Dysfunctional Families: Sibling Rivalry

Sibling Rivalry in Dysfunctional Families and Estate Litigation

In estate litigation, what euphemistically might be called “sibling rivalry” but in a dysfunctional family, often in reality borders on sibling hatred and jealousies.

In some species, fortunately not humans, the firstborn is known to deliberately kill the second born.

Sibling rivalry can happen in any family, but is particularly common in dysfunctional families when individual children have had negative experiences in childhood. These might be the death of a parent, drug or alcohol addictions, a narcissistic parent, a step parent who is abusive or non-loving, and many other factors that are prevalent in dysfunctional families.

Any lack of a nurturing environment in childhood and the experience of having to go without something so essential to a child as love and bonding, will have a very detrimental effect in adulthood.

If one child or more is favoured over the others, this severely heightens the probability of extreme sibling rivalry that might start in childhood in matters such as fighting over a toy that later may lead to protracted bitter litigation over a parents inheritance.

In my experience most siblings seek a fair and equitable share of their parents inheritance which in most case means exactly equal, and will resent, and even litigate rather than accept that one or more siblings will inherit a greater share of a parents in the absence of reasonable and rational reasons, such as a major disability.

After 45 years of dealing with inheritance litigation among siblings, I note that most sibling disputes can be rather simplistically reduced to the perception that where one sibling inherits more than another, that sibling was loved more by the deceased parent, and that is simply intolerable to the sibling who received less.

In simple terms money and asset division are equated with the level of parental love and approval.

Invariably in any family the children will spend more time with each other and get to know each other better than they will with their parents. Children confide their secrets with each other and grow up knowing how to “push each other’s buttons “far more than most parents are aware.

It is probably only natural that each child seeks as much love and attention as possible from his or her parents, even if it is to the exclusion of siblings.
If a child actually receives more love and attention than other children in the family, it can lead to greater senses of entitlement to share in the parent’s wealth and estate.

I hear the word greed in my office on an almost daily basis when my clients describe the opposing party, who is commonly a sibling. Invariably I also hear that he or she has always been that way, even as a child.

The problem that arises in estate litigation, is that the family greed or sense of entitlement greatly interferes detrimentally with the healthy family unit and instead tends to fracture it .

The breakup of the family unit in recent years has eroded to the point where there are now more blended families than ever, which is a breeding ground for increased sibling estate litigation.

Probably the most difficult sibling rivalry cases are situations where one child has either never left home and became a long time caregiver for a parent, or alternatively, the one child who wants to operate the family farm whereas the others cannot wait to vacate the farm and move to the city.

The remaining siblings while appreciative that their sibling has undertaken the thankless role of either parental caregiving or managing the family farm, and are often dumbfounded when following the death of the parent, it is found that license has been taken with the parent’s resources, or that the caregiver has unilaterally placed a price tag on his or her low by seeking compensation for caring for the parent.

Very often the parent obliges by putting the property into joint tenancy with a right of survivorship with the child who remained at home.

The other siblings invariably take the view that while the caregiver or farm operator has in fact carried out the activity that the parent may have asked for and required, they invariably point out that that child lived room and board free and had and eye on inheriting the entire parents estate.

Estate litigation has been increasing in the last two decades at an almost exponential rate, as the wealth of the older generation increases and the Boomer generation wants to retire with enough wealth to live happily ever after.

Estate disputes arise for a number of reasons, but are very often the result of real or perceived preferential treatment by a parent of one sibling over another.

The so-called greed among siblings is not just all about the money but instead is also a way of validating or not validating parental love and affection.
The division of assets under a parents will often becomes the lightning rod for years of underlying sibling emotions. The parent’s will becomes something much larger than paper dolling out bequests –it is perceived as a monetary quantification of a parent’s love and approval or alternatively distrust and disappointment in a child.

To avoid estate litigation, parents should strive to divide their assets equally between their children, or to at least communicate well in advance to reach child why there may not be an equal division and provide supporting reasons for doing so.

Quiz: Is Your Family Dysfunctional?

Quiz: Is Your Family Dysfunctional?

I have blogged many articles on aspects of dysfunctional families and thought it might be helpful to have a questionnaire to assist in analyzing just how dysfunctional ones family might be.

The list of course is not exhaustive and is simply an indicator as to whether one’s own family is dysfunctional or not.

If you suspect your family is dysfunctional, then you are probably correct. Every family is somewhat dysfunctional, even the most communicative and loving are on some level. Other families are simply toxic from the start and that function may be perpetuated through generations.


Dysfunctional families: 17 questions to ask yourself

1. Do members of your family go long periods of time without communicating with each other? Particularly when angry over something supposedly slight.

Obviously communication is better than non communication and counselling can help a great deal to overcome this particular problem;

2. Did you experience favouritism by your parents? Were one or more children treated substantially different as favourites from the others?

