court of Appeal to overturn a decision by the B.C. Supreme Court that she was not a “spouse” of the deceased.
The deceased died in 2015 without a will. His Canadian estate was estimated to be worth up to $21 million. In British Columbia, if someone dies without a will and leaves a spouse and surviving descendants, then the spouse will receive the household furnishings, and a preferential share of the estate. If all of the descendants are descendants of the deceased and the spouse, then the spouse gets the first $300,000. If the descendants are not also the descendants of the spouse, then the spouse gets the first $150,000. The residue of the estate is then divided (1) one half to the spouse, and (2) one half to the deceased’s descendants.
In this case, the deceased had five children with five different women. He did not marry any of the women. He spent time with all of them, and provided them with various levels of financial support and expensive gifts. There was overlap between the relationships. He was described by the court as living a “playboy” lifestyle. As a result of the somewhat sensational facts, this decision did attract some media attention.
Mother 1 did not know about the other four women until after the deceased’s death. The trial judge observed that there was no evidence of sexual intimacy between Mother 1 and the deceased for years before his death. While they referred to each other as “husband” and “wife”, the deceased used these terms with two of the other women with whom he had children. While the deceased supported Mother 1, he did the same with the other women. The deceased had no intention to live in a marriage-like relationship with Mother 1.
The B.C. Supreme Court concluded that there was no marriage-like relationship between Mother 1 and the deceased. In the alternative, if such a relationship did exist, it was terminated by the deceased.
Mother 1 appealed this decision.
Two persons are spouses of each other for the purpose of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act if they were married to each other, or had lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years. Two persons cease to be spouses of each other if, in the case of a marriage-like relationship, one or both persons terminate the relationship.
The Court of Appeal confirmed that the requisite two years of a marriage-like relationship need not immediately precede the intestate’s death. However, the persons must remain spouses at the time of the death in order to advance a claim. If the parties ceased to be spouses before one party’s death because the marriage-like relationship was “terminated” by one of them, there will be no legal entitlement to advance a claim against the estate as a “spouse”.
This is useful general guidance from the Court of Appeal for persons seeking to bring claims on the basis that they were a “spouse” at the date of death, but it was of no use to Mother 1 because the Court of Appeal was satisfied that Mother 1 and the deceased were never in a marriage-like relationship.
The decision also shows the uphill battle in appealing a finding by a trial judge about spousal status. The trial judge has heard all of the evidence and is in the best position to assess credibility and make the necessary findings to determine whether a spousal relationship exists. The findings are entitled to a considerable degree of deference, and that is what happened in Mother 1.
The trial judge observed that the definition of a “marriage-like relationship” is an “elastic one”, which requires a multi-faceted analysis. There are numerous factors to consider. The Court of Appeal held that it would be inappropriate to re-weigh 14 days of trial evidence and substitute its view of the evidence. Credibility played an important role in the assessment of the evidence, and the trial judgeis in a far better position to make this assessment. The trial judge properly instructed himself on the legal test for a marriage-like relationship, and then considered and applied that test in a “fact-intensive case in which credibility played an important role.”
The decision also includes an interesting discussion about sealing orders and publication bans in estate litigation matters. The Court referred to the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Sherman Estate v. Donavan 2021 SCC 25, which I have previously discussed here. The Court held that the risks alleged in Mother 1 (as the basis for a sealing order) are risks faced by all individuals who find themselves and their children involved in appeals that proceed in open court and involve claims to substantial sums of money. A mere assertion of harm is not sufficient. The test for a sealing order requires the serious risk to be well grounded in the record or the circumstances of the particular case. The Court dismissed the application for a permanent sealing order, but the parties were at liberty to replace unredacted materials in the court file with redacted copies, in a manner consistent with a publication ban.