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Dysfunctional Families: First Families vs Second Families

It is a not uncommon fact pattern in estate planning and in our office litigation for a will-maker to have had one previous family, including children, before eventually having a different partner and new children later in life. In litigation terms it is the first family vs. the second ( or more)  family.

It is also not uncommon that the will-maker will have had entirely different relationships with their respective sets of children. The will-maker often grows and matures, and perhaps becomes more gentle, present, and loving the second time around. They have often by then given up their alcoholic or abusive ways, and the second set of children simply have no appreciation of the treatment that their shared father had provided the first set of children, or the type of person and parent they had once been to others

As the second set of children arrive and mature, perhaps the will-maker mentions the first set of children or perhaps they do not. They may mention them in passing or grumble about them. The parent often disparages their ex-spouse and the children, deflecting anger for their failures as a partner and parent.

The second set of children often see a distant or strained relationship between the parent and the first set of children but see that strain and distance as the fault of their ‘disinterested’ half-siblings, with no understanding of the terribly disruptive role that their parent had once been to them in pushing them away, and only hearing the ‘aggrieved’ parent’s versions of events.

As the will-maker ages, the second set of children and the will maker resent the first set of children for “not being around” enough, even though they have been pushed away and have up grown into their own lives, hurt, and without much if any presence or contact to or from their biological parent.

The will maker often perpetuates mistruths about the first set of children, typically to seek to absolve themselves internally of their own blame and culpability. The second set of children (and/or spouse) are the ears that these complaints most frequently fall upon. These beliefs become reinforced over time and the will-maker then disinherits their first set of children, often spitefully, effectively seeing them as having been ‘discharged’ in every way moral or legal way and owing them nothing.

However, once the will-maker dies, the second set of children are then confronted with a claim such as the Action and the law of British Columbia that will scrutinize the fairness and justness thereof, closely.

The second set of children are then confronted with a recognition of the first set of children’s rights, the Deceased’s will-maker’s obligations to them, and often some rather uncomfortable truths about the Deceased will-maker and their past being revealed in the process.

In circumstances where the first children are mistreated and abandoned by their father, and subsequent attempts to reach out and repair the relationship are rejected, the issues are myriad throughout their entire lives, but many often reach the point of heartbroken acceptance after too many years of rejection. The second set, having never experienced this rejection, simply cannot understand where the first set is coming from or empathize with them.

The first set of children, often losing their relationship with their parent at a young age, cannot be faulted and blamed for their adult parent’s decision to withdraw from the relationship. The first set of children also cannot be blamed or faulted for not ‘trying hard enough’ in the eyes of the distant parent or second set of children, when the circumstances of their childhood and their treatment was abusive in nature, or when the parent withdrew from the relationship.

Jackson Todd

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