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Wills Variation: Life Estates; Legal & Moral Obligations


On a wills variation application, can a life estate in a matrimonial home satisfy the legal and moral obligation to a long-term, caring and dedicated spouse? A life estate (also called a “life interest”) in a piece property allows the beneficiary to reside in the property for the duration of their life; on their death, the life estate beneficiary loses their interest in the property.

In Glanville v. Glanville, [1998] B.C.J. No. 2960 (C.A.), the Court of Appeal decided that a life estate met the will-maker’s legal and moral obligation to his surviving spouse. In more recent cases, the courts have held that a long-term, caring and dedicated spouse with a notional legal claim to equal division of family assets should not be limited to a life interest in the matrimonial home.

Life estate satisfies legal and moral obligation in Glanville

The wills variation claim in Glanville involved a contest between the claims of a long-term second spouse and those of her independent adult stepchildren. The will-maker’s estate was modest, comprised of the matrimonial home and a bank account. The will-maker left a life estate in the matrimonial home and the majority of the holdings in the bank account to his surviving spouse of 26 years.

The surviving spouse applied under wills variation legislation and the trial judge increased her bequest to a 50% interest outright in the home. On appeal, the life estate was reinstated, but the court ordered the residual beneficiaries to pay all taxes, insurance and repair costs on the home out of their remainder interest. In a strongly worded dissent, Esson J.A. would have awarded the surviving spouse full title to the entire matrimonial home.

Legal and moral obligation unmet by life estate in other cases

I previously discussed Erlichman v. Erlichman Estate, 2002 BCCA 160, in which the Court of Appeal looked to family property legislation in determining that a life estate for the surviving long-term spouse did not meet the will-maker’s legal and moral obligations. The Court of Appeal emphasized the notional legal claim to equal division of family assets, and also reasoned that an outright half interest in the husband’s estate provided deserved and desirable independence for the widow and gave her the freedom to provide inheritance in her own will.

More recently, in Anderson v. Coles, 2016 BCSC 13, a surviving spouse of 20 years applied for a variation of her husband’s will. The court agreed that the qualified life interest set out in the will did not adequately meet the legal and moral obligations to the surviving spouse. Meiklem J. varied the will to provide the surviving spouse with an undivided 50% interest in the matrimonial home, writing as follows:

[58]         In my view, it is contrary to contemporary moral standards that a long-term, caring and dedicated spouse with a notional legal claim to equal division of family assets should be limited to a qualified life interest, with the entire estate going on her death to the testator’s independent adult children. In all the circumstances, I am of the opinion that the Will does not make adequate provision for the plaintiff, and should be varied.

Take home point: Wills variation, life estates, and spouse’s legal and moral obligations

The courts are influenced by contemporary legal and moral obligations when exercising the discretion granted by wills variation legislation. In some cases, a life estate for a long-term, devoted spouse may be varied to provide an outright interest in the matrimonial home or some portion of the estate. In all cases, the particular facts such as the length of the marriage, the size of the estate, and the presence of other legal and moral claims will influence the outcome of a wills variation claim.

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