If two people were unmarried but living in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, they were spouses for the purpose of various estate matters.
This article looks at what it means to be living in a “marriage-like relationship” and why it matters. We also look at a recent decision of the Court of Appeal for British Columbia, in which a man claimed that he was in a marriage-like relationship with the deceased and therefore entitled to inherit her estate.
According to section 2 of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, two people are spouses for the purpose of the Act if they were both alive immediately before the date of one of their deaths, and they were married to each other or had lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years.
In the case of a marriage-like relationship, they cease being spouses when one or both persons terminate the relationship. However, they are considered not to have separated if certain conditions are in place. Namely, if within one year after separating they begin to live together for the primary purpose of reconciling for a period of at least 90 days, the couple is not considered separated.
Being a spouse matters for a range of estate reasons. To give a few examples, under the Wills, Estates and Succession Act:
- When a person dies without a will (intestate), leaving behind a spouse and no dependents, the estate must be distributed to the spouse.
- If the deceased dies intestate and had a spouse and surviving dependents, the spouse receives the household furnishings and a preferential share of the estate.
- The deceased’s spouse can apply to vary the deceased’s will if it does not make adequate provision for their proper maintenance and support.
This phrase is not defined in the Wills, Estates and Succession Act but has been subject to detailed consideration by the courts.
In deciding whether two people were in a marriage-like relationship, courts look at a range of factors. In applying these factors, courts avoid a checklist approach because every marriage looks different. Such relationships are no longer strictly defined by financial dependence, sexual relationships or the mingling of property and finances.
The parties’ intentions, such as the expectation that the relationship will be of lengthy, indeterminate duration, are important. There should also be objective evidence consistent with those intentions.
In Coad v Lariviere, Ms. Lariviere died in 2016 without a valid will. She married Mr. Lariviere in 1976 and they divorced in the 1980s. She then met Mr. Coad in 1989 and they lived together for three years from 1990.
Around 1998, she moved into Mr. Coad’s apartment. Mr. Lariviere later moved in with them. In 2006, the deceased was involved in a serious motor vehicle collision and Mr. Coad told her not to move back into the apartment. He attempted to get her into a women’s shelter, but instead, she moved into a hotel with Mr. Lariviere for 13 months.
In 2013, Mr. Coad moved in with the deceased. He initially lived on the lower floor, before moving upstairs and sharing her bed and bathroom. Mr. Lariviere visited the property between 2013 and 2016. He would stay overnight in her bed while Mr. Coad would leave the property and stay elsewhere.
After her death, a dispute arose between Mr. Coad and Mr. Lariviere. Mr. Coad argued that he was entitled to inherit the deceased’s estate because he was her spouse.
Justice of Appeal Bennett looked at Mr. Coad’s evidence, who testified that he cared for the deceased by taking her to hundreds of medical appointments and picking up her medication at the pharmacy. Mr. Coad testified that he did the regular grocery shopping and the two had meals and celebrations together. Furthermore, he said that they shared the same bed from 2013 until her death in 2016.
Her Honour also relied on the evidence of two witnesses who had lived with the deceased and Mr. Coad in the period after 2013. They said that the two were “like a typical married couple”, did everything together and shared a bedroom.
After considering the evidence, Justice of Appeal Bennett concluded that:
…the uncontested evidence was that Mr. Coad did live with Ms. Lariviere, shared her bed, attended to her medical needs, advised her on her finances, shared meals and celebrations with her, ran errands for her and spent substantial portions of his day with her. All circumstances that led friends who observed them to conclude that they were in a marriage-like relationship.
Her Honour said that it was not a competition between Mr. Coad and Mr. Lariviere in terms of who shared her bed more or who attended to her medical needs more. Mr. Lariviere based his claim on a previous will that was found to have been revoked. He did not claim to be her spouse.
The Court of Appeal decided that Mr. Coad was in a marriage-like relationship with the deceased, and thus entitled to inherit her estate.
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