This obviously should not happen as in an ideal family children are treated equally in all aspects, particularly when it comes to reward and punishment.

3. Do members of your family abuse alcohol and/or drugs – particularly your parents?

4. Is the household full of sarcasm, insults, yelling matches and other inappropriate forms of communication?

Simple things such as teasing about one’s weight or other sensitive issues can go a long ways to causing problems within the family that can last a very long time;

5. Did your family ever discuss negative emotions or negative mishaps and instead express emotions such as love and caring?

Many dysfunctional families display behaviour known as passive aggressive behaviour.

6. Did your parents ever listen to your problems are your siblings problems? Or were they simply never interested or around for counselling?

7. Were you raised by other siblings or relatives rather than your actual parents?

8. Did you miss out on your childhood by assuming adult responsibilities at a very early age?

The roles that you and your brothers and sisters had as children will often impact relationships with each other and possible mates into the future.

9. Was money a very sensitive topic in the family? Particularly when there is not enough for social activities and the necessities of the children.

10. Were there mental health issues in the family that were typically avoided and not discussed?

11. Was one or more parents overly controlling?

12. Was one or more parents verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually abusive?

13. Did your parents show interest in you by attending school events, or sporting events in support of yourself?

14. Did your family take holidays together and if so, where they pleasurable or disastrous?

15. Were you raised in a so-called blended family where your parents had been involved with multiple partners and have multiple families?

16. Do family members dread seeing each other and rarely see or communicate with each other?

17. Was any form of abuse, particularly physical or sexual ever discussed openly amongst the family or was it hidden and never to be discussed?

Dysfunctional Families: Cultural Differences

Dysfunctional Families: Cultural Differences

I was in mediation last week with a Southeast Asian family where I represented four daughters in an inheritance dispute against their two brothers.

The sole asset in the estate was a proximally 75 acres of farmland, upon which all of the siblings had worked since early childhood doing hard manual labor. In addition to that labour the daughters also did most of the housework and cooking and in later life most of the caregiving further elderly parents.
After both parents died the daughters were left $150,000 each, and the two sons approximately $4.5 million each.

There had always been a great deal of bitterness between the daughters in the sons and the disproportionate inheritance only accelerated and inflamed what had always been a dysfunctional family, largely due to cultural differences in the treatment of the two boys over the four  girls.

It is not uncommon in Southeast Asian cultures for the parents to leave most if not all of their assets to either the oldest son, or alternatively to the sons, and provide very little to the daughters.

Apparently the rationale for this behavior is a “cultural norm” based on the daughters will marry and be taken care of by their husband.

Similarly, in Islamic cultures there is Sharia law, where in inheritance situations women are typically awarded one third in comparison to two thirds awarded to the men.

I have over the years, met with many embittered women who wish to challenge the distribution under their parents will but feel tremendous guilt and social pressure not to do so.

In such  situations the family can only be described as dysfunctional and upon closer examination, the women will invariably tell me many episodes of behavior that by Western standards can only be described as very  dysfunctional and even abusive.

Even when many cultures are functional at home, this can drastically change when a child, typically a daughter, marries someone outside of their culture or religion.

In my previous example involving the South East Asian family, three of the daughters agreed to an arranged marriage, while one of them married a beloved Caucasian.

As a result of she was barred from any family contact for over 20 years.

It is clear that one should never underestimate the depth of the roots of one’s culture and upbringing as a breach of same may very well involve a breakup of the family.

I have even witnessed relatively calm and functional families explode into almost violent litigation over the funeral service of a deceased when there is a division of religious practices within the family.

In British Columbia S.60 of the Wills, Estates and Succession act (WESA) allows a disinherited child, such as a daughter in favour of a son to challenge the distribution of the will, which may very well be varied by the court in favour of the daughter so as to provide a more equal distribution.

The courts in British Columbia have stated that despite cultural norms that may exist in other societies and other countries, the law of British Columbia will be applied rather than the laws or norms of that culture that may exist in their place of origin.

4 Unhealthy Roles Created in Dysfunctional Families

4 Unhealthy Roles Created in Dysfunctional Families

It is well-established that dysfunctional families create some very unhealthy roles for its participants.

It is beyond doubt that early childhood trauma and its wounding effects are carried well into adulthood for the remainder of one’s life.

I venture to say that most “street people” are there as a result of being  the victims of a dysfunctional family that cause them to live a life of drug or alcohol addiction and various forms of antisocial behavior.

The dysfunctional family itself may be affected from a range of afflictions such as mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, extremely poor parenting skills and many other factors  that give rise to a range of conflict, neglect, manipulation and abuse of all sorts.

Some of the basic roles of personal behavior that arise from the dysfunctional family may be categorized according to the list below (though not exhaustive).

