Eckford v. Vanderwood, 2014 BCCA 261 raises the oft seen competing wills claims of adult independent children of a first marriage and a second spouse. In this case, a common law wife was left out of her husband’s will. She asked the court to change her husband’s will so that she would receive all of his estate to the exclusion of her adult stepchildren.
The court refused to vary the will as the common law spouse was adequately provided for by assets she received outside of her husband’s will, the marriage was short, they were financially independent of each other, and there were valid competing claims of her stepchildren. This case shows that there is no automatic entitlement for a spouse to inherit.
Spouses with adult children from previous relationships
Ms. Eckford and Mr. Vanderwood lived as common law spouses for approximately four years before Mr. Vanderwood died unexpectedly in a motor vehicle accident on September 4, 2010 at the age of 57. Both Ms. Eckford and Mr. Vanderwood had adult children from previous marriages.
Common law spouse excluded from will
Mr. Vanderwood’s will, which was made while he was with Ms. Eckford, divided his estate into three shares: 20% to his mother; 40% to his daughter; and 40% to his son. When the will was being prepared by his lawyer, Mr. Vanderwood specified that he would not be adding Ms. Eckford to his will. Instead, he transferred title of his home to her as joint tenant so that she would receive his interest if he died before her. So, while Mr. Vanderwood did not leave anything to Ms. Eckford in his will, on his death she received the matrimonial home through what is known as the “right of survivorship.”
Change in common law wife’s health after husband’s death
Ms. Eckford was a relatively healthy 56 year old woman when Mr. Vanderwood died. She worked full-time and was financially comfortable. However, about a year after Mr. Vanderwood died there was a significant change in her health. She became disabled and unlikely to return to work in the future.
Application to vary the will
In light of the change in her health, Ms. Eckford felt that Mr. Vanderwood’s will did not make adequate provision for her proper maintenance and support. She asked the court to vary the will to make her the only beneficiary of the estate. The court disagreed with Ms. Eckford and refused to vary the terms of the will.
What is “adequate provision”?
The question in a wills variation action is whether or not the will-maker has made adequate provision for the claimant. A will-maker does not necessarily need to provide for the claimant’s needs for the rest of the claimant’s life. What is adequate provision depends upon all of the circumstances, including those of the claimant and of other parties to whom the will-maker owes an obligation to make provision. In any particular situation there may be a number of ways of dividing the assets which are adequate, just and equitable, and if the will-maker has chosen an option within the range, the court will not vary the will.
Factors the court considered in deciding that adequate provision had been made:
- Assets passing outside of the will. Ms. Eckford received Mr. Vanderwood’s half interest in their matrimonial home by right of survivorship. Thus, while she was left out of the will, she was “taken care of” in another way.
- The size of the estate. Under the will, Mr. Vanderwood’s children received approximately $113,000 each and his mother received about $57,000. In comparison, Ms. Eckford received Mr. Vanderwood’s half of the matrimonial home, which was worth $150,000 – a significant portion of the his estate and more than any of the other beneficiaries received.
- Expectations of the children. Mr. Vanderwood’s adult children had an expectation that they would receive a portion of their father’s estate because he had told them that this would occur if anything happened to him.
- Length of their relationship. Ms. Eckford and Mr. Vanderwood were in a common-law relationship for four years when he died. The value of the property that Ms. Eckford received was substantial given the relatively short duration of their relationship.
- Change in Ms. Eckford’s health was not foreseeable when Mr. Vanderwood died. When deciding if adequate provision has been made under a will, the court examines the circumstances existing and reasonably foreseeable as of the date of death of the will-maker. At the time of Mr. Vanderwood’s death, there was nothing to suggest that Ms. Eckford’s health would decline as it did. While Ms. Vanderwood would have known that Ms. Eckford’s health would likely deteriorate at some stage of her life, he could not reasonably foresee that it would happen in the short time frame it did.
- Ms. Eckford was not a dependent spouse. When Mr. Vanderwood died, Ms. Eckford was working full time. She held her own assets and property when she came into the relationship and was financially comfortable during their time together.
The court refused to vary the will because it found that the disposition of Mr. Vanderwood’s assets was within the wide range of options that could be considered appropriate in these circumstances. Ms. Eckford did not get anything in his will, but given all of the circumstances, she was adequately provided for because she received his interest in their home when he died.
Debunking the myth that the spouse always gets to inherit under a will
The trial judge and appellate judges found that in the circumstances, it was within the range of fair outcomes for Mr. Vanderwood to disinherit his spouse from his will, which may seem surprising to many people. This case shows that there is no automatic entitlement to inherit. It was found to be fair for Mr. Vanderwood to disinherit his spouse because Ms. Eckford had already received an asset outside the estate, and because of the short length of their relationship, the fact that they were financially independent of each other, and the high moral obligation that Mr. Vanderwood owed to his grown children and financially dependent mother.
Taking assets falling out of the estate into account on a 1:1 ratio
Another point of interest in this case is that the asset that Ms. Eckford inherited outside the estate (the half the interest in the matrimonial home) was taken into account on a 1:1 ratio with the assets that were still a part of the estate. Before the Eckford case, courts took assets inherited outside the estate into consideration, but not in such a calculated way; rather, they were taken into account in a more general sense (i.e., whether a pre-death gift was given or not). The 1:1 ratio applied in Eckford allows for a more precise calculation and comparison of pre-death gifts versus gifts provided for under a will. However, there will be some difficulties in truly comparing pre-death gifts to gifts provided for under a will if a pre-death gift was given a significant time before death (i.e., not simply by right of survivorship that becomes effective at the time of death, as was the case with the property Ms. Eckford received). If there was a significant period of time between giving the pre-death gift and the death itself, expert evidence from an actuary or economist would be necessary to establish the present value of the benefits given pre-death in order to truly compare them with the size of the estate.
The bottom line on competing wills claims of a second spouse and stepchildren
Whether a will has made adequate provision for a spouse or child depends upon all of the circumstances. In any particular situation there may be a number of ways of dividing the assets which are adequate, just and equitable, and provided the will-maker has chosen an option within the range, the court will not vary the will. There is no automatic entitlement of a spouse to inherit from an estate if that spouse has already received assets outside the estate, the marriage was short, and there are valid competing claims of adult independent children.
The bottom line on assets falling outside of the estate
Assets falling outside of the estate will be taken into account on a 1:1 ratio in a wills variation case to determine whether a will should be varied or not.