Pondering Precedents – Spouses in Different Houses
Pondering Precedents – Common Law Spouses in Different Houses
Wills Estates and Succession Act
The issue of spouses who live in different houses was considered by the courts here in British Columbia in the case of Richardson Estate (Re), 2014 BCSC 2162. This blog post is the first in a series called “Pondering Precedents” where we will break-down decisions of the Courts and discuss the relevant legal principles.
The Facts: Philip Richardson (“the Deceased”) died in an accident in May 2014 without leaving a will. The applicant Nancy Chen sought a declaration from the court that she was the common law spouse of Mr. Richardson and as his spouse was entitled to be the sole beneficiary of his estate. Stephen Richardson (the brother of Philip Richardson) disputed that Nancy Chen was the deceased’s spouse, which if successful would allow him to inherit the estate. Nancy Chen and Philip Richardson had been in a loving and intimate relationship for over 15 years but maintained separate residences in Surrey and Gambier Island.
The Issue: The main issue in this case was whether or not a couple could live in separate residences and still be considered “common-law” spouses under the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”).
The Law: WESA states that if a person dies without leaving a will, the administration of their estate may be granted to their spouse (s. 130(a)) and if they leave a spouse but no descendants, the intestate estate must be distributed to said spouse (s. 20). Under the Act spouses are defined as two people who are married to each other or two people that have lived in a “marriage-like relationship” for at least two years.
Analysis: The Court held that there are many factors to consider when determining whether a “marriage-like relationship” exists. The court explained that spousal relationships come in many forms and the structure of each will be specific to that relationship. Generally the Court will look at factors such as living arrangements, sexual relations, attitudes of the spouses toward each other, domestic responsibilities, social life as a couple, finances and children to determine the nature of the relationship. Using this holistic approach, the mere fact that a couple lives in separate residences will not preclude them from spousal status. The court ruled that Ms. Chen and Mr. Richardson were spouses that had lived in a “marriage-like relationship” due to the following:
- They had travelled back and forth from Surrey to Gambier Island, with Ms. Chen more frequently at Gambier Island. The couple also traveled together on a number of trips;
- Richardson made Ms. Chen furniture, contributed to the costs of raising Nancy’s sons from a previous relationship, named her as the beneficiary of an investment account and cared for her during a significant health crisis. Ms. Chen cared for Mr. Richardson’s elderly parents, made meals and cleaned for him, and also named him as the beneficiary in her investment account;
- The couple had a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony when they travelled to China and
- They were known as a couple on Gambier Island; and
- They had an exclusive and intimate relationship in both cities and each contributed to both residences.
The court ruled that although they maintained two residences they structured their relationship to work in both homes in order to take care of their respective families in those homes. Although the Court found some inconsistencies, overall the evidence supported the conclusion that they had lived in a “marriage-like relationship” and therefore Ms. Chen was entitled to a declaration that she was the spouse of Mr. Richardson and thus the sole beneficiary of his estate.