Enns v. Gordon Estate, 2018 BCSC 705

In the 2018 decision of Enns v. Gordon Estate, 2018 BCSC 705, the Court considered estrangement between adult parents and children, and when estrangement can be sufficient to establish a circumstance that negates a parent’s moral obligation to provide for their child in their will.

This case involves a claim by Norma Enns and Elizabeth Gordon to vary the will of their mother, Mary Gordon. Mary was predeceased by her husband, Albert Gordon, and Norma and Elizabeth were the couple’s only children. Section 60 of the Wills, Estates, and Succession Act provides that the Court may vary a will in favour of a spouse or child in such amount as the Court thinks is adequate, just, and equitable in the circumstances.

Mary’s estate was approximately $1,000,000. Under Mary’s will, each of her daughters were to receive just $10,000. Additional cash gifts to other beneficiaries totaled $55,000 with the residue left to the Delta Hospice Society and the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. Mary left several memos explaining her reasons for the distribution set out in her will, and for leaving only a nominal amount to her daughters.

Both daughters experienced periods of estrangement from their parents. While Norma’s estrangement was relatively short at 2 years, Elizabeth’s estrangement lasted for approximately 14 years. Nevertheless, both daughters reconciled with their parents in 2011 after being informed that their mother had been diagnosed with cancer.

In examining the family history, the Court found that the parents were strict and controlling. The estrangements between the parents and their daughters arose from disputes relating to real property that the daughters resided in with their respective spouses. In each case, the parents assisted with the purchase of the real property, but the terms on which the assistance was provided was not clear, resulting in the disputes.

Mary and Gordon made their wills in 2009 shortly after their falling-out with Norma. They were also estranged from Elizabeth at this time. The provisions of their wills relating to their daughters were not updated after their reconciliation in 2011. While at least one of the memos written by Mary acknowledges the reconciliation, she indicated that she did not want to change the terms of her will.

The Court held that the provision made for Norma was not adequate, just, and equitable in the circumstances, and was not within the range of what society would expect. The will was varied to provide 60% of the residue to the named charities, and the remaining 40% to Norma.

In reaching this decision, the Court considered the following:

  • The 2-year period of estrangement between Norma and her parents was relatively short, and the parties reconciled prior to the parents’ deaths.

  • The estrangement was, in part, based on a misunderstanding with respect to the terms of ownership of a property;

  • The reasons set out in the memos left by Mary were not rational. The Court found that they were spiteful and did not reflect the parties’ relationship at the time of Mary’s death.

In arriving at its decision, the Court exercised its discretion to consider evidence beyond the parents’ statements or expressed reasons for their treatment of their children in their wills. The Court also put weight on the fact that there were no competing claims by parties with moral obligations. The Plaintiffs were not seeking to vary the specific gifts of $55,000 and the Court found that the there was no evidence of the parents having a particular connection to the charities that stood to receive the residue of the estate.

Unlike Norma, the Court did not make an order to vary the will to increase the gift of $10,000 left to Elizabeth. This was due to the significant period of estrangement between Elizabeth and her parents and the lack of evidence relating to the estrangement. Elizabeth died about 6 months after her mother and, as such, there was minimal evidence available to the Court to explain her reasons for the long-term estrangement. On the evidence available, the Court found that the estrangement negated any moral duty owed to Elizabeth by her parents.

When considering whether estrangement between a parent and adult child amounts to a circumstance that negates a parent’s moral obligation to their child, the Court will consider the length of the estrangement, the reasons for the estrangement, and who took steps to reconcile.

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