Common roles within dysfunctional families:

1. The Loser

The loser is often identified by one or both parents at an early age, and the label may stick for the remainder of the child’s life. The loser typically has difficulty in school for a variety of reasons, and likely will have difficulty in obtaining and maintaining employment.

Losers  seem to impulsively get into trouble, and may even develop various personality disorders or mental illnesses which may be more extreme than would normally have been expected if he or she had roots in  a “normal” and not dysfunctional family. The loser often chooses a series of inappropriate partners who have their own serious problems and are dysfunctional in their own particular way.

The loser is typically criticized throughout his or her life by their parents and likely also their siblings. The loser may become dependent or try and become dependent for financial assistance and emotional help from his or her parents, and in certain circumstances end up living with their parents throughout their adult life.


2. The Good Son and Dutiful Daughter

The “good son and the dutiful daughter” always do the right thing for which they receive laudatory acknowledgment and compliments, but invariably their self-sacrifice comes at  great cost to their own happiness and personal development.

These individuals have always been “perfect” in the sense they did well in school, never got in trouble, always did what they were told, and went  the extra mile to please their parents. They often end up selfless caretakers for their parents at the expense of their own partners and family.

They become the fixers for the family’s problems, and while they appear to be extremely self sufficient, they are often sad and unfulfilled individuals.


3. The Escapists

The escapists simply always wants to never be around the family and becomes deeply involved in virtually any activity to an extreme, so as to avoid being around the home and its conflict.

Escapists typically leave home early and may move far away from their family and remain distant. While they can physically remove themselves from the dysfunctional family turmoil, they cannot escape the anger and hurt that dwells within them.

Their denial of their feelings develops early in childhood and may well continue into their own adult lives, so as to deny adult emotional intimacy. They typically fail to connect on a deep personal level with friends and partners.


4. The Rebel

We all know a rebel-they are easily identifiable at a very young age. They are the ones who are sent to the office in elementary school and likely suspended from high school. They may be involved with drugs, gang life, early pregnancy, and have an attitude that “rules are to be broken and ignored”.

They are the “bad girls and bad boys” who are acting out and often self-destructive behavior, bullying, or simply a caustic attitude.

Rebels are often scapegoated by the family as their behavior often warrants negative attention in negative affection. While other rebels may look up to them and acknowledge them as peers, they internally often feel empty and unworthy long into adulthood.

BC Estate Lawyer-23 Signs of Undue Influence In Dysfunctional Families

23 Signs of Undue Influence in Dysfunctional Families

Trevor Todd and Jackson Todd have over 60 years combined legal experience in handling contested estates due to undue influence.


Undue influence is very common in dysfunctional families and many of the indicators to watch out for are summarized in this blog.

I am frequently approached by members of a family who suspect that one or more of their siblings have unduly influenced or will try to do so that a parent will provide a disproportionate share if not all of their assets to that sibling(s).

The problem is further compounded due to the typical lack of communication that exists amongst dysfunctional family members.

Such dysfunctional family members are almost by definition suspicious and estranged from each other, combined with a problematic relationship with one or both parents.

The following are some guidelines for those who are trying to determine if unduly influence has been or is attempted to being exercised upon an elderly parent by one or more siblings. Please note that in law, undue influence must amount to coercion and not simply sustained pressure:

Twenty Three Clues To  Identify Undue Influence:

1. Check to see that the parent has gone to a lawyer of his or her choosing, particularly with a past history of working together, as opposed to being taken to a lawyer who only known to or friendly with the sibling in question;


2. Try and determine if your parent has sufficient mental capacity to properly instruct a lawyer of his or her choosing;


3. If the family is ethnic determine if the parent has sufficient language skills to instruct the lawyer without the use of an interpreter, and be particularly wary of the questionable sibling acting as interpreter;


4. Be aware of red flags, such as a black sheep member of the family suddenly reappearing and becoming the caregiver and decision-maker for the elderly parent;


5. If the parent lives in a care home, or independent living, try and make as many caregivers and knowledgeable people aware of any potential problems that you fear may arise by a sibling, whom you suspect may attempt to unduly influence your parent;


6. Be familiar with the assets owned by your parent(s) and who manages or oversees those assets, and inform all involved as to concerns of potential undue influence;


7. Be aware of any appointment of power of attorney or change in power of attorney to any sibling that is not to be trusted by his or her other siblings- usually such individuals have a history of manipulation;


8. Be aware of any threats of violence, or threats of putting an elderly vulnerable parent into a nursing home against his or her will;


9. Be aware of any depression, or drug or alcohol abuse that the elderly parent may be experiencing and are having problems dealing with;


