Is it Possible to Disinherit Your Estranged Children?
In British Columbia (“BC”), there is a process known as wills variation, whereby a spouse or child of a testator can challenge the distribution set out in the will upon the death of the testator. In these will variation cases, the Court must balance the autonomy of the testator – to decide how to distribute his/her estate – with certain moral obligations that might be present. The BC legislation that allows for this equitable claim is unique.
The BC Supreme Court’s decision in the 2015 Kong v Kong (“Kong”) case confirmed that, although difficult given the ability to bring a wills variation claim, it is possible to disinherit your children in BC. Mr. Kong was survived by seven children, all of whom were adults, at the time of his death. Mr. Kong’s Will provided for the overwhelming majority of his estate to be left to his youngest son, thus disinheriting his remaining children. Four of Mr. Kong’s disinherited children initiated a wills variation claim in an effort to vary the Will in their favour. In order for the Court to consider variation, it must determine whether the reasons for an adult child’s disentitlement meet the criteria of “valid and rational.” The onus lies on those challenging a will to establish that there were no valid or rational reasons to justify the testator’s decision.
In BC, a testator’s moral obligation to his/her children does not necessarily require the testator to provide for an adult child where there has been estrangement, misconduct, or sufficient provision to the child in the testator’s lifetime. Satisfying one’s moral obligation does not require an equal distribution to all surviving children. In the Kong decision, Justice Sharma found inconsistent claims regarding the nature of the relationship between Mr. Kong and his children who brought the variation claim. Justice Sharma held that some of the disinherited children had been estranged from their father prior to his death. On an evidentiary note, Justice Sharma refused to limit the Court’s analysis solely to discussions between Mr. Kong and his lawyer when the Will was prepared. Instead, the Court engaged in an objective investigation into the relationship between each of the Kong children and their father. Upon reviewing the reasons found for the estrangement, Justice Sharma concluded that Mr. Kong had no moral obligation to provide for the children who had been estranged (and were at fault for this estrangement). As such, Justice Sharma upheld the father’s decision to disinherit two out of the four applicants. A five percent share of the estate was awarded to the remaining applicants.
The Kong case demonstrates that, even where a variation is justified, the Court will still give strong deference to the testator’s intentions as expressed in his/her will.
Thanks for reading!
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Tori Joseph