Vancouver Estate Lawyer -Dysfunctional Families Result in Disinheritances

Dysfunctional Families Result In Disinheritances

Vancouver lawyer Trevor Todd has 50 years experience in understanding and getting justice for parties disinherited from dysfunctional families.


Fifty   years of litigating contested estates has led me to conclude that dysfunctional families are much more inclined to result in disinheritances

The reason is rather simple-dysfunctional families are toxic.

I have no statistics to back up this assertion other than anecdotal as I venture to say that virtually all of my clients have come from a family that is almost by definition dysfunctional .

This is not to say that so-called functional families do not get involved in estate litigation as of course they do, but it often has a different flavor in that the legal issues may be more technical in nature as opposed to vitriolic and hostile as  dysfunctional family litigation can be.

I read in a news report approximately 30 years ago that one out of three people and British Columbia expected to be disinherited.

Not to believe everything in the news, of course, but again anecdotally, I have over the years come to estimate that as many as  40% of the general public may be involved in some form of estate dispute.

There are certainly a goodly number of people who are surprised to be disinherited, as opposed to the third that expect to be.

Needless to say estate litigation is a growth area in the practice of law primarily by reason of demographics, but it huge contributing factor has to be the relatively recent breakdown of the nuclear family and the rise of the single-parent or so-called blended family, both of which are a breeding ground for estate disputes.

I have previously blogged on  various aspects of  the dysfunctional family , including the various factors that comprise it,  the unstable environment  at best , and the lifetime of   ugly memories , anxieties , insecurities  and the like  that carry on for life .

The ultimate and probably inevitable conclusion  for the dysfunctional family  is after the death of the last parent  the final implosion  of the remains of the family  with the deceased parent  often taking a last kick it his or her children from the grave by disinheriting one or more  of them.

One of the sadder aspects  of dysfunctional families that I have witnessed is that after many years of this functionally hanging together, as the needy parents age and become more dependent . They frequently fear or experience, abandonment by their children and may even come to believe that  they are only after their money .

typically after the death of the last parent  I have experienced  children of dysfunctional families desperately  tried to write the perceived wrongs suffered by each of them during  their childhood and early adult years . Family possessions that might not sell at a garage sale suddenly become precious and invaluable as they are memories of a fantasy childhood that never happened .

In my world of estate litigation , it is difficult for children to accept that one child or another will inherit  substantially more or has been treated  more favorably  throughout life – the financial gain  somehow then becomes equated  with the amount of parental love that has been denied .

Birth Order and How it Relates to Dysfunctional Families

Birth Order and How it Relates to Dysfunctional Families - Disinherited

Studies have shown that the birth order of children plays a significant part in their development in functional families that can be exacerbated in dysfunctional families given their extreme dynamics.

It is common for families with more than one child to joke about the innumerable photos of the first child, followed by a considerable drop off in the number and quality of photos almost algorithmically in proportion to the number of children. While it is presented as a joke  it is not funny when development issues such as self-esteem are examined.

The first relationship a child has in this world is with his or her parents.

The entire purpose of that relationship at that time is supposed to focus  on the needs of the child   more than the needs of the parents. This basic bonding  right from the upstart  is often not present in dysfunctional families .

It really does not take much to become a parent as I am fond of saying , but it is extremely difficult to become an excellent parent  and create a reasonably functional family .

Parents have children for many reasons including  accidentally  and  simply do not bring their unconditional love  to the table .

What could be more hurtful than being told by your mother that you were an accident and she wished you were never born, or being told that you are” just like your father ,a lying son of a bitch”.

In dysfunctional families the parents may place their needs on the child and expect the child to sacrifice his or her needs  to soothe the parents anxiety .

The First Born:

The firstborn is by birth right the center of the world forever within the family. The problem is that the parents often promote the idea while other siblings reject it.