10. Be aware that if you have concern about financial abuse of an elderly parent, you should report the matter to the Public Guardian and Trustee for the Province of British Columbia, who has a statutory duty to investigate the circumstances;


11. Inform the family doctor or other treating physicians of any concerns that you may have as to possible manipulation to the point of undue influence of an elderly parent;


12. Compile a list of events, circumstances and a timeline that may indicate circumstances that may collectively amount to undue influence;


13. Be aware of any significant decline in physical or mental capacity on the part of the parent;


14. Be aware of any drastic changes in the provisions of the will or power of attorney that under the circumstances do not make sense;


15. Be aware of the parent being kept in isolation from others, and being unavailable to take telephone calls;


16. Be aware of dependency on others, particularly a suspected sibling, when the parent is dependent on the sibling for sight, hearing, mobility, speech, personal needs, or care;


17. Look for signs of inappropriate clothing, cleanliness, bruising or untreated injuries;


18. Be aware of signs of early dementia, which typically involve some of or all of the following problems -short-term memory loss, disorientation, confusion, and difficulties with finances;


19. Be aware of signs of depression, agitation, frustration, mood swings, difficulty making decisions and other such significant changes in the parents emotional makeup;


20. Be aware of significant gifting and donations that are totally out of character for the elderly parent- this may involve the suspected sibling or may also involve third-party predators such as telephone solicitations;


21. Be aware when a third-party, particularly the suspected financial abuser, speaks for and on behalf of the elderly parent who typically withdraws from such conversations;


22. Insist upon financial transparency between siblings and parents with respect to financial decisions and estate planning;


23. Trust your gut feeling and be cognizant of the body language of both the parents and the suspected financial abuser, for such signs as anxiety, insecurity, embarrassment, or general unwillingness to talk about financial or care matters

Dysfunctional Families: Depersonalization Disorder

Dysfunctional Families: Depersonalization Disorder

Most of my clients at disinherited.com come from what generally might be described as dysfunctional families that ultimately result in a disinheritance for a number of complex reasons.

Part of my job as an estate litigation lawyer is to try and understand the complexity of the family from which my client has presented him or herself so that I can better both understand the client and the potential approach to resolution of their claim.

I occasionally am told by a client of that his or her parent was unable to express any feelings of love or warmth, especially to his or her children.

The emotional coldness may be caused by any number of factors, but could also be as a result of a depersonalization disorder from which approximately 1 and 100 people suffer.

I am certainly not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so I am not quick to put a label on what caused my client’s parental emotional abuse, and lack of love, but when I hear such a factual scenario, I sometimes think of this disorder, which results in the person suffering from a sense of disconnect from the world around them, their own body, and particularly those to which they should express love and affection.

As previously stated, a person’s inability to show love or affection may be caused by any number of emotional factors that result in a different label, such as a narcissistic personality disorder (which I have written about in separate blogs).

Depersonalization disorder, strictly speaking is where the person has persistent feelings of being disconnected or detached from oneself, and a feeling of loss or control over their thoughts or actions.
Their actions are often described as “out of body”

They may perceive their surroundings as dreamlike, foggy and distorted. An actual diagnosis is very difficult due to the ambiguity of the language used when describing such episodes.

Although the disorder is a distortion of reality, it is not a form of psychosis as the person is able to distinguish between their own experiences and the objective reality of the real world.. In other words, they can distinguish between reality and fantasy.

The diagnosis typically is made when the symptoms cause family distress, or impair social or occupational functioning.

The depersonalization experienced is such that the person feels completely disconnected from their physical body and their loved ones, feeling detached from their own thoughts and emotions and living their lives as distant from others.

The exact cause of the depersonalization is not known, but childhood abuse is suspected, along with severe stress, major depressive disorder and hallucinogenic drugs.

Men and women appear to be diagnosed in equal numbers and onset is typically in the teenage years or early 20s.

The 6 most common signs of a depersonalization disorder are:

  1. A feeling of no connection to the person that is seen in a mirror
  2. a feeling of detachment from one’s environment- the feeling is a disconnection from the world, but also an unfamiliarity with individuals and inanimate objects and all surroundings
  3. a feeling of being “ robot like”
  4. a complete separation feeling from one’s body, as if wound up in cotton and the body is lifeless;
  5. a feeling that one’s memories belong to someone else
  6. knowing that you are not delusional, but that there is something wrong with the way you view the world

Predatory Marriage

Predatory Marriage

Probably every experienced estate litigation lawyer has had court actions involving a predatory spouse. The phenomenon is disturbing and increasingly common in our society as individuals both live longer and accumulate more wealth.

In simple terms, predatory spouses take advantage of elderly victims and assume control of their financial affairs and often culminate in a secret marriage. The consequences for the victim and their immediate family are traumatic and significant.

