Pursuant to British Columbia's Wills, Estates and Succession Act, S.B.C. 2009, c. 13 ("WESA"), when a person dies without a will, that person's surviving spouse is entitled to inherit either the entirety of the estate (if there are no descendants) or a preferential share of it (if there are descendants). Section 2 of WESA defines two persons as "spouses" if they were married to each other, or if "they had lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years." What constitutes a "marriage-like relationship" however is not defined in WESA. Fortunately, a recent decision by the British Columbia Court of Appeal has gone a long way to clarify the threshold requirement to be considered a spouse in a marriage-like relationship.
In Coad v. Lariviere, 2022 BCCA 222, Ms. Barba Lariviere ("Barba" or the "Deceased") died in 2016, leaving behind several documents that arguably indicated her testamentary intent. Barba was survived by her ex-husband, Mr. Ken Lariviere ("Ken"), her sister, brother, mother, and Mr. Sasha Jan Coad ("Sasha"), who alleged that he was in a marriage-like relationship with Barba at the time of her death. As a result of this purported relationship, and the lack of clarity surrounding Barba's testamentary documentation, Sasha argued that he was the Estate's sole beneficiary and administrator.
The trial judge ultimately concluded that Barba died intestate, but that Sasha was not in a marriage-like relationship with the Deceased. Additionally the trial judge determined that Barba's mother was the sole beneficiary of her estate. Unfortunately, Ms. Lariviere's mother passed during the course of the trial and shortly after the trial judge's final order so did her ex-husband, Ken. Shortly thereafter Sasha appealed the decision.
The British Columbia Court of Appeal was subsequently tasked with considering two issues on appeal, namely the validity of the Barba's testamentary documents and her relationship with Sasha. The appellate court affirmed that there is no definition of a marriage-like relationship and that a checklist approach cannot be relied upon to determine the existence of one. The appellate court then outlined that the expectations of the parties considered jointly with objective evidence can be important in determining whether the parties are/were in a marriage-like relationship. Objective evidence can be illustrated as whether: the couple lived together, their assets were pooled, they slept in the same bed, they went on vacations together, and other evidence of this nature. Importantly, the aforementioned evidence is not required, as the appellate court emphasized that there are many different ways to construct a marriage-like relationship and that there is no one specific structure to follow. Additionally, the objective evidence can be considered in varying degrees, rather than simply identifying whether it is present or not.
The British Columbia Court of Appeal also highlighted that there are no requirements for opposite-sex or same-sex couples to fit the traditional conjugal relationship mold: a marriage-like relationship depends on the context of the situation and is determined on a case-by-case basis. A contextual and holistic approach is required to determine if the parties are in a marriage-like relationship, which includes "a question of mixed fact and law, subject to deference absent a palpable and overriding error." This ultimately means that courts will consider the law when determining a marriage-like relationship, but also the evidence put before the court. Further, when a decision of this nature is appealed, the appellate courts will respect the lower court's decision unless there is an obvious and predominant error made that affects the outcome of the case.
The key takeaway from this decision is that the British Columbia Court of Appeal has affirmed that there is no single method to determine whether parties are in a marriage-like relationship, rather it depends on a contextual and holistic approach that will be guided by subjective and objective evidence. If you have any questions, need advice or assistance with the administration of a contentious estate, please contact Miller Thomson's Estate Litigation team.
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