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.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag & Tori Joseph
One of the most gifted items this past holiday season were apparently the home DNA tests which can reveal your genetic ancestry or even if you are predisposed to certain health conditions. As anyone who has taken one of these tests (myself included) can tell you, the test results also contain a long list of other individuals who have also taken the test who you are related to, allowing you to reconnect with long lost relatives.
While my own test results did not reveal any family secrets, the same cannot be said for other individuals who have taken the test, as there have been a growing number of articles recently about how home DNA tests have revealed family secrets which otherwise may never have come to light. Although not all of these secrets are necessarily negative, such as finding a long-lost sibling, others, such as finding out that the individual who you believed to be your father was not in fact your biological father, could be life changing. For the latter, the phenomena is apparently common enough that the Atlantic has reported that self-help groups have formed around the issue, such as the Facebook group “DNA NPE Friends”, with “NPE” standing for “Not Parent Expected”.
In reading through these stories I couldn’t help but wonder if having such a result could impact your potential entitlements as a beneficiary of an estate. What happens if, for example, the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father but the test reveals was not in fact your father should die intestate, or should leave a class gift to his “children” in his Will without specifically naming the children. Could finding out that you were not actually biologically related to your “father” result in you no longer being entitled to receive a benefit as a beneficiary? Could you potentially be disinherited as a beneficiary of an estate by voluntarily taking a home DNA test if your right to the gift is founded upon you being related to the deceased individual?
Who is legally considered an individual’s “parent” in Ontario is established by the Children’s Law Reform Act (the “CLRA“). Section 7(1) of the CLRA provides that, subject to certain exceptions, the person “whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child” is the parent of a child. Section 7(2) of the CLRA further provides for a series of presumptions regarding the identity of the individual’s “whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child“, including, for example, that there is a presumption that such an individual is the birth parent’s spouse at the time the child is born, or the individual in question certified the child’s birth as a parent of the child in accordance with the Vital Statistics Act (i.e. signed the birth certificate). To the extent that there are any questions about parentage, section 13(1) of the CLRA provides that any interested individual may apply to the court at any time after a child is born for a declaration that a person is or is not the legal parent of the child.
In applying these presumptions to our previous questions about the home DNA test, if, for example, the individual who you previously believed was your biological father was your birth mother’s “spouse” at the time you were born, or signed the birth certificate, it would appear that, subject to there being a declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA to the contrary, there would continue to be a presumption at law that the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father would continue to be your legal “parent” in accordance with the CLRA. To this respect, in the absence of a formal declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA that the individual was no longer your legal “parent”, there would appear to be an argument in favour of the position that the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father would continue to be your legal “parent”, and that you should continue to receive any benefits which may come to you as a “child” on the death of your “father”, whether on an intestacy or a class bequest to his “children” in his Will.
This presumption, of course, is subject to the ability of any interested person (i.e. the Estate Trustee or one of the other beneficiaries) to seek a formal declaration under section 13(1) of the CLRA that you were not in fact a “child” of the individual you believed to be your biological father. If such a formal declaration is ultimately made by the court, you would cease to be the legal “child” of the individual who you previously believed to be your biological father, and would likely lose any corresponding bequests which may have been made to you on an intestacy or as a member of the class “children” in the Will.
The use of DNA tests to establish the potential beneficiaries of an estate is not a new phenomenon (see: Proulx v. Kelly). What is new, however, are people voluntarily taking such tests en masse in a public forum, potentially voluntarily raising questions about their rights to receive an interest in an estate when such questions would not have existed otherwise.
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Earlier this week, the controversy surrounding the estate of American real estate developer and multi-millionaire John Chakalos dominated the headlines.
Issues Surrounding Mr. Chakalos’s Estate
Mr. Chakalos, who left a sizeable estate, was found dead at his home in 2013. Pursuant to the terms of Mr. Chakalos’s Will, his daughter Linda was one of the beneficiaries of his estate. Linda went missing and is presumed dead after a boat carrying her and her son, Nathan, sank during a fishing trip.
According to media reports, Linda’s son Nathan was also a suspect in the death of his grandfather, but was never charged. Nathan has denied the allegations regarding his involvement in his grandfather’s death and his mother’s disappearance.
According to an article by TIME, Mr. Chakalos’s three other daughters have now commenced a lawsuit in New Hampshire wherein they have accused Nathan of killing his grandfather and potentially his mother. The plaintiff daughters have asked the Court to bar Nathan from receiving his inheritance from Mr. Chakalos’s estate.
Public Policy and the Law in Ontario
It is important to note that Mr. Chakalos’s grandson has not been charged in the death of Mr. Chakalos, and the allegations against him have yet to be proven. However, there have been similar cases in Ontario where the accused beneficiary has ultimately been found to have caused the death of the testator.
Generally speaking, in Ontario, a beneficiary who is found to have caused the death of the testator is not entitled to benefit from their criminal act. This common law doctrine, often referred to as the “slayer rule,” stands for the proposition that it would be offensive to public policy for a person to benefit from the estate of a testator if the Court concludes that they have caused the death of the testator.
Thank you for reading,
Umair Abdul Qadir