Predatory marriage refers to a marriage ceremony entered into for the singular purpose of exploitation, personal gain and profit. Love and personal commitment are simply not part of the equation. The relationship typically begins when a caregiver persuades a vulnerable person to marry. The victim is usually elderly, dependent, vulnerable and suffering from significant cognitive impairment.

The marriage ceremony is usually secretive and the victim is thereafter closeted away from their loved ones as the predator takes control and management of the victim’s financial affairs.

Historically, the courts took an overly simplistic approach to marriage in that they equated marriage to a simple contract requiring minimal mental capacity. In other words, “any idiot can get married”.

Ironically, perhaps, if the contract to enter marriage is so simple, then why does a significant percentage of the legal profession engage in full-time work trying to extricate the parties from the supposedly simple contract?

The Law

One of the early leading cases is from 1885. Durham v. Durham 10 P.D. 80 provided a quote that has been frequently adopted by Canadian courts: “the contract of marriage is a simple one, which does not require a high degree of intelligence to comprehend”.

It is only in recent years that the courts have taken a more realistic approach to the level of mental capacity required to enter into a valid marriage. The law may still be described as being in a state of flux, and the courts typically still view the capacity to marry as a lower threshold than the capacity to manage one’s affairs, make a will, or instruct counsel.

The leading case in British Columbia is Wolfman–Stotland v. Stotland 2011 BCCA 175, which set out the hierarchy of capacity required for various decisions, holding that:

  1. separation is the simplest act, requiring the lowest level of understanding;
  2. divorce, while still simple, requires a bit more understanding in that it requires the desire to remain separated and no longer be married;
  3. American courts have recognized that the mental capacity required for divorce is the same as that required for entering into marriage;
  4. financial matters require a higher level of understanding than marriage;
  5. the capacity to instruct counsel involves the ability to understand financial and legal issues, which puts it significantly higher on the competency hierarchy;
  6. the highest level of capacity is that required to make a will.

A lack of mental capacity to marry will render a marriage void ab initio (as if it had never occurred) per Ross-Scott v. Potvin 2014 BCSC 435.

The law presumes that an adult has capacity unless the contrary is established. The onus of proof for establishing lack of mental capacity to marry is on the person asserting the same.

3 Recent Cases Involving Predatory Spouses

1. Juzumas v. Baron 2012 ONSC 7220

This case involved a predatory marriage where the victim, Mr. Juzumas, was an 88-year-old vulnerable male who was mentally incompetent. The court set aside a wedding and a transfer of his property to the predator’s son on the basis of the doctrines of undue influence and unconscionability.

Ms. Baron, the predator spouse, was a 64-year-old widow who had been married previously 6 to 8 times and had a history of caring for older men with the expectation of receiving an inheritance through their estates. She befriended Mr. Juzumas and promised to live together and care for him. He married her and signed a will naming her as the executrix and sole beneficiary.

After the marriage ceremony Ms. Baron continued to live in a separate apartment with her 23-year-old son and only visited her purported husband for several hours a week. She became increasingly abusive controlling and domineering towards Mr. Juzumas.

Without her knowledge, Mr. Juzumas ultimately changed his will to leave Ms. Baron only a modest bequest of $10,000. When she found out she embarked on a campaign to ensure that she received Mr. Juzumas s’s home. Through the assistance of a lawyer, an agreement was drafted that transferred the property to Ms. Baron’s son and Mr. Juzumas was left with a life interest in his home.

At the time of the transfer, Mr. Juzumas was 91 years of age, vulnerable, in failing health and completely dependent on and dominated by his abusive spouse. He lived in constant fear of being abandoned to a nursing home, with which Ms. Walker continually threatened him.

He commenced a court action to set aside the transfer of the property and sought a divorce and dissolution of the marriage.

The court set aside the transfer of land on the basis of the doctrines of undue influence and unconscionability, both of which may be used “where a stronger party takes advantage of a weaker party in the course of inducing the weaker party’s consent to an agreement”.

The court found that there was actual undue influence by reason of the fact that Ms. Baron threatened an elderly dependent with abandonment to a care home.

The court also found presumptive undue influence by reason of the fact that she was a caregiver who had the ability or potential to dominate the will of the other, whether through manipulation, coercion, or outright but subtle abuse of power.

It was incumbent upon the wife to rebut the presumption of undue influence and demonstrate that the transaction was an exercise of independent free will, which she was completely unable to do.

The court also relied upon the doctrine of unconscionability which gives the court the jurisdiction to set aside an agreement resulting from an inequality of bargaining power. The onus is on the defendant to establish the fairness of the transaction.

2. Hunt v. Worrod 2017 ONSC 7397

The facts of this case are perhaps as egregious as they possibly may be with respect to predatory marriages.

