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Posted By Dyna Liam on 04/11/2019

The Sibling Inheritance Battle

The Sibling Inheritance Battle

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life.  Older siblings assert control over younger ones and siblings often compete for the attention and approval of their parents. These rivalries teach valuable lessons about sharing, patience, fairness, hierarchical needs, social behaviour, and how to treat others.

The Prevalence of Sibling Inheritance Disputes

Unfortunately, in some cases, sibling rivalry may intensify as time passes. It is common for siblings to carry hurt feelings into adulthood. Many continue to believe that one child is or has always been favoured by a parent, even though this favouritism may not be acknowledged by the rest of the family.  These bitter emotions can cause a lifetime of hurt and resentment. Not surprisingly, rates of sibling rivalry are lower in families where children feel their parents treat them equally.

According to Psychology Today, “A large proportion of parents display consistent favouritism toward one child over another.” Favouritism does not necessarily mean that a parent loves one child more than another, it may mean that they give one child more attention than their siblings for a variety of reasons – such as a child’s health issues, self-confidence levels. “Parents still favour daughters and less troublesome or defiant children, but they also give preference to children who live closer, share the parents' values, and, not surprisingly, have provided the parents with emotional or financial support.”  Add to this contentious equation an inequitable distribution of assets in a Will when a parent passes away, and you have ignited the sibling rivalry fuse again, but the stakes are much higher than parental praise.

Consider the following example:

Michael, a successful investment broker, grew up in a large 4-bedroom heritage home in North Vancouver with his sister Katherine (two years younger), his mother Mona, and his father, Edward.

Michael, a gay man, came out to his parents when he was sixteen years old. He received a great deal of support from Mona, but Edward’s strict religious beliefs and disapproval were the source of many bitter exchanges between father and son.  Michael’s teenage years were difficult. He worked two part-time jobs as a student, to gain financial independence and get out of his parent’s house. In 1998, at the age of 18, Michael moved to Toronto to distance himself from his father’s prejudice and to live the life he wanted. Edward passed away a year later. He left his estate, now valued at $2.3 million, to his wife, Mona.

Michael’s life in Toronto took root when he met and married Ken, a financial consultant. An accomplished and affluent couple, they bought a large 5-bedroom home in Sunnybrook, one of Toronto’s most affluent neighbourhoods.  It was the happiest time of Michael’s life.

Where Michael felt only rejection and disdain from his father, his sister, Katherine, had always been the apple of her father’s eye and could do no wrong. The sibling rivalry between Michael and Katherine was fuelled by Edward’s adoration of his daughter, and his denunciation of his son. They fought just as fiercely as Michael had fought with his father. Katherine resented Michael’s move to Toronto. She felt she had been shut out of Michael’s life, even though she didn’t share her father’s discriminatory views, and that Michael had broken Mona’s heart by moving so far away.

Michael phoned Mona weekly.  He felt that his mother was his sole source of love and support in the family and the only one who had never criticized him. When his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, Michael was devastated. The prognosis was very poor – she was not expected to live for more than a year. Michael flew to Vancouver and stayed with his mother for two weeks. It was very difficult for Michael to leave Mona to return to work in Toronto, but he had business clients who depended on him. He made a promise to return as soon as he could. He was emotionally torn and distraught.

Katherine, a single mother, moved into her mother’s home with her young daughter to care for Mona for the duration of her cancer treatment. Katherine was a Social Worker, and although she earned a respectable salary, she was the sole breadwinner and provider for her daughter. Money had always been a struggle for Katherine. The advantages of Katherine moving into the family home to care for Mona also included alleviating some of her financial stress. In doing so, she grew closer to her mother than she ever was before.

Mona passed away in the spring of 2012, before Michael had ever had the chance to return to visit her. In her Will, Mona bequeathed 30% of her estate to Michael, and 70% of her estate to Katherine. Michael was shocked. He felt Katherine had always been given so much, whereas he had effectively been forced to leave BC and fend for himself. Katherine felt this was a just and equitable distribution of assets, as she was the one who was closest to both parents and the caregiver throughout Mona’s final year. She also felt that her daughter, the sole grandchild of Edward and Mona, deserved to have enough funds for a University education.

Ken, Michael’s husband, urged him to contest the Will. Ken felt that it was in effect Edward’s estate and that Michael was owed some restitution for all the emotional pain his father had caused.

The Division of Assets according to the Law

There is a societal expectation that children will receive equal shares of a parent’s estate.  This has been recognized by the BC Courts and parents are encouraged to divide their estate equally amongst their children.  The Wills, Estates and Succession Act provides a mechanism to correct unequal distribution where a compelling reason for it does not exist.

What the future holds

An Angus Reid survey conducted in April 2016 revealed that an average inheritance today is 50 per cent higher compared to the previous decade and that Canadians can expect a $750 billion windfall from their ageing relatives over the next decade. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) Deputy Chief Economist Benjamin Tal says “this is the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in Canadian history” and that the amount will grow even larger in subsequent decades. Furthermore, CIBC Economists report that BC has the highest average inheritance figure of all the Canadian provinces.

These findings prompted The Financial Post to declare a “Bequest Boom” from those born in the 1930s and '40s to their baby boomer offspring. Legal pundits are predicting that we will see a significant increase in estate litigation cases coming to the courts.

Helpforme, the Personal Legal Services division of Hammerberg Lawyers LLP, offers legal expertise in Inheritance Law. Helpforme offers a free consultation and work to quickly determine whether you have a valid claim under the law. The firm has a uniquely personal, empathetic client approach which emphasizes guiding people through a difficult and emotional dispute, and leading them through a resolution process to restore their sense of justice. The Helpforme team also assert that not all estate disputes need to involve litigation – Helpforme estate litigation lawyers are also experienced negotiators and can often find amicable solutions among beneficiaries that, if desired, can unite divided families.

Helpforme offers Estate Litigation services on a contingency basis – clients only pay legal fees when their case is resolved positively. This makes it possible for people with a valid claim to take the necessary steps to challenge a Will, without the worry of paying legal fees while their dispute is in progress. Helpforme’s contingency fee structure gives everyone access to justice and the ability to pursue their legal rights – including those who might not otherwise have the means to retain a lawyer.

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