The Difficulty with Disinheriting a Child
Disinheritance has long been a subject replete with interest. Is it a doleful mishap, a strange whim rooted in spite, a tragedy, or is it just desserts and a shield by which elderly persons can impose good behaviour on their successors? Charles Dickens was fascinated with the subject. From Great Expectations to Martin Chuzzlewit, many of his tales include fabulously wealthy testators, parasitical and destitute minor relatives, wronged rightful heirs, family bonds eroded by greed, artifice and deception – and often, in the end, a just outcome. Similar to how the poignancy of this theme stirred Dickens’ readers, aggrieved disinherited parties are often so stirred, to put it mildly, that they commence all-out legal warfare – quenching their scorn with the costly and sometimes blackened bread of estate litigation.
From the testator’s point of view, there is no foolproof method of disinheriting a child. It certainly helps if the child is not dependent, is an adult, has no basis for expecting anything, and there is a forceful, probative reason for the disinheritance (i.e. “so-and-so didn’t let me see my grandchildren”). It might be a good idea for a testator to explicitly state that he or she is disinheriting a child, lest the child later make the argument that the omission was a slip-of-the-mind rather than deliberate disinheritance. The testator may also include a clause explaining the rationale, though this can be dangerous – disinheriting someone out of racism (Spence v. B.M.O. Trust Company,  O.N.S.C. 615 at paras. 49-50).
Some drafting solicitors may suggest giving a small, nominal amount to the otherwise disinherited child – to partially appease the child, appear more moderate to a judge, or otherwise “save face”. The problem with this, however, is that as soon as someone is a beneficiary, he or she may be able to invoke beneficiary rights, such as objecting to the passing of accounts.
As for disinherited children, they may have legal recourse, such as section 58(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act, which gives the court discretion to determine if “adequate provision” has been made for a testator’s “dependants”. In Tataryn v. Tataryn Estate,  2 S.C.R. 807, the Supreme Court overturned the explicit disinheritance of a son and wife because it found that the testator failed his “moral obligation” to provide for them. If a dependant support claim leads nowhere, a disinherited child can always challenge the will, for the wellspring of arbitrary disinheritance is often incapacity or undue influence.
It is hard to lose a parent. Hard, too, is the loss of an inheritance. Keeping this in mind, testators who wish to prevent a conflagration of litigation might opt not to light the spark of disinheritance. If they feel the circumstances demand it, however, they should work with their estate planners to fortify their legal positions against the storms which might otherwise gather.
Thank you for reading,
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry