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When a person passes away without a will, or intestate, the distribution of the estate’s assets is determined by Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “Act”). For example, a spouse will be first in line, followed by children, and so on. However, it is important to note that this part of the Act only applies to married spouses. What happens in a case where the deceased had a common-law spouse at the time of their death? What are the entitlements owing to that spouse, if any?

Dependant Relief Claims Explained

Common-law spouses retain a right to claim a portion of their spouse’s estate in the form of a dependant’s relief claim. These claims are governed by Part V of the Act. In order to make a successful claim for dependant’s relief, a spouse must be able to demonstrate that they were in a common-law relationship with the deceased at the time of their death. In cases where the deceased did have a will, the spouse must also establish that the will failed to provide adequate provisions for their ongoing support.

Once the spouse has established their right to a claim, the court must then determine the amount of the award. To do this, the court will review a number of factors set out under s. 62, including the following:

  • the dependant’s current assets and means;
  • the dependant’s capacity to contribute to their own support;
  • the dependant’s age and physical and mental health;
  • any agreement between the deceased and the dependant;
  • the claims of any other dependant of the deceased; and
  • the length of time the spouses cohabitated.

These are just some of the factors enumerated in the Act. The full list can be viewed under s. 62(1) of the Act.

A Recent Example

A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court examined a classic scenario of a common-law spouse’s claim for dependant’s relief. In the case at hand, the deceased died intestate and was survived by an adult child and his common-law spouse. Under the laws of succession, the entire estate, valued at $2,851,125.77, would have gone to the daughter of the deceased. The common-law spouse brought a claim for dependant’s relief, seeking an award of half the value of the estate. Specifically, she sought an absolute transfer of the farm property where she resided with the deceased, which was valued at $580,000.00. In addition, she sought to keep all funds and assets she had received to date, which totalled approximately $570,000.00 and then a further cash payment of approximately $275,000.00. This would leave both the applicant and the respondent with approximately equal shares in the estate.

At the time of her spouse’s death, the applicant was 73 years old. She had no physical or mental health issues and was not employed. She resided on a farm property owned by the deceased, where she had lived and worked since 1991. She had originally met the deceased when he hired her to work as his housekeeper, however, a romantic relationship developed over time. Tax records indicated that the pair had declared themselves to be common-law spouses beginning in 1999.

Records showed that the applicant had paid into the household expenses over the years, including veterinary bills, small tools for the farm, home appliances, and food and clothing for the couple.

The court examined what the applicant would require in order to maintain her own care, with the contemplation of the applicant eventually relocating to a one-bedroom accommodation in a nursing care facility. Relying on expert evidence, the court found that the applicant would be likely to suffer a shortfall if she was entitled only to the assets already in her possession. Given that the estate was sizeable enough to provide for the applicant, the court found that the deceased had failed to provide adequate support.

Once the applicant had successfully established a claim against the estate, the court then turned to the amount. While the court considered providing a life estate in the farmhouse for the applicant, it found that there was a contentious relationship between the applicant and the deceased’s daughter, and a life estate in the home would prolong the need for the parties to interact with each other. Under the circumstances, the court held that both parties would be better served by ordering a transfer of the farmhouse to the applicant.

The court ultimately found that a judicious spouse would have provided for the applicant’s care and her ability to live in relative comfort for the remainder of her life. Given that, the court ordered that the applicant keep the assets already in her possession in addition to the transfer of the farmhouse, and also awarded a further payment of approximately $275,000.00. The applicant received everything she had requested, which amounted to half the value of the estate.

Takeaways

This case serves to illustrate how the law can help to make up for a shortfall when a person dies without properly providing for a dependant. Just because a person has been left out of the will, or in a case where there was no will at all, it does not mean that they are without options. If you find yourself facing a similar circumstance, seek the advice of a skilled wills and estates lawyer.

At Baker & Company, our Toronto estate planning lawyers can help you establish an estate plan tailored to your needs, no matter your current family status. We have extensive experience and expertise in providing you with estate planning advice and implementing your desired plan. Should you find yourself in the position of challenging an existing will or estate, our lawyers can also represent you through the litigation process. Call us at 416-777-0100 or contact us online for a consultation.

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