A classic example of an estranged child being left out of a will is the case of LeVierge v. Whieldon. In this dispute, a daughter contested her exclusion from her mother’s will, arguing that their estrangement was not a valid reason for her disinheritance.The BC court did not accept the daughter’s characterization of her relationship with her mother and found that the primary reason for the disinheritance was in fact the daughter’s own conduct. The evidence satisfied the court that the daughter was disinherited for valid and rational reasons, and further, that the mother’s decision to disinherit her daughter was consistent with what a judicious parent would do in similar circumstances.
Edith Whieldon, a 76-year-old woman, passed away unexpectedly, leaving behind an estate worth $1.2 million. In her will, she allocated the residue of her estate to her sons, David and Russell. The only daughter, Jane, who had been estranged from her mother for two years prior to Edith’s death, was left out completely.
As an independent adult, Jane had no legal claim to her mother’s estate. The sole question on her wills variation claim was whether she had established a moral claim to a share of her mother’s estate. The net value of Edith’s estate was substantial, therefore Jane should be entitled to share in the estate unless there were circumstances which negated the existence of a moral obligation to her. Circumstances that will negate the moral obligation of a will-maker are “valid and rational” reasons for disinheritance. That is, the court will consider whether the decision to disinherit was:
Under BC’s doctrine of valid and rational reasons, there is no requirement that the reason be justifiable, which means that the court does not need to agree that the subjective reason was good or sufficient.
To assess whether Jane’s disinheritance was justifiable, the court examined if the decision was valid, meaning it was based on true facts, and rational, having a logical connection to the act of disinheritance. This assessment was grounded in BC’s legal doctrine concerning valid and rational reasons for disinheritance.
A challenge in inheritance law cases like this is navigating the tension between the will-maker’s subjective reasons for disinheritance and an objective standard of what a judicious parent would do. Recent trends show a shift towards rejecting subjective reasons that don’t align with objective standards. Even if the will-maker acted on true facts with a logical connection to the decision to disinherit, the court may still intervene if the disinheritance appears unjust according to these standards.
The trend in the case law did not benefit Jane’s wills variation claim. Jane’s evidence of the reason for her disinheritance was not credible. The evidence of other family members and entries in Edith’s diary painted a very different picture of the mother-daughter relationship. There was significant conflict between Edith and Jane throughout Jane’s adult life. For long periods of time Jane denied Edith access to Jane’s children and Jane antagonized and verbally abused her mother on numerous occasions. The reality was that Jane had only minimal conduct with Edith throughout her adult life and in particular in the 10 year period prior to Edith’s death and that the principal reason for the lack of contact was Jane’s attitude and conduct towards her mother.
While Mr. Justice Sewell had no doubt that Jane’s treatment of Edith over many years coloured Edith’s reaction to these dealings, the real reason which led Edith to disinherit Jane related to Jane’s receipt of substantial benefits from her father, to the exclusion of her brothers. Mr. Justice Sewell found that the principle reason Edith disinherited Jane was Jane’s purchase of a Vancouver home in her own name using a $160,000 deposit originating from her father (Edith’s ex-husband, Ronald). Jane orchestrated the purchase using all of her father’s savings, and then lived in the home rent-free, as the monthly mortgage payments and taxes for the property were paid from Ronald’s pension. The net result of these arrangements was that Jane obtained the benefit of Ronald’s personal, albeit modest, fortune, thereby leaving Ronald in a position where he had nothing to bequeath to his other children on his death (in other words, David and Russell received nothing when their father died because of Jane’s actions). Jane’s disinheritance was valid, rational, and consistent with an objective standard of what a judicious parent would do in these circumstances. Her wills variation claim was dismissed.
Given the evidence of Jane’s conduct, the court found Edith’s decision to disinherit Jane both valid and rational. Jane’s claim was therefore dismissed, setting a precedent that an estranged child is not necessarily entitled to inheritance, and that such disinheritance can be upheld in court.
This case serves as a critical example for individuals considering their estate planning options. It highlights the legal definition of an estranged child, the intricacies involved when leaving an estranged child out of a will, and the possibilities for an estranged child to contest a will. The case also illustrates how inheritance law functions when there is no will, emphasising the court’s role in determining valid and rational reasons for disinheritance.
The LeVierge v. Whieldon case provides an insightful exploration of the dynamics of estrangement within the framework of inheritance law. The court’s decision underscores the importance of valid and rational reasons in disinheritance cases and establishes a guidepost for future disputes involving estranged children.
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