The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered a classic wills variation scenario: an adult independent child from a deceased’s earlier relationship seeks to vary their parent’s will, which makes no provision for them, and instead provides for their second spouse. It is very common to see wills variation claims in blended families.
In Pascuzzi v. Pascuzzi 2022 BCSC 907, the plaintiff was 32 years old when her father died. Her parents had a short relationship, which ended before the plaintiff was born. A few years later, the deceased met the person who would later become his wife, and he remained married to her until his death. He had two children with her, and she had two children from a prior relationship.
The deceased left a will that was signed back in 1996, when the plaintiff was only nine years old. The will provided for a trust that paid $450/month until the plaintiff turned 19 years old. The remainder of the estate passed to the deceased’s wife. In effect, the plaintiff was completely disinherited. She brought a claim to vary her father’s will.
The Court went through the test for variation of a will by an adult independent child.
Wills variation claims must balance two fundamental interests: adequate, just and equitable provision for the will-maker’s spouse and children, and the will-maker’s decision to dispose of their estate as they see fit (testamentary autonomy). In B.C., testamentary autonomy must yield to what is adequate, just and equitable.
To determine what is adequate, just and equitable, the court must look at the will maker’s legal and moral obligations. When a wills variation claim is brought by a self-sufficient adult child with full capacity:
- There will usually be no legal obligation owed by the will-maker; and
- The moral claim will usually be more tenuous than that of a spouse or dependent child, but if the size of the estate permits, some provision for the child should be made, unless there are circumstances that would negate such an obligation.
The following circumstances are relevant when determining whether there is a moral obligation owed to an adult independent child (and the strength of that obligation):
- relationship between the will-maker and claimant, including abandonment, neglect, and estrangement by one or the other;
- size of the estate;
- contributions by the claimant;
- reasonably held expectations of the claimant;
- standard of living of the will-maker and claimant;
- gifts and benefits made by the testator outside the will;
- will-maker’s reasons for disinheriting;
- financial need and other personal circumstances, including disability, of the claimant;
- misconduct or poor character of the claimant; and
- competing claimants and other beneficiaries.
The Court in Pascuzzi went through each factor, and concluded that the deceased owed a moral obligation to the plaintiff. Of particular relevance was the evidence that the deceased was in the course of ensuring that the plaintiff benefited from his estate. For two or three years prior to the deceased’s death, he discussed estate planning with his wife, and agreed that the plaintiff “should get something”, although it was not clear what this would be, and of course he didn’t take steps to make a new will or otherwise benefit the plaintiff before his death.
The deceased’s wife pled that the deceased was not the plaintiff’s biological father. However, she conceded at trial that she had no evidence to support this allegation.
In Pascuzzi, the Court did not fully accept either of the parties positions: on the one hand, that the deceased effectively abandoned the plaintiff as a child and never made an adequate effort to reconcile, and on the other hand that the deceased was a loving and caring father and any difficulties were caused by the plaintiff’s mother. The deceased made a “terrible error in judgment” in the plaintiff’s early childhood, but over the course of time and reflection knew that he had made that error.
It appears that the estate was worth approximately $1.8 million. The Court varied the will to provide that the plaintiff will receive 30% of the net value of the estate.
This case also serves as a useful reminder of the highly intrusive nature of wills variation litigation, especially if the matter proceeds to a trial. The Court went through the history of the relationship between the plaintiff and her father in great detail. The Court went so far as to quote from “an ill-advised and inappropriate letter” sent by the deceased to the plaintiff’s mother in 1992 (when the plaintiff was four years old), indicating that he would not be having the plaintiff to visit anymore. When the Court is asked to consider the nature of the relationship between the will-maker and the person making the claim (including where there is estrangement), this often requires the Court to hear evidence on very personal and private matters, which becomes a matter of private record.