As a result of a catastrophic head injury, the 50-year-old Mr. Hunt had been in a coma for 18 days and hospitalized for four months. The injury left him with what doctors described as a wasted, shrunken brain.

Three days after leaving hospital, Mr. Hunt was spirited away by the defendant Worrod, a former girlfriend, for a secret wedding that gave her legal rights to his future wealth and his landscaping business, home and expected $1 million personal injury settlement.

Mr. Hunt’s concerned children contacted the police, who located him in a motel just hours after the purported wedding took place. His sons had been made his legal guardians by court order.

Mr. Hunt never lived with his purported wife after the marriage. Before the accident he had had an on-again, off-again relationship with Ms. Worrod and had concluded their relationship with a separation agreement that resolved all of their property and legal obligations to each other. In fact, he had been required to contact the police to remove her from his residence when the relationship ended.

It was noted that Ms. Worrod was an extreme alcoholic who had hit Mr. Hunt when drunk and was generally unable to act and care responsibly for herself while intoxicated.

Evidence at trial from various medical experts was conclusive that Mr. Hunt was intellectually devastated with serious physical and cognitive issues that made him increasingly malleable and easily influenced through emotional stimulation, including sexual relations.

The medical evidence was consistent that Mr. Hunt suffered a classic case of frontal lobe syndrome that limited his ability to reason abstractly, problem solve, make decisions or consider alternatives, and that he lacked insight and self-awareness. His cognitive limitations severely limited his ability to understand the consequences of his behaviors and actions.

All of the various medical experts who testified made it clear that Mr. Hunt did not have the capacity to marry. As stated in Ross-Scott v. Potvin 2014 BCSC 435:

“A person is capable of entering into a marriage contract only if he or she has the capacity to understand the nature of the contract and duties and responsibilities it creates. The assessment of a person’s capacity to understand the nature of the marriage commitment is informed, in part, by an ability to manage themselves and their affairs. Delusional thinking or reduced cognitive abilities alone may not destroy an individual’s capacity to form an intention to marry as long as the person is capable of managing their own affairs.”

The court concluded that Mr. Hunt did not have the requisite capacity to marry as he did not understand the nature of the contract he was entering into and the responsibilities the contract created.

The marriage was declared void ab initio and Ms. Worrod was ordered to have no further contact with Mr. Hunt.

3. Devore-Thompson v Poulain 2017 BCSC 1289

The deceased, Donna Walker, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and in September 2010 was declared by the court to be incapable of managing her financial and legal affairs because of her dementia. She had moved into a care facility in September 2010, where she remained until her death in late 2013 at age 74.

Ms. Walker had purportedly married the defendant Poulain in June 2010 but they never lived together, either before or after the marriage ceremony.

The overwhelming evidence of several lay witnesses, as well as a treating geriatric psychiatrist, was that Ms. Walker had lacked mental capacity to marry in 2010.

For example, one lay witness testified that Ms. Walker had told her that she did not know where she was married, who married her, or even why she married the defendant. Once again, the marriage was done in secret and there were no friends or family at the wedding service.

There was one photograph taken at the wedding ceremony which clearly indicated that Ms. Walker’s facial expression was vacant.

After her first marriage ended, Ms. Walker had always told those close to her that she never wished to marry again. She was very close to her family and friends but never expressed to a single witness that she was in love with the defendant, that she knew anything about him, that they had any kind of future together, or that she wanted to get married and spend the rest of her life with him.

The evidence of the treating geriatric psychiatrist was most significant, in that she testified as follows:

  1. Ms. Walker did not understand reality, absorb information or make decisions based on the correct facts, and that she had no insight or judgment.
  2. On learning of the purported marriage, the psychiatrist had made an urgent referral to the Public Guardian and Trustee stating that Ms. Walker was incapable of entering into a marriage relationship as she was moderately to severely demented and had significant impairment of executive function. She also noted that Ms. Walker was at significant risk for abuse as a vulnerable adult.
  3. Ms. Walker did not have a grip on reality but insisted that she was fully independent for self-care and household management, despite much evidence to the contrary.

The defendant testified that he had no concern about Ms. Walker’s mental capacity.

The court had no difficulty in finding the defendant to be a completely untruthful witness who was motivated by a desire for financial gain from Ms. Walker’s assets.

The court concluded that Ms. Walker’s mental capacity had diminished to such an extent that she could not have formed an intention to live with the defendant or to form a lifetime bond. At the time of the marriage she did not understand what it meant to live together with another person, and could not know even the most basic meaning of marriage or understand any of its implications, including who she was married to, in the sense of what kind of person he was, what their emotional attachment was, that they would be living together, and fundamentally how marriage would affect her life on a day-to-day basis in the future.

Accordingly, the court found that Ms. Walker did not have the capacity to marry the defendant and the marriage was declared void ab initio. Two wills done by Ms. Walker in 2007 and 2009 were also set aside by reason of her lack of capacity.