The often insufferable attention that the first child receives can pay off in spades in terms of how that child develops:

  1. Research has shown that the eldest child often has a higher intelligence on average than their younger siblings of 2.3 points. It’s probably as simple as when the family grows the parents have less time to spend with each child;
  2. Eldest children are typically the ones that focus the most on family loyalty, traditions, and achievements, and are often more obedient and responsible.
  3. Oldest children are typically the rule followers , are competitive and conventional
  4. Given their high self-esteem the eldest child often performs better in school and becomes more successful in the professional world . They are by their birthright more prepared to take on leadership roles.
  5. Firstborns were typically found to be slightly more conscientious and more agreeable.


The Middle Child

Caught in the middle  this child often  reflects on  not being the oldest, but not being the youngest and walking that balance .

In general middle children tend to possess the following characteristics :

  • People pleasers  after having learn skills to attain attention ;
  • Somewhat rebellious
  • Have a large social circle and thrive on friends
  • The peacemakers in the family

Middle children are actually hard to pin down as they play off  their older sibling . It can also make a great deal of difference if the middle child is a girl, and the first child is a boy  or vice versa.


The Last Born:

Youngest children tend to be the least photographed, but the most free-spirited due to their parents increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards parenting after each successive child.

The last  born will always remain the baby of the family and tends to be:

    1. Fun-loving
    2. Outgoing
    3. Self-centered and attention seeking
    4.  Manipulative
    5.  Uncomplicated

The Only Child:

Without siblings to compete with the  only child monopolizes his or her parents attention and resources, not just for the short period of time like a firstborn, but forever .

The only child has the privilege and the burden of having all of his or her parents support and expectations  throughout their life .

Thus only children tend to be:

    1. Mature for their  age
    2.  Diligent
    3.  Conscientious
    4. Perfectionists
    5. Leaders

Favouritism in Dysfunctional Families

Favourtism In Dysfunctional Families

While applying favouritism with children can also occur in functional families, it is often more prevalent in and  to further extremes in dysfunctional families.

Favoritism has negative effects on both the favored child and the unfavoured ones that have long-lasting effects throughout life.

For example, while the favored child  certainly basks in the sunset as a child, and perhaps throughout life, the downside for that child might very well  suffer with intimate relationships as they find no one can love them to the degree that their parents did.

Similarly, the favored child may suffer from depression because they have spent much of their lives trying to perpetuate the parental favour so much that they have failed to develop as an individual.

However, don’t feel too sorry for the favored child as they invariably do better in life than the unfavoured child or even neglected child.

It is only natural to resent favoritism and it breeds rampantly.

Unfavoured children invariably suffer from  self-esteem issues or even a chronic need to feel special.

It almost goes without saying that the sibling relationships are strained between the favored and the unfavoured.

When they are young children have to live together under the same household. However once grown, the sibling relationship can take on one of estrangement, where the parties go many  years without talking.

Some depression studies have shown that siblings who experienced consistently favoured or rejected relationships were more likely to exhibit depression in middle-age.

Favoritism is certainly one of those things that qualify as ” perception is everything”  -the parents may argue till they are blue in the face that they have treated their children equally. But if the perception of the child or children is to the contrary, then the perceived unequal treatment has damaging effects for all of the siblings.

I have heard clients tell me that since childhood their brother (sister) could do no wrong – the difficulty is that this tendency never seems to go away, and in fact may get stronger over the decades .

The  worse scenario of the favored child is probably the one who never moves out of home  and is left the home by his or her parents upon their passing  all to the extreme  rage of  his or her siblings.

The favored child will talk about  “sacrifice” in having stayed at home to take care of parents and be good company while the siblings simply see it as a freeloader situation of someone who never grew up .

Advice – It’s not your fault and move on.

Sibling Fighting: Does It Ever End?

Sibling Fighting: Does It Ever End?

From the perspective of an estate litigation lawyer I can categorically state that sibling fighting never ends right up until death – it only has periods of remission.

In fact, after the death of the last parent my experience is that sibling rivalry  greatly increases to the point of litigation that is often vitriolic.

Having raised children and witnessed others it is no surprise that siblings fight as children, but it remains somewhat puzzling why the rivalries last so long after childhood to the point of being lifelong.

The rivalries formed in dysfunctional families are even more extreme as each child has had to fight harder for his or her role within the family in order to ” make it work”.

