In cases where a parent disinherits an adult child, the BC courts will examine the relationship between the parent and child and consider a number of factors, including the reason for the disinheritance. While an application to vary a will is not intended as a tool to award compensation for past mistreatment, the existence and strength of a parent’s moral obligation to provide for an adult independent child can be informed by abandonment, neglect or estrangement between the parent and child.
Estrangement as a reason for disinheritance
On an application to vary a will that disinherits a child, the court will enquire into the role played by the parent in the estrangement or relationship breakdown, and where it is seen to be largely the fault of or at the insistence of the parent – as was the case in J.R. v. J.D.M., 2016 BCSC 2265 – it will likely not negate that parent’s moral obligation to the child, and may even enhance it. Even where the estrangement was based on true facts, and appears logically connected to the disinheritance, the growing trend in BC wills variation case law is to reject estrangement as an objectively sufficient reason to disinherit if the will-maker was jointly or solely responsible for that estrangement.
Disinherited daughter applies to vary her father’s will
The J.R. v. J.D.M. wills variation claim arose after W.F.M. died on August 21, 2012 at the age of 65. He was survived by his second wife, J.D.M., whom he married on May 8, 2004. He and J.D.M. had no children together. The deceased also left two surviving children from his first marriage: J.R. who was born in 1975 and J.N., who was born in 1973. J.D.M. was appointed as the sole executrix and named as the sole beneficiary of W.F.M.’s last will executed on August 17, 2011 (“the Will”). The net value of W.F.M.’s estate was in the range of $725,000-$735,000. W.F.M. did not provide any written statement as to his reasons for disinheriting J.R., either in the Will or at all. J.R. sought a variation of the Will, taking the position that W.F.M. did not act as a judicious parent in disinheriting her. In response to her step-daughter’s claim, J.D.M. argued that any moral obligation W.F.M. may have owed to J.R. was negated by her approximately twenty-year estrangement from her father which she alleged was created and perpetuated by J.R. When the application to vary the will went to trial, J.R. was 41 years old, married, and had a daughter of her own. J.R. and her husband had a comfortable lifestyle and she was not in financial need.
Examining the cause of the estrangement between father and daughter
The facts clearly indicated that it was W.F.M. who bore the responsibility for the fracture of the father-daughter relationship. W.F.M. was very controlling, domineering, and short-tempered. He emotionally and sexually abused J.R. as a child until she left home at the age of 13. Thereafter, W.F.M. voluntarily abdicated his parental obligations and did not provide any material financial support while she was in foster care as a teen. J.R. was unable to complete high school or pursue post-secondary education because of the rift. They had very little contact and when they did speak, W.F.M. would berate and belittle J.R. W.F.M. stopped contacting J.R. when she was 23, and from that point on, J.R. did not reach out to her father as she was afraid of him and his mistreatment of her. The court found that the onus for repairing the relationship and seeking any form of reconciliation rested squarely with W.F.M. His blameworthy conduct enhanced his moral obligation to her.
Disinheritance not rational as father solely to blame for estrangement
Although it was true that there had been an estrangement, W.F.M.’s reason for the disinheritance was not rational in the sense of having a logical connection to the act of disinheritance (see here for our BC estate litigator’s discussion of the Bell/Kelly analytical framework establishing the doctrine of “valid and rational reasons”). There was no statement in the Will explaining W.F.M.’s reasons for disinheriting J.R. and no evidence of any other written statement regarding his intentions. W.F.M.’s lack of contact with his daughter, in itself, was the sole reason for her disinheritance; yet it was W.F.M.’s conduct, not that of J.R., that was at the root of their estrangement. It could not fairly be said that J.R. was morally blameworthy, such as would be the case where a child neglected or ignored a parent. The estrangement in this case was not the fault or at the insistence of J.R. Rather J.R.’s lack of effort to re-establish contact with her father was a reasonable reaction to his mistreatment of her. In these circumstances it would be most unjust if the court were to conclude that their estrangement diminished W.F.M.’s moral obligation to J.R.
BC will varied to make adequate provision for estranged daughter
Madam Justice Dardi concluded that W.F.M. failed to discharge his moral obligations to J.R. and failed to make adequate provision for her in his Will. His disinheritance of her fell outside the range of options a contemporary judicious parent would have considered appropriate in the circumstances. The Will was varied to provide a bequest of $250,000 to J.R. Even after this variation, W.F.M.’s legal duty to his second wife, J.D.M., was amply discharged through the provision W.F.M. made for her outside of the framework of his Will (including, but not limited to, W.F.M.’s transfer the title of his $732,000 home into joint tenancy with J.D.M. in 2011, such that unencumbered title passed to her by right of survivorship upon W.F.M.’s death).
Take home point on disinheritance due to estrangement by a parent
When considering the rationality of disinheritance after a long period of estrangement, the BC courts will inquire into the relationship and the role played by the parent. If the estrangement is largely the fault of the parent, it will likely not negate the parent’s moral obligation to an adult child.