You cannot assume that if you leave your estate to your children in equal shares, then the court cannot or will not vary it. Making equal provision for your children in your will does not mean that the will is immune from a successful wills variation action. There may be good reason to make greater provision for one child over the other(s), and the child who claims they ought to have received more may successfully bring an action to vary your will to receive a larger share of the estate than their siblings.
This was the case in the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision of Rawlins v. Rawlins 2023 BCSC 466. In Rawlins, the deceased had three sons. Her will provided that if she survived her husband (which she did), her estate was to be divided equally between her three sons. The estate was worth approximately $2.5M.
The plaintiff (one of the sons) brought an action to vary his mother’s will, so that he received a larger share of the estate than his brothers.
In B.C., a spouse or child of a will-maker may bring an action to vary a will if it does not make just and adequate provision for them. When deciding a wills variation claim, the court must consider (1) whether the will properly accounts for the legal duties owed to the spouse and children during the will-maker’s lifetime, and (2) the moral duties toward the will-maker’s spouse and children.
Legal obligations include spousal support and spousal property rights, child support obligations, and, in some cases, unjust enrichment claims. Moral obligations are society’s reasonable expectations of what a judicious spouse or parent would do in the circumstances, with regard to contemporary community standards. The court has a wide discretion to vary a will to make proper provision, and it is a fact specific inquiry.
In Rawlins, the plaintiff argued that he had a legal claim based on unjust enrichment, and a greater moral claim. He relied on the following grounds in support of his position that he should receive a greater share of his mother’s estate: (1) his role in contributing to and maintaining the deceased’s home; (2) his role in looking after both of his parents in their final years, and (3) his expectation of receiving the home and certain investments upon the passing of his parents, based on statements allegedly made by his parents.
With respect to legal obligations, the plaintiff argued that the deceased’s estate was unjustly enriched by (1) the care that he provided to his parents in their final years, and (2) his alleged contributions to their home.
With respect to the home, the Court held that the plaintiff failed to show that his alleged contributions to the property involved any appreciable material benefit to the estate or materially increased the value of the property. The plaintiff paid nothing towards the acquisition of the property, or the maintenance of the property (including property taxes or insurance). The labour that he provided was merely to (1) assist his father with renovations, or (2) provide routine upkeep. “The most that can be said is that [the plaintiff] contributed toward the Maintenace of the property where he lived, rent free.”
However, the care that the plaintiff provided for his parents did provide a material benefit to the estate. The plaintiff was the primary caregiver for both of his parents during their final years, and cases have recognized that services by an adult for their parent have a legally recognizable value. If the plaintiff had not been available to provide care, his parents would have paid for these services, which would have come out of what ultimately became estate funds. The Court held that the deceased’s estate had a legal duty toward the plaintiff, in the form of an unjust enrichment claim, based upon the care provided.
With respect to moral obligations, the plaintiff’s contributions to the property were minimal, and were not a factor in his favor. The care that he provided for his parents formed the basis of a legal obligation (the unjust enrichment discussed above), and so the Court did not consider this factor as a separate, independent basis for a moral claim by the plaintiff. Finally, the Court did not find a moral claim based upon the plaintiff’s alleged expectation that he would inherit a greater share based upon statements made by his parents. The Court held that his “expectation” of inheriting certain assets was “largely the product of [the plaintiff’s] subjectively-held beliefs and sense of entitlement.” There was no independent reliable evidence that the plaintiff was given any reason to expect that he would receive a greater share of the estate.
The defendant brothers also pointed out that the plaintiff continued to live in his parents’ house, rent free, after their deaths, and so since his mother died in 2018, the estate has paid the plaintiff’s housing costs.
The Court weighed all of the circumstances, and concluded that apart from the unjust enrichment claim, the plaintiff failed to establish that his mother’s will did not make adequate provision for him. The Court varied the will to provide that the plaintiff would receive a gift of $115,000, less two thirds of all property taxes paid or payable by the estate for the property from 2018 to 2022. The rest of the estate was to be divided equally as between the three sons, as provided for in the will.
This case serves as a reminder that just because you provide equally for your children in your will, there may still be a successful wills variation claim. It is also noteworthy that this relatively modest variation was only obtained after the time and expense to the parties of an eleven-day trial.