Tag: intestate succession
Living a double life can be complicated. A double life that involves a secret second family can be especially complicated, both during the deceiver’s life and after their death. How is the deceiver’s estate to be divided as between his first family and his secret second family? What rights does the unmarried secret spouse in particular have in the deceased’s estate? The Supreme Court of British Columbia addresses these issues in its recent decision of Boughton v Widner Estate, 2021 BCSC 325.
Boughton concerns the Estate of Michael Gregory Widern. Michael was a known member of the infamous Hells Angels and died on March 9, 2017 by homicide. Michael left behind his married spouse, Sabrina, and their two children. He also left behind Sara – whom he had been seeing for roughly eight years unbeknownst to his wife – and their two children. While Michael was alive he spent time with both of his families, alternating between the two households. Sabrina had no knowledge of Michael’s second family until after he passed away.
Michael died without a last will and testament, leaving his estate to be distributed in accordance with the intestacy provisions set out in British Columbia’s Wills, Estates and Successions Act (“WESA”). In Boughton, Sara brought a claim against Michael’s estate seeking, amongst other things, a declaration that she is a spouse of Michael for the purposes of the WESA and is consequently entitled to a share of his estate. As such, one of the issues to be dealt with by the court was whether the WESA permits the division of an estate as between two individuals who were in concurrent, subsisting spousal relationships with the deceased at the time of death.
The honourable Justice Jennifer Duncan declared that Sara was a spouse for the purposes of the WESA. Section 2 of the WESA provides that two persons are spouses of each other if immediately before the deceased person’s death they were married to each other or they had lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years. Justice Duncan found that on his death, Michael was still married to Sabrina and was also in a marriage-like relationship with Sara. Section 22 of the WESA states that if two or more persons are entitled to a spousal share of an intestate estate, they share the spousal share in the portions to which they agree or as determined by the court. Justice Duncan reasoned that this section clearly provides for more than one spousal share in the estate of an intestate. She also analyzed the legislative intent of section 22 and found that the intention of the Legislature was to continue to provide for individuals in a marriage-like relationship with an individual who was still married to someone else at the time of death. On this basis, Justice Duncan held that Sara was entitled to a declaration that she is a spouse of Michael as that term is defined in the WESA. It was further ordered that Sara and Sabrina were each entitled to half of Michael’s estate.
If this case were decided under Ontario law we would likely see a different result. Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”) has no provision equivalent to section 22 of the WESA which recognizes a “spousal share” in an intestate estate for someone other than the deceased’s married spouse. For purposes of intestate succession in Ontario, “spouse” has the same meaning as in section 1 of the Family Law Act (“FLA”), which is in essence a married person. It follows that an unmarried secret spouse would likely have no statutory entitlement to share in their deceased spouse’s estate. However, a secret spouse in Ontario could potentially claim an interest in their spouse’s estate pursuant to the dependent support provisions contained in Part V of the SLRA. In Part V, “spouse” has the same meaning as in section 29 of the FLA, which defines “spouse” more broadly as including persons not married to each other and have cohabited continuously for a period of not less than three years, or have children together and are in a relationship of some permanence. If a secret spouse meets this definition, they may still have a right to a portion of their deceased spouse’s estate by way of a dependent support claim.
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Most people know that if a person dies without a Will, the laws of intestacy govern the division of his or her estate. Specifically, it is Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, RSO 1990, c S.26 (the “SLRA“) that is titled “Intestate Succession” that comes into play.
The question of who inherits where there is no Will is easily answered in some of the following scenarios:
- Where there is a surviving spouse (limited to married spouses, by the way), said spouse is entitled to the entirety of the property of the deceased (section 45(1));
- Where there is a surviving spouse and one child, spouse receives a preferential share of the estate of the deceased (i.e. $200,000.00 as of today) and if anything is left over, it is divided equally between spouse and child (section 46(1));
- Where there is a surviving spouse and two or more children, the spouse is entitled to a preferential share of the estate of the deceased and 1/3 of what is left over. The remainder is then divided between the issue of the deceased (section 46(2)).
The SLRA further addresses how the division of assets is to take place where the only surviving relatives are parents, brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews (in respective order of preference). If the deceased has no surviving parents, brother/sisters or nieces/nephews, the next of kin provision (section 47(6)) applies.
Despite the fact that the SLRA attempts to bring clarity to the division of one’s intestate estate, it appears that certain situations may arise that would lead to confusion, absent case law that would provide some guidance.
In Farmer Estate v Karabin Estate, an executor of a niece who predeceased the deceased commenced an application in respect of her alleged share in the estate of the deceased. The Ontario Court of Appeal found that the SLRA is confined to nieces or nephews who do not predecease the deceased and does not extend to more remote issue. The Court of Appeal relied on section 47(4) of the SLRA which is worded as follows:
“Where a person dies intestate in respect of property and there is no surviving spouses, issue or parent, the property shall be distributed among the surviving brothers and sisters of the intestate equally, and if any brother or sister predeceases the intestate, the share of the deceased brother or sister shall be distributed among his or her children equally.” [emphasis added]
In interpreting this provision, the Court relied on the definitions of “child” and “issue” as defined in the SLRA, namely the definition of “child” includes a child conceived before and born alive after the parent’s death and the definition of “issue” includes a descendant conceived before and alive after the person’s death.
In another matter, Kiehn v Murdoch, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that grandnieces and grandnephews are excluded from sharing in the estate of a deceased by operation of section 47(4).
Unfortunately in the circumstances where a particular scenario arises that has not been clearly addressed by the SLRA and subsequent case law, an application for directions may need to be commenced to receive some clarity from the Court as to how a particular intestate estate is to be divided.
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The death of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, on August 16 sent reverberations through Motown and the music industry as a whole. However, equally as shocking to estates law practitioners is the fact that Franklin died intestate, that is, without having executed a valid Last Will and Testament.
Reports have emerged that Franklin died leaving an estate valued at approximately US$80 million. Notwithstanding the insistence of her longtime lawyer to take proper estate planning steps, Franklin’s estate will now likely be distributed in accordance with Michigan intestacy laws rather than in accordance with her wishes. As Franklin died leaving four children and no surviving spouse, a cursory review of applicable authorities in Michigan suggests her estate will be distributed equally amongst her children, as would be the case under Ontario intestate succession laws.
With that said, the fact that Franklin died intestate means that the courts will now be tasked with the appointment of a personal representative to consolidate and distribute the assets of her estate and attend to the payment of any liabilities. In Ontario, where an individual dies intestate, the court is empowered to appoint an Estate Trustee without a Will pursuant to section 29(1) of the Estates Act. While the appointee is entitled to seek professional assistance from lawyers, accountants, and certain other professionals to provide assistance, the administration of an estate, particularly one as large as Franklin’s, can be burdensome especially if the trustee is unsophisticated.
The size of Franklin’s estate will also likely lead to all manner of creditors coming out of the woodwork to stake their claim and create further headaches for the eventual executor. As was the case with other celebrities who died intestate, the chaos that will presumably result is likely to be well-publicized in the media, notwithstanding the wishes of Franklin’s close family. A well-crafted estate plan, including the selection of a willing and competent executor to administer the estate, may very well have allowed the administration of Franklin’s estate to remain largely private. If recent history is any indication, that is no longer likely to be the case.
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