Plaintiff submits she contributed extraordinary efforts to parents' grocery store operations
When a parent’s will does not treat the children equally, they may revisit the unpaid services they contributed to the family business. That is the lesson that James Zaitsoff, a wills and estates litigation lawyer at Owen Bird Law Corporation, has highlighted in a recent case comment.
Zaitsoff noted that claims for will variation often arise when a parent’s death brings up perceptions of favouritism, unfairness and lack of appreciation. In such situations, children commonly initiate claims for unremunerated contributions to a family business, Zaitsoff said.
In Tang v. Tom, 2021 BCSC 1399, three of five siblings sought variation of their mother’s will, including plaintiff Linda Tang. She also filed a claim alleging unjust enrichment regarding her extraordinary efforts to assist her parents in running their grocery store from 1971 to 1981.
The mother’s last will, dated a week before her death in December 2015, provided that a real property in Vancouver would be split evenly between the two defendant siblings, while the estate’s residue would be divided equally among all five siblings.
Regarding unjust enrichment, Linda submitted that she suggested the business idea to her parents, scoped out the location, urged them to buy the store, managed the store’s flower business and did most of the ordering and paperwork because of her parents’ language limitations.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia accepted that the siblings had a moral claim to a portion of the estate, given that the family functioned as a single economic unit in the years leading up to the purchase of the house in Vancouver.
The court, however, was not satisfied that Linda had a distinct claim against her mother’s estate for unjust enrichment, even though her age and role at the store meant that she might have given more significant contributions than her younger siblings. Moreover, all the siblings, including Linda, benefited from the housing, food, clothing, pocket money, vehicles and amenities provided by their parents at the time.
The court took issue with the reliability of many of Linda’s recollections, which seemed to exaggerate her contributions and minimize those of her other siblings. The parents likely trusted the advice of their relative who was already operating a grocery store and that of their eldest son, who had worked in that relative’s store, the court determined.
Concerning the mother’s will, the court found its variation justified in the circumstances. While the court accepted that the mother intended to favour the two defendant siblings for their sacrifices in caring for her in the final years of her life, the court held that the will’s distribution of the assets did not adequately, justly and equitably provide for the plaintiff siblings.
The court thus directed that the defendant siblings receive larger gifts of $300,000 each, while the remainder of the estate would be equally divided among all five siblings. This variation would strike the right balance between the mother’s clear intentions to recognize the sacrifice of the defendant siblings while also complying with her moral obligations to the plaintiff siblings, the court said.