Modern families are complicated. With the high rate of divorce and re-marriage, more and more blended families are created. Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren can be difficult, but in many instances, the relationships are strong and affectionate. What perhaps is less appreciated by the general public are the legal rights of stepchildren when it comes to inheritance.
Unlike biological and formally adopted children, stepchildren have no inheritance rights to their stepparent’s assets in British Columbia unless the stepchildren are specifically named and granted a bequest in a will. The same principle applies to step grandchildren and so forth. In a situation where a stepparent wants to leave something for a stepchild in a will, it may not suffice to leave a will in which the beneficiaries are referred to only as “my children”.
In the past, Courts generally did not include in the definition of “child” or “grandchild” a stepchild or step grandchild. The rule has been somewhat relaxed in recent years. Now, where there is ambiguity in the will, the Court is willing to look into the context of the will and other external evidence to see if the testator intended that a stepchild (or a step grandchild) is to inherit from his or her estate.
A recent BC Supreme Court case, Re Lang Estate, 2011 BCSC 972, is illustrative of the Court’s approach. In that case, Mrs. Lang died with a will. The will provided that the residue of her estate was to be divided equally between her “grandchildren and great-grandchildren”. Mrs. Lang left behind two grandchildren and one great-grandchild through her two adopted children. She also had 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren through her two stepchildren. The 27 step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren argued that they were included in the will to share the residue. The Court disagreed and held that the law presumed that the term “grandchildren and great-grandchildren” means her descendents though birth or adoption, and there was no evidence that Mrs. Lang intended to include in her will her step-grandchildren or step-great-grandchildren.
If you have a stepchild, then keep in mind that the child is not entitled to share your estate even though you may have raised the child and taken care of him or her during your lifetime unless you specifically provide for the child in your will. Under certain circumstances, it may be a good idea to consider and discuss openly with your family members how you wish to treat your stepchild with regard to inheritance and plan accordingly. Even if the decision is exclusion, then it at least provides some certainty to avoid difficult litigation as was endured by the 30 family members in the Lang Estate case. At a minimum, you should certainly let your lawyer know your decision regarding your stepchild, if any.