A recent British Columbia decision serves as a reminder that, in making an unjust enrichment claim against an estate, there must be proof of an actual benefit to the estate.
Daughter Claims Unjust Enrichment
A married couple purchased ten parcels of land in British Columbia in 1977. They operated a cattle ranch on the properties until their deaths in 2013 and 2016 respectively. They had four children together.
Their youngest child was granted probate of the father’s estate in 2013 and of the mother’s estate in 2016. The parents’ estates were to be divided equally between their four children.
Following her parents’ death, the daughter operated the cattle ranch as her parents had done. However, she commingled her personal funds with estate funds and did not act promptly to administer her parents’ estates. She was also in a conflict of interest as a result of her stated desire to acquire estate property.
Thus, by order made on August 29, 2019, the daughter was removed as the sole executrix of her parents’ estates and another executor was appointed.
Subsequent to his appointment, the daughter discussed with the executor her desire to acquire certain estate properties, but they were unable to reach an agreement. The executor thus entered into a series of contracts to sell some of the properties to a third party. One of those properties was the main ranch property and an asset in the father’s estate. The daughter and her family had lived on the property in a manufactured home since 1996.
To prevent the sale of the main ranch, the daughter commenced a constructive trust action. She sought a ten percent interest in and a fair sale process for the property.
The executor resisted the daughter’s claim for unjust enrichment.
Proving Unjust Enrichment
The court began by explaining that, as established in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision Becker v. Pettkus, to establish unjust enrichment, a plaintiff needs to show:
(3) causal connection between enrichment and deprivation; and
(4) an absence of juristic justification for the enrichment.
Therefore, in this case, the daughter had to prove on a balance of probabilities: a benefit to the estate, a corresponding deprivation to her and the absence of a juristic reason for the benefit and deprivation.
As such, the daughter submitted that her many hours of labour and the contribution of her personal funds had benefitted her father’s estate, particularly the main ranch property, to her detriment. She claimed that she and her family had run the cattle operation, managed an associated gravel pit and performed the bookkeeping. The daughter also submitted that she had paid a number of expenses related to the cattle ranch from her own funds, including mortgage payments, electricity bills, property taxes and insurance payments, all of which totalled over $36,000. Finally, she maintainedthat she and her family had “done all or almost all” of the maintenance work on the estate properties. Though she had not kept detailed records of the amount of time her family spent doing this work, the daughter estimated that it amounted to hundreds of hours.
Daughter’s Claim Dismissed for Lack of Benefit to Estate
The court noted that the daughter’s general approach to administering her parents’ estates had been to continue operating the cattle ranch in essentially the same way that her parents had done.
However, despite her claims, the court found that, following her mother’s death, the daughter had in fact operated the cattle ranch at a loss.
Additionally, in terms of the time and money that the daughter claimed she and her family had put into the property, the court found that it was impossible to discern how much of it had been necessary or related to the cattle ranch’s operations, how much was related to the daughter and her family, and how much it enhanced the value of the property or even if it had enhanced the value at all.
Finally, the court observed that the daughter’s family had been able to live rent-free on the property.
In the result, the court therefore held that the daughter had failed to establish that her time and money had resulted in a benefit to the estate and dismissed her claim for unjust enrichment.
Estate disputes are complicated: they involve high levels of emotion, usually by individuals who are grieving the loss of a family member or who are dealing with a loved one who is very ill. Such disputes can become quite lengthy and can take months or even years to resolve, prompting individuals to take sides, creating acrimonious divisions, and eating into the value of an estate.
At Campbells LLP, our team of compassionate and highly skilled Oakville estate litigation lawyers have been assisting clients with estate disputes and resulting litigation since 1999. We are proud of the strong, long-lasting relationships that we build with our clients and provide a steady sounding board and legal advice to guide them through what can be one of the most emotionally draining times in their lives. With our help, we can ensure that the legacy of our client’s loved ones is carried out exactly as they wished, that their health and well-being is taken care of, and that their estate is protected.
At Campbells LLP, our exceptional estate lawyers can represent you in all estate litigation matters. We know that many individuals work during the week and cannot meet during the day. One of our lawyers would be pleased to meet you in the evening or during the weekend, by appointment, if your schedule so requires. Contact us online or at (905) 828-2247. We look forward to speaking with you and going through this process by your side.