In a recent estate litigation case, a British Columbia court rejected a daughter’s unjust enrichment claim in her mother’s estate, which she based on her contributions to the family business.
Mother Leaves Unequal Distribution of Estate to Five Children
The testator was the mother of five children. Her husband had pre-deceased her.
The testator had signed a will that left her real property to two of her children in equal parts and which gifted the residue of her estate, represented by her personal property, equally between the five children. At the time of her passing in 2015, her real property was worth approximately $1.7 million and her personal property was assessed at approximately $775,000.
The three children who were not included in the distribution of the real estate property went to court to request a variation of the will.
In addition, the testator’s daughter claimed unjust enrichment. While all three children made a moral claim in the estate, the daughter’s unjust enrichment claim was a legal claim, which would take precedence over the moral claims.
Daughter Claims Unjust Enrichment for Work at Parents’ Grocery Store
The daughter based her claim on what she described as her “extraordinary efforts” in assisting her parents in operating their grocery store in the 1970s.
The family had moved to Vancouver, Canada in the mid-1960s. In 1971, the family had saved enough money to allow the parents to purchase a small grocery store with an attached home in New Westminster and the family moved there. The four eldest children worked part-time at the store until it was sold in 1981. None of the siblings were paid directly for their work.
In relation to the grocery store, the daughter claimed that, not only had she helped train her mother in how to run the store, but she had also been the key holder of business acumen that was the foundation of the store’s success. She claimed that it was her idea to purchase the store. In addition, she claimed that she did most of the paperwork, ordering, and management of the store due to her parents’ limited English.
Legal Framework for Unjust Enrichment Claims
As explained by the court, there are three well-established basic requirements for a claim in unjust enrichment, which are:
- An enrichment of the defendant;
- A corresponding deprivation of the plaintiff; and
- An absence of juristic reason for the enrichment.
Court Rejects Daughter’s Unjust Enrichment Claim
While the daughter’s siblings corroborated some parts of her account of her role at the store, the court found issue with some parts of her testimony, stating:
“While I accept much of the testimony presented by [the daughter] to the extent it is corroborated by other evidence, I have concerns about the reliability of portions of her evidence. Throughout her evidence, I found that [the daughter] would place much greater emphasis on or exaggerate her own contributions and minimize those of the other siblings…. While [the daughter] may well remember her role in the manner she describes, in the overall context of the evidence I do not find many of her recollections to be reliable.
I have no doubt that [the daughter] made significant contributions to the store that may well at times have been greater than those of her younger siblings. However, I am not satisfied on the evidence before me that [the daughter]’s role was of the scope and scale she suggests in her testimony.”
Instead, the court found that the majority of the siblings contributed fairly equally to the store. While the court accepted that the daughter’s contributions may have been somewhat more significant at times, it did not find that the daughter had made out a legal claim against her mother’s estate for unjust enrichment. In particular, the court found that, while the mother’s estate was enriched by the contributions made to the family business by the daughter and the other siblings, the daughter had also benefitted from housing, food, clothing and other amenities including childcare provided by her parents.
As such, the court rejected the daughter’s claim for unjust enrichment against the testator’s estate.
Court Varies Will To Provide for Siblings
In deciding the claim to vary the testator’s will, the court found that the distribution of the assets in the will did not make adequate, just, and equitable provision for all the siblings in the overall circumstances of the case.
In the result, the court therefore varied the will and ordered specific gifts of $300,000 to each of the two children who had been named as beneficiaries of the testator’s real property. It then ordered that the remainder of the estate was to be divided equally between the five siblings.
Protecting your assets and ensuring your family and other loved ones are provided for in the future is not something most people want to think about. However, effectively managing your wealth and protecting your spouse, children, and your estate is something that everyone should do at some point to ensure that your express wishes are carried out.
An effective estate plan goes far beyond just creating a will. You should also consider securing other important legal tools including powers of attorney (for personal care and for property), trusts (including Hansen trusts if you have disabled children or other dependants), as well as the designation of beneficiaries on life insurance policies, pensions, and other key documents.
The best way to guarantee that your wishes will be carried out exactly as you would like them to is to consult with an experienced estate lawyer. At Campbells LLP in Oakville, our wills lawyers have been helping clients with Wills and estates matter since 1999. We will meet with you to help you clarify your long-term objectives and will create a personalized, effective estate plan designed to meet those goals. As your family grows or changes, we will ensure your estate plan is amended as required to ensure it continues to protect your ultimate objective.
At Campbells LLP, we are proud of the strong, long-lasting relationships we build with the clients for whom we craft Wills and estate plans. With our help, you can ensure that your family and loved ones are taken care of, that your wealth is distributed as you wish, and that the risk of any potential litigation is minimized. Our overall mission is to provide the right solution for each and every one of our clients. Contact us online or at (905) 828-2247 to learn more about our services.