It is natural for children to compete for the attention and love of their parents and to feel that time spent by the parents with brothers and sisters is time that it has been stolen from them.

However,all of the childhood teasing, bullying, non-sharing type negative behaviors of siblings never seem to go away, and in fact can sometimes be suddenly exacerbated in later adult hood when disputes might arise over inheritances.

It seems that subconsciously  part of ourselves remain the child who demands his or her share of parental love, and those children who feel that they were shortchanged in parental love and attention  often remain stuck in needy relationships all their lives.

Vitriolic court  actions between siblings are sometimes described by judges as  “Cain vs. Abel actions,” referring to the biblical story when one brother Cain kills the other because of jealousy.

I have frequently heard disputing siblings refer to the other as having been jealous  all his or her life.

It would appear that as children, all of the many parental encouragements, such as “be nicer to your sister” often fall upon deaf ears  as jealousies and competitiveness between the siblings  continues

As horrified as I was to watch my firstborn  strike my second born on  first sight, I have subsequently learned that this is quite normal and common.

I am reminded that  in some species , the firstborn kills the second born with parental approval.

Even in non-dysfunctional families, parents can often play a role in  exacerbating their children’s rivalries by playing divide and conquer -playing one child off against the other, while trying to keep control .

It is important to realize that children spend far more time with each other than they do with  their parents and as such they learn  each other’s innermost secrets and behavioral patterns which is both a good thing and a bad thing .

In my world the bad thing is that they really know how to push each other’s buttons.

Empowering Quotes for Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional Family Empowering Quotes

It goes almost without saying that anyone who attends at my office/ will come from a dysfunctional family – it is rare that the client does not.

After having dealt with what I will call the victims of dysfunctional families for many many years,  one of the first things I do is try and reassure the client that there are probably many more people like themselves from similar families in this world than there are from happy families, and that in my office they are totally the norm.

I stress that I am nonjudgmental as many of such victims   have had way too much judgment already.

I often use humour where possible to try and lighten the situation of an estate dispute with their family –  typically one of the most dreaded  events to ever occur in my client’s life to date.

“You don’t choose your family” followed up with “it doesn’t take any skill to get pregnant but it is extremely difficult and rare to have a really functional family” indicates the perspective of my office.

Sometimes humor doesn’t do the trick and I will resort to other  more direct  forms of empowerment , such as simply telling  the long-suffering scapegoated adult child  that their father was a complete  self centered , narcissistic , obnoxious prick  that was all about himself.

I told that once to a client who had undergone many years of counseling and she seemed almost amazed at the very prospect of such a thought .

When I questioned had her counselor not  utilized such a direct  criticism of her father  over all the years  of treatment , I was informed  it had not  ever been discussed in such strong terms .

Without saying so on as many words the client let me know that she found  the “blunt ” manner in which I talked about her late  father to be empowering  as he had  always intimidated her and pushed her out of his life, for which she blamed herself .

When he left a hateful will disinheriting her for false reasons, you can imagine the insult upon injury, but from a lawyers perspective, it’s “tell me about it and let’s sue”.

10 Empowering quotes about dysfunctional families

I note there are several websites containing dysfunctional family quotes that are empowering.

1. Instead of wiping away your tears, wipe away the people who made you cry;

2. I am through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game;

3. I may be the black sheep of the family , but some of the white sheep aren’t as white as they try to appear;

4. Sometimes you have to burn a few bridges to keep the crazies from following you;

5.When I was a child I was told that my family would always have my back . They failed to mention the knife part;

6. Blood makes you related , loyalty makes you family ;

7. Let’s have a family gathering for the remaining family members that still speak to each other;

8. You can’t treat people like shit and then expect them to love you;

9. Holding on to anger and hurt  is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die;

10. They burned the bridge, then ask why I don’t visit.

How Dysfunctional Families Screw You Up

Dysfunctional Families Screw You Up

I am about to attend a wills variation mediation where the three adopted siblings are contesting their deceased mother’s estate and the only agreement we have is that all three siblings hate each other- they are the screwed up  results of a very dysfunctional family where the deceased and her ” mommy’s boy” had an extra ordinarily close relationship to the detriment of the other two adopted siblings.

