Dividing an estate in a blended family can be complicated, as I have previously discussed. When a parent dies, biological children may clash with their stepparent over division of the estate. That was just the case in Bridger v. Bridger Estate, 2006 BCCA 230, where the court was asked to consider a second spouse’s entitlement to a share of her husband’s estate in a blended family situation.
The blended family
Jack and Julia Bridger had been married for 38 years when Mr. Bridger died in 2003. They had no children together, but Jack had three daughters and Julia had three sons from previous marriages.
Jack made a will in 1981 leaving only a car to Julia. The rest of his estate was to be divided equally between his three biological daughters. He told his lawyer that Julia had her own assets, including her own home and two rental properties. Around the same time, Julia went to a different lawyer and made a will leaving her entire estate to her three biological sons.
Illness and death of spouse
Jack was diagnosed with dementia in 1994. Julia cared for him in the family home until 1999, when he was moved to a care facility because she could no longer manage him. She continued to visit him regularly at the facility until his death. Jack was 67 when he died in 2003. Julia was 76 and in good health.
Surviving spouse challenges division of the estate
Just before he died, Julia discovered that Jack had secretly saved about $300,000. By the terms of Jack’s 1981 will, that money would be divided between Jack’s daughters, with none going to Julia. Julia brought an application to vary Jack’s will so that she would receive a share of his $300,000 estate.
Biological children oppose stepmother’s claim for redivision of the estate
Jack’s daughters, who were independent adults when Jack died, argued against their stepmother’s claim against the estate. The daughters’ main objection was that it would ultimately result in an unfair preference of Julia’s biological sons over Jack’s biological daughters – Julia lived frugally and would pass her assets along to her sons rather than spend them on herself. Jack’s daughters contended that this would defeat Jack and Julia’s intention when they made their wills to each leave their assets to their respective children. The daughters argued that this intention was reinforced by the fact that, apart from the rental properties, Jack and Julia kept their financial affairs separate until he became mentally incapacitated.
Legal obligation to provide for spouse and dependent children
The first issue on a wills variation claim is to determine the will-maker’s legal responsibilities during his lifetime, viewed from the date immediately before his death. In this case, there was no legal obligation on Jack to his daughters, as they were independent adults when he died.
Because Julia had sufficient income from her pension and investment properties to maintain her frugal standard of living after Jack’s death, he did not have a legal obligation for her maintenance or support. However, if the parties had legally separated on the date immediately before his death, Julia would have been legally entitled to an equal share of the family assets. In this respect, the court noted that before Jack died, Julia had sold the investment properties that she and Jack owned together. The proceeds from the sale of those properties went into a bank account that Jack and Julia held jointly. When Jack died, the money in the bank account passed to Julia by the right of survivorship. The court considered that money, which passed outside of Jack’s estate, as satisfying his legal obligation to Julia.
How moral duties influence division of estate in a blended family
Financial need was not a factor for either Julia or Jack’s daughters. However, the court recognized that Jack owed a moral duty to both Julia and his daughters. The 1981 will addressed only the moral duty to his daughters.
The length of the marriage and Julia’s dedicated support of Jack in his declining years were the basis of Julia’s moral claim to a share of her husband’s estate. Their marriage continued for more than twenty years after the wills were made in 1981. The events over the intervening years supported a moral duty to Julia unanticipated when the will was made. As such, the court found that it was not fair for Jack’s will to exclude Julia.
In deciding to vary Jack’s will to provide a share of the estate to Julia, the court treated Julia’s intention to continue to live frugally and pass her assets to her biological sons as irrelevant. How a surviving spouse may use her share of her husband’s estate or to whom she may leave her assets when she dies does not affect her moral entitlement. That is entirely her choice. While the prospect that Julia’s sons may eventually receive a larger share of the assets was no doubt a source of annoyance to Jack’s daughters, the court gave little weight to that aspect. The fact that Jack and Julia kept their financial affairs separate also did not impact the strength of Julia’s moral claim.
Fair division of the estate in this blended family situation
The legal obligation to Julia was satisfied by the joint bank account that held all of the real estate proceeds. The court decided that the moral obligation to Julia would be satisfied by varying the will so she received 25 percent of the balance of Jack’s estate (the $300,000 he had secretly accumulated). The remaining 75 percent was to be split between Jack’s daughters.
Take home point on dividing an estate in a blended family context
Determining what is fair when dividing an estate in a blended family context requires a careful consideration of the circumstances and may be complicated by the family dynamics. As was the case here, biological children are at times dismayed by estate claims brought by a stepparent – which may ultimately benefit their stepsiblings. However, as this case demonstrates, a will that entirely prefers the moral claims of adult independent children to those of a loyal second spouse who provided care for the will-maker over years of debilitating decline will not be upheld.