I recently had the opportunity to watch Knives Out, the 2019 murder-mystery film directed by Rian Johnson. This film was a delightful distraction, with a great ensemble cast and engaging plot. I highly recommend it.
It also touches on a number of estate litigation issues. Stuart Clark, a lawyer at Hull and Hull in Ontario, has authored an interesting discussion that can be found here: https://hullandhull.com/2020/01/knives-out/. I will discuss some additional issues which might have arisen had Mr. Thrombey resided in B.C.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD!
Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy crime novelist, is found with his throat slit, the morning after his family attended his 85th birthday party at his mansion. As might be expected, his family is highly dysfunctional and Harlan has strained relationships with various family members, which include two adult children, a daughter-in-law (married to his deceased son) and various grandchildren. Harlan had recently threatened to cut one of his grandchildren out of his will. Everyone has a motive, and a detective (played by Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate the crime.
When the family gathers for the will reading (a typical storytelling device, but an event that I have yet to witness in real life), it is revealed that Harlan left his entire estate to his nurse, Marta. He did not make any provision for his children, daughter-in-law, or grandchildren.
The family take various steps to secure Harlan’s fortune, including trying to convince Marta to renounce her inheritance, threatening to expose Marta’s mother as an undocumented immigrant, and threatening to implicate Marta in Harlan’s death. None of these efforts are successful. The mystery is solved, and Marta receives Harlan’s estate.
Stuart Clark’s post identifies various estate litigation issues in the film, including the issue of undue influence – the situation where someone is forced or pressured into making a will (or some other transaction) that does not reflect their wishes, but reflects the interests of the person influencing the vulnerable person. A will procured by undue influence can be set aside as invalid.
In B.C., the Wills, Estates and Succession Act provides that where a person was in a position where the potential for dependence or domination of the will-maker was present, the party seeking to defend the will has the onus of establishing that the person in that position did not exercise undue influence. Harlan’s disinherited family members would likely argue that Marta, as Harlan’s full time nurse, was in a position of power such that the onus ought to be placed on her to prove that she did not exercise undue influence. If Marta is unable to meet this onus, then the will is invalid, and the prior will would likely be admitted to probate (assuming there are not any issues with the validity of that prior will).
If Marta is able to meet the onus and establish that the will was not procured by undue influence, that is not the end of the matter. In B.C., spouses and children can bring an action to vary a will if it does not make just and adequate provision for them. A wills variation claim would not be available to the daughter-in-law or the grandchildren. Only the two surviving adult children could make claims.
Wills variation claims are highly fact specific, and the court has discretion. In this case the relevant factors that the court would consider might include: (1) the strength of the relationships between the deceased and the various parties; (2) claims by adult independent children the most tenuous of wills variation claims; (3) Marta is not a family member; (4) the purported reasons for disinheritance of the children – whether they were valid and rational, (5) the estate is large, which favours making provision for everyone; (6) whether the deceased provided gifts or benefits to the parties during their lifetimes; and (7) the relative financial and other circumstances of the disinherited children and Marta.