Estate planning should be a priority for Canada’s growing stepfamily population.
With more and more people finding relationship success at the second or third attempt and welcoming their children into fresh unions with married or common-law spouses, it seems as though the modern Canadian family unit has changed beyond recognition over the last few decades. And that feeling is backed up by the numbers.
According to Statistics Canada data collected from the most recent census in 2021, more than half a million Canadian children live in a stepfamily. Meanwhile, around 12 per cent of couples living together with children include offspring from a previous relationship – a number that has grown 17 per cent since 1995.
As comfortable as our society has become with divergence from the traditional nuclear family norm, those with direct experience know that stepfamilies often come with an extra layer of emotional and practical complexity, not to mention the elevated risk of litigation.
Provincial laws have evolved to catch up with these new family arrangements, but testators can protect themselves and their loved ones by consulting an experienced professional who will ask the right questions about their situation – making sure there are no nasty surprises for beneficiaries and minimizing the chance of an expensive legal challenge to the will.
One of the biggest risks come in the form of Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act, which allows dependants of the deceased to make a claim against the estate if they are left unaccounted or inadequately provided for in the will.
Separation agreements or domestic contracts signed by the testator will often offer clarity about who they have a duty to account for in their will, but not all relationships are clear-cut, especially if they ended bitterly.
Depending on the circumstances, a testator’s depandants may or may not include their first or second spouse, children from different relationships, or even their new partner’s children from a previous relationship.
Courts have broad discretion to redress the balance in favour of overlooked dependants – in the past, judges have forced the redistribution of life insurance proceeds from their original beneficiary designations and undone property conveyances to satisfy claims for dependant’s relief.
But it’s not always the big-ticket items that cause the most problems among blended families. I have seen fights break out among beneficiaries over everything from coin collections to artwork, which is why I tell clients that they can do everyone a favour by revisiting their wills and itemizing personal property so that specific items are designated to specific people.
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