British Columbia

Here's why B.C. lets judges rewrite unfair wills

The case of four sisters who successfully challenged their parents' unfair will is something that could only happen in B.C. — most provinces don't let non-dependent adult children contest a will on the basis of fairness.

Most provinces don't let non-dependent adult children challenge the fairness of their parents' wills

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal said he resisted calls to change the province's laws on inheritance. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The case of four sisters who successfully challenged their parents' unfair will is something that could only happen in B.C. — most provinces don't let non-dependent adult children contest a will on the basis of fairness.

But about a decade ago, there was a push to change that and toss out the legislation that allows for these challenges, according to Wally Oppal, B.C.'s attorney general from 2005 to 2009.

"The advice I got was to eliminate it altogether," Oppal told CBC.

"And I said no, we're not going to eliminate it. We're going to give those people who are aggrieved their right to challenge a will."

Oppal said he was motivated by cases like that of the Litt sisters, four women who were willed less than seven per cent of their parents' $9 million estate, even though they helped build the family fortune. Under the terms of the will, the two Litt brothers were supposed to inherit the vast majority of the family's wealth.

The women challenged that arrangement because they believed their parents had discriminated against them based on outdated values, and last week, a B.C. Supreme Court judge agreed to reapportion the estate.

Yes, you can still disinherit your children

Oppal applauded the judge's decision and said that's the type of court case he wanted to make space for when he declined to change B.C. laws.

"Particularly in the Asian community, there is a tendency to leave a disproportionate amount of your assets to sons and not to the daughters," he said.

"It would be unfair if women did not have the right to contest the will."

This Richmond farm helped build the Litt family's fortune. (Farms in B.C.)

Inheritance matters in B.C. are currently governed by the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, which states that a judge can vary a will if it "does not, in the court's opinion, make adequate provision for the proper maintenance and support of the will-maker's spouse or children."

That doesn't, however, mean that British Columbians have no say in how their estates will be distributed after they die.

It is still possible to disinherit a child or cut a spouse out of a will if there are valid, rational and provable reasons for doing so. Judges are always expected to take the intentions of the deceased into account.

"You have to get good legal advice," Oppal explained. "There's nothing preventing a person from leaving the bulk of his or her estate to particular sons or daughters, but you just have to be fair in the way you do it."

He added that many women may be hesitant to contest a will, fearing the consequences if they air their family's private business in court.

But he expects the publicity surrounding the Litt case could embolden more women to fight for equality in their inheritance.

"If there are people out there who feel that they've been unfairly dealt with by the terms of the will, then they should get legal help," Oppal said.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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