The advent of a rapidly aging population with significant wealth will certainly lead to a rise in the increasingly common phenomenon of predatory marriage.

The legal issue of mental capacity to enter into such a marriage will increasingly become more relevant and litigated.

The legal test for capacity to marry is in a state of flux. It will undoubtedly continue to evolve as more instances of predatory marriage are brought before the courts and they become more accustomed to recognizing such predatory behavior.

To some extent I believe it is a situation where the courts need to be more cognizant of the significant number of predators in our society who prey upon the infirm and vulnerable.

The concept that only a low level of mental capacity is required to enter into a marriage is an anachronism that needs to be corrected, given the complexity of current family law, particularly as it relates to property entitlement to the assets of one spouse.

At present, to succeed in having a purported predatory marriage set aside, it is necessary to prove on the balance of probabilities that the victim lacked mental capacity to understand the nature of the marital contract, which typically requires both the testimony of lay witnesses and medical evidence of lack of capacity.

The Juzumas v. Baron decision is significant in that the court also invoked the doctrines of undue influence and unconscionability in setting aside the purported marriage. Hopefully it will be followed by other court decisions as useful tools to remedy a wrong suffered in the context of a predatory marriage and financial abuse.

Dysfunctional Families: How to Survive Them

Dysfunctional Families: How to Survive Them

I commonly used to joke with the audience of speaking engagements by asking the question- ” Are there more functional families are dysfunctional families”? I do not know the answer, but invariably it raised a nervous bout of laughter.

There is  a huge range of the term “dysfunctional” that stretches  from mild to totally nuts.

One thing I have noted in my practice is that many people do not actually realize they were raised in a dysfunctional family until many years later when life experiences shown to them by others, point out the dramatic different reality in which their earlier life underwent.

I think the key to surviving a dysfunctional family is to recognize as early as possible that your family is dysfunctional/toxic and to take early steps such as counseling to create what in effect  an ” intervention “to get yourself  out of the family.

It must be realize that the family is not going to change, and that you are the only one who can do anything about it in order to save yourself.

I did an earlier blog entitled “How to Recognize a Dysfunctional Family”, which should probably be read in conjunction with this blog in terms of coming to grips with understanding the concept itself. 

In addition to the eight criteria that I set out in the other blog about common traits of dysfunctional families, I offer the following observations:

Observations of People From Dysfunctional Families and What to Do to Survive

  1. Many people raised in a dysfunctional family live in fear of being abandoned as that was their experience as a child. By abandonment  I mean emotional abandonment, which often leads to poor choices in later life when it comes to choosing a partner. The harsh statements, belittling and strong criticism by family members  are  prevalent traits that have lasting effect. Finding a strong, supportive partner in recognition of your fear of abandonment is a sound survival technique;
  1. People pleasing and being overly nice in situations is a survival trait that can accompany the feeling of emotional abandonment. By people pleasing you are not being true to yourself and recognizing this trait is a step forward in learning how to survive the crap imposed upon you by years of being in a dysfunctional family;
  1. You have a fear of loneliness and isolation that is probably once again associated with the fear of emotional abandonment. Recognizing this, and seeking counseling or group therapy is a good tactic as  is simply recognizing that there are many more like yourself out there. This realization  alone builds inner confidence and strength through numbers;
  1. The feeling of having been a  victim is very prevalent as for much of your life you have been one. The key to overcoming any feelings of victimization is to have the strength to ask for help and join groups and websites that provide strength to overcoming the common feelings that victims experience;
  1. Incessant worry about the future again comes with the territory. A recognition that you cannot control the future is itself a big step in the realization that you can only control your own life and emotional status as much as you can without the worry about what others will think, especially non sportive family members;
  1. Extreme self judgment is common as you have experienced bitter statements from your family growing up, such as ” you are the most selfish child I know” or worse. These statements are simply not true and must in effect be unlearned. This is easier said than done, but is entirely possible.

I conclude by stating that in my view the best survival tactics for those who have grown up in a dysfunctional family is to extricate yourself from the family as soon as and as much as possible in order to save yourself and realize that you cannot change the family, but can change your own life and destiny.

Invariably counseling and group support will be necessary in order to achieve this, and given the innumerable number of people that come from dysfunctional families, I think it is entirely possible to survive your having grown up in a dysfunctional family.

Dysfunctional Families: Your Family May Actually Hate You

Dysfunctional Families: Your Family May Actually Hate You

Does your family actually hate you, or just act like it?

I spend a good deal of time in my estate litigation practice explaining to clients the various aspects to dysfunctional families, which they invariably come from.

I keep a number of my previous articles on aspects of the topic on hand for them to read. A few of the more popular ones are on scapegoating, narcissistic personality disorders, sibling rivalry and the criteria of a typical dysfunctional family.