Regrettably, in the world of estate litigation my work almost exclusively involves the children of dysfunctional families who collectively and individually are often ” screwed up.”

Over my 40 plus  years of practice , I have seen innumerable   people  who are the screwed up products of a dysfunctional family.

For the most part they show the  emotional scars of growing up in such an environment once we delve into the family background .

What is continually amazing to me  is how often people have grown up in dysfunctional families and for a great part of their life, considered the family living situation to be in the realm of normal, when in fact by objective standards, it could be nothing other than dysfunctional .

Dysfunctional families invariably have so much conflict, neglect, personality disorders, and just general  unusual behavior that over time it leads family members to accommodate such behavior to the point that it can be problematic.

The behavior invariably becomes generational – the dysfunctional parents behavior is emulated by their children who in turn become parents, and exert the same behavior upon their children .

Dysfunctional families are typically strained  at the best of times, and when added stressors such as unemployment, relocation, physical or mental illness occur they can cause the existing conflicts to  become greatly exacerbated .

One of the great stigmas of dysfunctional families is not only the internal shame that each member may have, but also the societal standard that state intervention in the sanctity of marriage and the family  was not to be encouraged .

It is only in recent years  that the plight of the dysfunctional family has made the news so to speak  and individuals are speaking out with a greater degree of  frequency and  coherency.

The “mummy dearest” books  that occurred about 50 years ago  were an indication of what was to come in future years.

Children being as adaptable as they are  learn to  adapt and function within dysfunctional families  by often adopting or  being assigned a role .

The role may vary from that of the “perfect child” to be modeled by the others ,  to the “problem, a.k.a. scapegoat”, with the other siblings adopting or being assigned variations of  the family clown, the caretaker, the passive kid,  or the manipulator.

Needless to say these learned forms of behavior  in the critical years of development  are maintained  and  continued throughout the life of the  role  modelled child.

Negative criteria associated with dysfunctional families

The list of negative criteria  as a result of being raised in a dysfunctional  family is long and this article is not meant to be exhaustive on  the topic . There are no positives – none.

I have come to realize that almost every street person  is living there is a result of a dysfunctional family , ( except for perhaps the onset of mental illness in later life) .

Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety  are very common  as are addiction issues  relating to alcohol, drugs, gambling and the like.

Many of the children of dysfunctional families simply had to grow up too fast and missed out on  childhood -the lucky ones were not abused physically or  sexually , but virtually all of them were emotionally scarred in some manner , whether by accident, neglect  or  deliberate acts .

The more physical , sexual or emotional abuse their  has been the greater difficulty the child will have been forming healthy relationships  with not only their peers, but in particular in long-term romantic relationships  and marriage.

Many students struggle academically  in school from everything from  lack of food and sleep  to having to drop out of school to support the family

Struggling for recognition and affection  many turn to  gang membership  or promiscuity.

Self-discipline problems are notorious  in that many children are raised without  boundaries and without being taught the fundamentals of how to  participate in society.

Instead they may become compulsive spenders or procrastinators afraid to  take steps  .

Almost all of these children have  low self-esteem issues  that makes them more vulnerable to  predators, manipulators and abusers .

The girls are more likely to become pregnant  and involved with abusive men while the boys are more likely to become  abusive  anti-authoritarian males .

Perhaps the greatest problem all   is that  the dysfunctional behaviors are invariably perpetuated in other relationships , and in particular by their own children .

Contested Wills In BC-Black Sheep and Scapegoats

Black Sheep and Scapegoats in Estate Litigation

Trevor Todd and Jackson Todd have over 60 years combined experience in handling contested wills and estates, including acting for victims of family abuse that turn them into either a black sheep or a scapegoat or both.


Contested estates in BC are  rife with black sheep and scapegoats.

The purpose of this article is to examine that phenomena. It crosses virtually all aspects, boundaries, and strata of society. More likely than not, when each family sits down for a traditional celebration, at least one person is conspicuous by his or her absence—or presence.

