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Estate Law, Intestacy, Marriage-like Relationships, Unjust Enrichment

Estate of BC Biker Divided Between His Wife and “Secret” Common-Law Spouse

A Hells Angels prospect led a double life, leaving a “complicated legacy” after his disappearance and murder. Michael Widner maintained two separate households for almost a decade before his death in 2017. It was alleged that he earned large sums of cash from drug dealing and marijuana grow operations, which he used to fund both families. He died without a will, leaving a wife and a long-term girlfriend, each of whom claimed entitlement to his estate.

Married spouse not aware of common-law spouse

At the time of his death, Michael Widner (the “Deceased” or “Mike”) was married to Sabrina. They had two children, born in 2005 and 2006. Sabrina and Mike married in 2008 and lived in Sooke, BC. Unbeknownst to Sabrina, Mike began a relationship with another woman, Sara Boughton, in 2009. Sara knew that Mike was married but believed his statements to her that he would eventually obtain a divorce and marry her. Sara and Mike had two children, born in 2014 and 2015. Sara lived about an hour outside of Sooke with their two children, and Mike paid all the bills for Sara’s household. Mike shuttled between the households for years. Sara assumed he was working and visiting with his other children when he was away. Sabrina had no knowledge of her husband’s relationship or children with Sara, only finding out about their existence after Mike’s murder.

Estate litigation to resolve “complicated legacy”

Sabrina and Mike were not separated at the time of his passing. He was also still in a long-term relationship with Sara when he died. Sara claimed a share in Mike’s intestate estate by arguing that she was his spouse for the purpose of British Columbia’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13 (“WESA”). Sabrina contested Sara’s entitlement to a spousal share of Mike’s estate, arguing that there cannot be two concurrent spouses under WESA. The Court’s decision in Boughton v. Widner Estate, 2021 BCSC 325 starts by noting that the definition of “spouse” in WESA includes people who are married to each other and people who have lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years at the relevant time (see WESA s. 2). Sara and Mike had been in a marriage-like relationship for 8 years at the time of his death. Both women met the definition of “spouse.”

WESA provides for more than one spousal share in intestate estate

Part 3 of WESA is entitled “When a Person Dies Without a Will.” Division I of Part 3 is called “Distribution of Estate Where There Is No Will” and it governs what occurs on an intestacy. It includes the following provision:

Two or more spouses

22 (1) If 2 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 if they cannot agree, as determined by the court.

(2) If 2 or more persons are entitled to apply or have priority as a spouse under this Act in respect of an intestate estate, they may agree on who is to apply or who is to have priority, but if they do not, the court may make the decision.

Justice Duncan reviewed the history of the law and concluded that BC Legislature intended to provide for an individual in a marriage-like relationship with a person who was still married to someone else at the time of death. WESA s. 22 clearly provides for the division of an estate as between two individuals who were in concurrent, subsisting spousal relationships with the deceased at the time of death. Justice Duncan concluded that Sara was in a marriage-like relationship with the Deceased when he passed away and, accordingly, she was entitled to a declaration that she is a spouse of the Deceased as that term is defined in the WESA. Sabrina was legally married to Mike at his death, so she was also a surviving spouse.

What did the Deceased’s estate consist of?

Where, as in the Widner Estate litigation, two or more persons are entitled as a spouse, WESA s. 22 provides that they are to share the spousal share in the portions to which they agree, or if they cannot agree, as determined by the court. The difficulty for Sara’s claim was that Mike’s estate had no real assets at his death. Sabrina owned two properties in Sooke, which were registered only in her name. Despite not holding legal title, the Deceased had made large cash payments totalling $150,000 to pay down the mortgages on both properties. The Court was satisfied that Mike did not hold title because of his criminal ties. He was afraid of civil forfeiture and wanted to “protect himself” against any issue that could arise. Sabrina argued that she had saved the money herself for the payments against the mortgages. The evidence at trial established that this was simply not possible based on her minimal income over the years.  

Estate consists of $150,000 plus interest and deceased’s personal property

Justice Duncan applied the doctrine of unjust enrichment to resolve the issue of the Deceased’s $150,000 contributions to the properties in Sabrina’s name. The three-part test applied as follows: Sabrina was enriched by the Deceased’s contributions to real estate acquisitions held in her name alone; the Deceased’s estate was thereby deprived of those funds because the properties were registered in Sabrina’s name only; and there was no juristic reason for Sabrina to retain the entirety of the contributions, given the Deceased’s moral obligations to provide for Sara and her dependent children. As a result, the Deceased’s estate was awarded $150,000 plus interest from Sabrina. Pursuant to WESA s. 22, the Deceased’s surviving spouses were each entitled to half of the Deceased’s estate, comprised of the $150,000 plus interest from Sabrina, and any of Mike’s personal property. Success was divided, so each party was ordered to bear their own costs of the estate litigation.  

Bottom line: There can be more than one surviving spouse on intestacy

A deceased person can leave behind both a lawfully married spouse and a common-law spouse. Where the deceased died without a will, each person who qualifies as a spouse under WESA is entitled to a share of the deceased’s estate.