There is an old adage that goes “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Friendship is an association by choice, while family is an association through birth. The law treats them differently. And in a passing observation, the law regulates the association through the happy accident of birth much more strictly than the association through choice. If you want to end a friendship, then don’t text them back; ending a familial relationship is not so easily accomplished, if it can be accomplished at all.
The most common circumstance where a familial relationship comes to an end is in between spouses. The purpose of this blog is discuss a circumstance less common, when parents wants to end a relationship with an adult child and cut the child out of their will. To that effect I’d like to discuss Enns v. Gordon Estate, 2018 BCSC 705, the tale of Norma and Elizabeth – two sisters born to Albert and Mary Gordon. Their story is instructive in answering two basic questions about what happens if your relationship with your parents breaks down resulting in little to no contact (“estrangement”), and then when your parents died, you find out that they removed you from their will:
- Can you still receive something from your parents’ estate, even though you were taken out of their will? (Spoiler: the answer is “yes”.)
- Are all estrangements treated equally? (Spoiler: the answer is “no”.)
The Estranged Case of the Gordon Sisters
Mary and her spouse, Albert, married in 1958. They had two daughters, Norma, who was born in 1958, and Elizabeth, who was born in 1965. Mary and Albert were very strict parents and known to hold grudges.
In 1979, Norma was 20 years old and she moved out of her parents’ house. This was due to her parents’ rules about who she was allowed to see and when she was required to return home – her parents did not allow her to have a key to their house. When Norma informed her parents that she was moving out they called her a “slut and a whore”. Norma’s parents informed her that she could leave with nothing but her clothes.
Despite the harsh initial reaction, Norma resumed her relationship with her parents within a few months. Norma would call her parents on weekly basis, and would visit them every two weeks.
In 1991, Norma became engaged to Shawn, even though her parents referred to him as a “loser” when they first met. When Shawn went to ask Norma’s parents for permission to marry Norma, they did not give it. Mary only agreed to go to the wedding on the day before the ceremony. Despite the disapproval of her partner, Norma continued to visit her parents every two weeks and spent time with them during the holidays.
In 1996, Norma and Shawn had a child, which thawed their relationship with Norma’s parents. Norma’s parents offered to provide daycare for Norma’s child and suggested that they move closer to them. Norma’s family did move closer to her parents and were given a gift of $12,000 to help pay for the move. In the first month and on four occasions, Norma’s parents told Norma that they were unable to watch the child the morning on which they were scheduled to watch the child. Norma decided to put their daughter in daycare, which caused a fight between Norma and her parents.
In 1997, Norma’s family moved to a different part of the lower mainland. Norma’s parents were angry and did not speak to her for a month. However, the weekly phone calls and bi-weekly visits resumed after that.
Meanwhile in 1987, Elizabeth moved out of the house and purchased a condo with her father as tenants in common. Elizabeth married Constantine in 1993.
In 1996, Elizabeth and her father sold the condo and split the proceeds. Elizabeth and Constantine borrowed $34,104.73 from Elizabeth’s father to purchase a house. Elizabeth’s father drafted a promissory note that included a provision that the debt would be repayable upon demand.
In July 1996, Elizabeth and Constantine purchased a house. To make the down payment they used the money that was lent to them by Elizabeth’s father. In January 1997, Elizabeth’s father demanded repayment of the loan. When he did not receive payment, he filed a writ of summons on February 7, 1997. In June 1997, Elizabeth and Constantine sold the house and repaid Elizabeth’s father in full. Understandably this strained their relationship and Elizabeth became estranged from her parents. This rift would not begin to close until 2011.
In 1998, Mary underwent surgery for breast cancer. Norma informed Elizabeth of Mary’s health issues, but Elizabeth did not make an effort to contact Mary.
In 2000, Norma and Shawn had to leave their rental unit. Norma’s parents made a plan for them to purchase a townhome near them, where Norma’s parents would pay the down payment and Norma and Shawn would pay the mortgage. The plan proceeded, with Norma and her parents on the title.
The reason that Norma was added to the title was the strata by-laws required that the owner occupy the unit. Shawn had reservations because Norma’s parents declined to put him on the title, and he was aware of the previous property disputes in the family. Even though the plan proceeded, his apprehension and a perceived insult remained.
In 2004, there was an argument about adding Shawn to the title of the townhouse. Again, Norma’s parents declined to allow him to be on the title. As a result Shawn no longer had any desire to speak with Norma’s parents and no longer joined Norma on her visits with them.
In 2009, there was another argument regarding adding Shawn to the title. Norma refused to sign documents to renew the mortgage unless Shawn was added to the title. Norma’s parents refused to add him. Norma’s parents removed Norma from the title, which caused a violation of the strata bylaws.
Norma and Shawn offered to purchase the townhouse. Initially Norma’s parents refused, but then they sold the town house to Norma and Shawn. This dispute caused a two-year rift between Norma and her parents. In the interim period, Norma’s parents made a will that only gave a small gift to Norma and Elizabeth for the reason that they were estranged. The majority of their estate was to be given to charity.
In 2011, Mary was diagnosed with bone cancer. Albert informed Norma about Mary’s health issues. Norma told Elizabeth about this bout of cancer, and they agreed to visit Mary several weeks later. Mary was happy that her daughters visited.
At that time Norma resumed contact with Mary, and it was unknown whether Elizabeth did as well. It is known that after July 2012, both daughters had regular contact with their parents. Albert was hospitalized and Mary was with him every day. Norma and Elizabeth joined her almost every day. Norma and Elizabeth assisted Mary with transportation, buying groceries, and cleaning her house.
On November 13, 2012, Albert died and his estate went to Mary. Norma helped arrange the celebration of life for her father, and gave a eulogy.
Norma and Elizabeth continued to spend time with the widowed Mary. They took turns on weekends performing errands and spent holidays together. The past estrangements were not discussed.
Elizabeth’s husband died in 2014. Elizabeth sought treatment for alcoholism, and Mary, Norma, and Shawn visited her often. Elizabeth was then diagnosed an advanced stage terminal cancer, even so, she continued to visit Mary whose health was also in decline. In 2015, Mary died. Elizabeth died the following year.
Norma was the sole beneficiary of Elizabeth’s estate. Mary’s estate was worth an estimated $1,025,044.76. Under the terms of Mary’s will, Elizabeth and Norma received $10,000 each. $65,000 was given to several other people, and the residue was to be gifted to charities.
And so Norma sued her mother’s estate.
Part 2 of this story will go into the court case and the lessons that can be learned.
If you have questions about your will or your inheritance, call Drysdale Law at 604-LAWYERS.