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Estate Law, Marriage-like Relationships

Father Died. No Will. Does Live-In Girlfriend Inherit His Estate?

The rules of intestacy set out how an estate is to be distributed if a person dies with no will. BC law gives the largest share of an estate to the deceased’s surviving spouse. If the deceased did not have a spouse, the children of the person who died with no will are entitled to the whole of their parent’s estate. Clearly the question of whether two unmarried people are “spouses” for the purposes of distributing an estate will significantly impact who inherits, and in what amount. In today’s post, we will examine Turner v. Stabeck, 2020 BCSC 1553, an estate claim that pitted the interests of the deceased’s live-in girlfriend against those of his adult children.

BC father died without a will

Keith Stabeck died suddenly and without a will on September 3, 2018, leaving an estate valued at approximately $600,000. He was unmarried when he died but was in a relationship with Wendy Turner whom he had met in 2015. After Keith’s death, Wendy sought a declaration that she was Keith’s spouse as defined in the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13 (“WESA”) and thus entitled to inherit from his estate under the BC rules of intestacy. Keith’s adult children, Bradley and Sabrina, disagreed. They argued that their father and Wendy only began living together eight or nine months before their father died and that their father was “not serious” about Wendy. They said their father was dating other women and did not tell them of plans for Wendy to move in with him until spring of 2017.

Distributing an estate where there is no will

Section 2(1) of WESA says two people are spouses of each other if they were both alive immediately before a relevant time and:

(a) they were married to each other, or

(b) they had lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years.

There was no dispute that Keith and Wendy were living together when he died. Instead, the question for the BC court was the length of the relationship: did their marriage-like relationship begin at least two years before Keith’s death? The answer had significant implications under the intestacy provisions of WESA:

  • If Wendy qualifies as Keith’s spouse under s. 2(1)(b) of WESA, then she inherits a preferential share of $150,000 of his $600,000 estate, plus one-half of the remaining residue.
  • If Wendy did not qualify as Keith’s spouse, his estate would be divided between his two adult children, Bradley and Sarina, with nothing to Wendy.

Determining the existence of a “marriage like” relationship

It can be difficult to determine when a spousal relationship exists for a given couple, but the question of timing is of utmost importance in cases such as Turner which involve relationships of relatively short duration. Often the date when the cohabitation began is blurred because people “ease into” situations, spending more and more time together. BC courts have developed a list of factors—which include living under the same roof—to be considered in determining whether a marriage-like relationship exists (our estate litigation team has discussed the factors in detail; see here for that discussion). However, our Courts have also noted that no one factor is determinative. People structure their relationships in a wide variety of ways, and the indicators of a “marriage-like” relationship such as living together may be present in varying degrees.

Examining evidence of “marriage-like” relationship

In the Turner estate litigation case, September of 2016 was the key date (two years before Keith’s death). When Keith and Wendy met in 2015, she lived in New Westminster, BC while he lived in Kamloops, BC. Wendy’s evidence was that their relationship developed quickly and that by the fall of 2015 they decided she would move to Kamloops to live with him in due course. She could not move immediately because she was committed to providing childcare for her grandson in the Lower Mainland during the school week. Wendy’s evidence was that she and Keith made long-term relationship plans as early as Christmas 2015 and she began gradually moving her things to his home as of that time. Keith bought Wendy a diamond commitment ring in 2016.

Keith’s children said they never saw the ring and did not hear about it until after their father died. His children also said that their father did not often bring Wendy when he came to visit them (both lived in Vernon, BC). Bradley and Sabrina’s assertions that their father was only in a casual relationship with Wendy were not supported by the evidence of others, including Keith’s brother and sister-in-law and Wendy’s friends and family. All of those people had come to see Keith and Wendy as a couple from a very early stage. There was also a substantial body of evidence, including the ring and statements he made to others, supporting that Keith was of the same mind.

Marriage-like relationship formed before living under same roof

Wendy and Keith “officially” began living under the same roof in early 2017 when Wendy was able to give up her New Westminster apartment, no longer needing to travel to the Lower Mainland to provide childcare for her grandson. Importantly, in the Court’s view, by that point, it was not a change in their relationship but a finalization of a plan they had formed and were working to achieve by September of 2016. The Court was satisfied that Wendy and Keith were in a marriage-like relationship at the date of his death on September 3, 2018 and had been in such a relationship for at least two years preceding that date. She was therefore his spouse as defined in s. 2(1) of WESA. As the spouse, Wendy was entitled to a preferential share of $150,000 of Keith’s estate and to one-half of the remaining residue. Costs were payable from Keith’s estate.

Bottom line on children’s inheritance when father dies with no will

When a father dies with no will in BC, his children’s inheritance will depend on whether their father had a spouse at the time of his death. The definition of “spouse” under BC intestacy rules includes people that are married to each other, as well as people who lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years preceding the death. Whether and when a “marriage-like” relationship came into existence depends on factors that include the history of the relationship, the intention of the couple, and how they presented themselves to others. People can be in a marriage-like relationship even if they each keep a separate residence.