In November, Adam Mayers of The Toronto Star reviewed my book, Let’s Get Blunt About Your Financial Affairs. In his article, he discussed some of the comments I made in my book on inheritances.
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My observations elicited some very interesting emails to my inbox. Some of the emails provided tragic and sad details of children being left out of their parents' lives and consequently their wills for various reasons. One reader, who is gay, asked me if he could be left out of a will solely for that reason.
This question is far outside my area of expertise. I thus enlisted my wills, trusts and estates expert Katy Basi, to answer his question and discuss in general, the consequences from both the parents and child's perspective, of leaving a black sheep child out of the will.
Estate Planning and the Black Sheep Child
By Katy Basi
Many families have one (or more) black sheep children, and estates lawyers commonly deal with two categories of questions regarding these shunned family members. In this blog post I will refer to our sample unfortunate as Cain (though most black sheep are not guilty of fratricide!). The two situations are as follows:
- If the client is not Cain - can I cut Cain out of my will? If I do, will he be able to challenge my will?
- If the client is Cain – can my family members cut me out of their wills?
The Parent is the Client
If you plan to cut Cain out of your estate plan, I typically have three pieces of advice for my clients:
(1) Explain in the will why Cain is being treated differently than other family members of the same degree of family connection. For example, if a child is being cut out of a will because they have chosen not to have contact with their parents for two decades, the will should state that very relevant fact. Otherwise, Cain could argue that the lawyer made a drafting error by leaving him out, or this omission could be used as evidence of the parents’ lack of capacity to make the will(s) in question (i.e. the argument then goes “Clearly the fact that they “forgot about me” indicates that they had lost their marbles!”).
(2) Consider leaving a set dollar value legacy to Cain, and then having a clause that takes the legacy away if Cain challenges the will for a reason other than a valid interpretation issue. This is known as an “in terrorem” clause and needs to be very carefully drafted by an estates lawyer in order to be legally effective.
(3) Arrange for a capacity assessor to interview the testator before the will is signed (though not too far in advance of signing). The capacity assessor should then write a letter or report of some kind confirming that the testator has the capacity to make the will in question (presuming that this is the case, of course). This is particularly helpful if the testator is elderly or ill, or if there are any other factors which could lend strength to a “lack of capacity” argument by a disappointed beneficiary. I have seen a capacity assessment stop estate litigation in its tracks.
Cain is the Client
When I am advising Cain, my first piece of advice is to consult an estates litigator (I am an estates solicitor, and therefore a major part of my job, in my view, is to help clients plan their estates in such a way as to discourage litigation). After that disclaimer, my counsel generally flows along these lines:
(a) We are lucky (in my view) to have testamentary freedom in Ontario, subject to certain limitations (other provinces such as British Columbia have enacted laws limiting testamentary freedom to some extent).
(b) One exception to testamentary freedom is the ability of certain family members (e.g. minor and adult children, parents and siblings) to make a support claim against the estate. For example, if Cain is an adult child who was financially supported by his parents, and was not left a sufficient inheritance by them (as determined by a court) Cain may make a support claim against the estate. Support can include providing accommodation at lower than fair market value rent.
(d) Either of these claims will require solid evidence to be successful in court.
(e) A successful will challenge is not helpful if the prior will also cuts out the challenger, presuming that the prior will is valid.
(f) While in the old days most of the costs associated with estate litigation were borne by the estate in question, the courts have shifted their approach in recent years. These days, courts do not hesitate to order an unsuccessful will challenger to pay, not only their own costs, but also the costs of the estate relating to the challenge. Litigation is very, very expensive and time-consuming, so launching a will challenge due to feeling left out, without a good evidentiary case, is just not a good idea.
(g) However, if the will challenger has been cut out of the will for a reason that is against public policy, then litigation may be successful even if the testator had capacity and was not unduly influenced. If Cain can prove in court that he/she was cut out of an estate plan due to discrimination on a basis not permitted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example due to their sexuality, or because they married outside of his/her race/religion etc., then Cain may have a valid claim. The evidentiary mountain here can be steep to climb, but in a recent case the claimant was successful in overturning her father’s will on the basis that her father had cut her out as she had a mixed-race child. She was successful despite the fact that there was no reference to this discrimination under the terms of the will. There was, however, substantial external evidence as to the discriminatory reason behind her father’s estate plan.[Note: Just prior to the publication of this blog post, the decision of the lower court was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal, reinstating the father's original estate plan. It would be very helpful to have guidance from the Supreme Court of Canada regarding this issue if the daughter decides to ask for leave to appeal].
My discussions with clients about cutting out, or being, the black sheep tend to be fraught with sadness, anger and frustration. My experience is that clients do not cut out a black sheep lightly, and in many cases would usually be overjoyed to reconcile, knowing that there will need to be apologies and compromise on both sides. By the time I am counselling a black sheep about being cut out, it’s clear that no amount of litigation will heal the hurt feelings.
Bloggers Note: Katy has written numerous guest posts for this blog. Many of her articles have proven to be very popular with readers. If you want to read more from Katy, the best way to review her previous blog posts is: go to the search function on the top right hand side of the blog and type in her name.
Katy Basi is a barrister and solicitor with her own practice, focusing on wills, trusts, estates, and income tax law (including incorporation's and corporate restructurings). Katy practiced income tax law for many years with a large Toronto law firm, and therefore considers the income tax and probate tax implications of her clients' decisions. Please feel free to contact her directly at (905) 237-9299, or by email at email@example.com. More articles by Katy can be found at her website, basilaw.com.
The above blog post is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. Readers are advised to seek specific legal advice regarding any specific legal issues.
This site provides general information on various tax issues and other matters. The information is not intended to constitute professional advice and may not be appropriate for a specific individual or fact situation. It is written by the author solely in their personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which they are affiliated. It is not intended to constitute professional advice, and neither the author nor the firm with which the author is associated shall accept any liability in respect of any reliance on the information contained herein. Readers should always consult with their professional advisors in respect of their particular situation.