I seldom delve into the fact that their family might actually hate them as this seems a bit too cruel, but may very well be  true.


Love or Hate?

It would appear that many families do in fact have a love/hate relationship with various members, which on the face of it is extremely difficult to understand. From what I hear in my office,  the client complains that from an early age no matter what they did, they simply never met with approval or acceptance.

In reality the collective family often judge the selected person by totally different standards than they judge themselves or others.

I urge  people experiencing extreme family conflict to learn as much about the topic as possible. There is a great deal of literature on dysfunctional families and the harm they cause, as well as support groups. I think it is very important to understand certain psychological aspects such as the concepts of projection, scapegoating, jealousy, narcissistic personalities, and so forth.

Others have written that families often send mixed messages. On the one hand, they will tell you that they only want what is best for you while their actions totally conflict with this message and appear to be more in tune with what is best for themselves. These messages obviously cancel each other out and cause confusion and conflict.

It is important to remember that what might be best for you is  not what might be best for the family.

 I often give to clients My blog article on  Dysfunctional Families and Scapegoating who frequently remark-  how did you know how to write about myself?.

This points out to me that such people often feel alone, while the fact is they are numerous.

Scapegoating is particularly difficult to accept, understand and deal with. The scapegoated party, in fact might be the most intuitive and artistic member of the family and for reasons that are difficult to understand,  is singled out and picked on from an early age for the remainder of their lives.

I have often told clients that it is extremely easy to become a parent, but extremely difficult to become a good parent.

The American Thanksgiving holiday is the biggest family event in America. I can well imagine how many millions of traveling family members are dreading the thought of having to socialize, even for a short period of time with their family. Families can be extremely taxing to deal with, even when they are wholesome, loving and functional.

Families in fact can resemble tribes in the sense that if one member is made to feel less than the other, such as your own good fortune, this can generate jealousy within the other family members who at least subconsciously if not consciously do not want you to succeed more than themselves.

There is little one can do to change the collective mentality of the family. Victims of the wrath of dysfunctional families must learn to set up boundaries and learn to live independently of the opinions of others, and in particular the opinions of their family members.

It is normal for victims of family dysfunction to blame themselves much akin to how a victim of a sexual predator does.

The bottom line is that it simply is not your fault. I put it in the same category as shit happens.

Family dysfunction is considered to be a normal prevalent problem in todays society, with many millions of people suffering as a result.

As I mentioned in my article on scapegoating, it is important to seek counselling and other forms of self-help to understand the situation. The counselling advice might even involve minimizing any further contact with family members.

Dysfunctional Families: Financial Control

Dysfunctional Families: Financial Control

Financial abuse in dysfunctional families is a common tactic to gain power and control within the family.

I was reminded about this fact when reading an article in the British Telegraph today about a large divorce settlement between  the long time spousal owners of Laura Ashley. One of the daughters of the family was  asked why such a wealthy family would undergo such a long bitter divorce proceeding, and she responded that it was not about the money, but was really about control. She related how her father was absent throughout much of her life and manipulated the family through financial control.

This financial abuse is one of the most powerful methods of keeping family members to toe the line or risk financial disinheritance or worse. Research indicates that financial abuse is experienced in 98% of abusive relationships. The victims  indicate that their lack of ability to provide financially for themselves was the main reason for staying in our returning to such a battering relationship.

Financial control/abuse occurs across all socio-economic, educational, ethnic and racial groups. It applies to both elder  and domestic abuse.

As with other forms of abuse, financial abuse may begin subtly and progress over time. The manipulation is often hidden amongst the family while the abuser publicly appears charming and the epitome of a good family provider.

Typically what  ultimately results is the concept of an “allowance” for good behavior and  deprivation of monies for perceived bad behavior.

The adult child in the Laura Ashley family for example, was disowned by the financially abusive father for marrying someone she loved, but whom the father did not approve. One can easily understand the untenable position that the daughter was put in between having to choose between marrying the person she loved or being disowned by her wealthy father.

Common examples of financial control or abuse are:

  • Forbidding family members to work or have their own funds;
  • controlling how money is spent
  • hiding assets
  • forcing family members to work in a family business without pay
  • withholding funds for basic needs and care
  • withholding money or giving meager allowances
  • the abuser spending money lavishly on him or herself while depriving the family
  • refusing to pay child or spousal support or manipulating court proceedings by hiding or not disclosing assets
  • threatening family members with homelessness and other forms  of insecurity
  • denying education or employment opportunities
  • intentionally squandering or misusing family resources
  • controlling telephone, vehicle, and other forms of isolation
  • blaming the victim for inability to manage money
  • destruction of personal property belonging to the victim
  • forging signatures for financial transactions