Webster’s dictionary defines a black sheep as “a person who causes shame or embarrassment because of a deviation from the accepted standards of his or her group.”

The same dictionary defines a scapegoat as “a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.”

Neither black sheep nor scapegoat is defined in legal dictionaries. Although there are several references to those types of individuals throughout case law, most do not try to define the concept.

A psychologist might define a black sheep as a member of a rigidly triangulated family who holds the rest of the family tightly together by being identified and assigned the role as the bad/problematic/deviant one who causes all the family’s problems.

The ruler of the family typically initiates the charges and thereafter assigns both label and blame. Siblings often simply buy in, initially as a route of least resistance, and perhaps out of self-defence so as not to become the target, and then ultimately as believers of the alleged faults.

Psychologists report that many black sheep/scapegoats will attest to the fact that they were singled out for blame or humiliation at an early age, with no explanation or reasoning for the decision offered to them.


Black Sheep v. Scapegoats: What’s the Difference?

Although there are different origins for the strict meanings of black sheep and scapegoats, for the purposes of this article, within the context of dysfunctional families, I shall use them almost interchangeably.

For the sheep, the term originated from the fact that the occasional black sheep would be born into a herd of predominantly white sheep; the black sheep were far less marketable. At times they were even considered religiously sinister.

A black sheep with its recessive gene literally and figuratively stands out in the white flock.

In dysfunctional families, black sheep are often viewed and treated as scapegoats within the family. Scapegoating involves the practice of singling out a party for unmerited negative treatment or blame; it can be likened to bullying.

In the context of dysfunctional families, the similarities between black sheep and scapegoats include the projection of feelings of blame, aggression, hostility, frustration, hurt, and so on upon one person. That negative behaviour is dramatically out of proportion to what might conceivably be warranted. The process of scapegoating provides a psychological boost to the perpetrator who uses that method to channel his or her own anger and frustration through the victim.

Dysfunctional families typically allow the scapegoat to remain in the family until he or she dares to speak up or complain, then the person is ostracized. Wild distortions of the truth are always prevalent.


The Inherent Problem of Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional families are almost the norm these days. By definition they have poor insight into their own behaviours and problems and will do almost anything to project “normal.” In reality, such families are frequently crippled by their poorly contained fears, addictions, mental disorders, and insecurities.

In this “Alice in Wonderland” topsy-turvy distorted version of family life, dysfunctional parents often avoid the obvious and very real problems within their families and instead choose a scapegoat child upon which all faults, problems, and family dysfunction are heaped.

This whipping boy (or girl) can seemingly never escape the assigned role, often delegated early in life and enforced by family pressure placed upon the other siblings to go along.

Another troubling aspect of the black sheep/scapegoat syndrome is that scapegoats who remain in this role usually find themselves perpetuating the syndrome in their own families because it is a learned behaviour.


Should the Black Sheep/Scapegoat Leave the Home?

The destiny of the black sheep/scapegoat is invariably to leave the family home, often on the advice of a counsellor or doctor. Counsellors profess that distance is by far a healthier option for those individuals in terms of recovering from the humiliation, shame, and self-loathing that has been their experience within the family.

It is interesting that the black sheep/scapegoat syndrome does not diminish over time; the individual(s) continue in the role as the root of all the family’s difficulties, even in absentia. The family is compelled to continue to assign blame and project shame onto the person(s) on whom the dysfunctional name tag is hung. Take for example the black sheep child who returned after a 25-year absence to reunite with her father before he died of lung cancer, only to be told by him to get out of the room because she had caused his lung cancer. The man had smoked for 50 years.


Estrangement and the Wills Variation Act

As previously stated, one of the overwhelming commonalities between a black sheep and the scapegoat is that they are often advised by medical practitioners or counsellors to learn to distance themselves from their family, for their own mental well-being.

That is based on the probable reality that the family’s behaviour as a group will never change. The ostracized child will continue to be abused psychologically and be unable to escape or change the role he or she has been assigned.

When testators disinherit a child on the basis of non-contact for many years, alleging estrangement, it may well be that a valid Wills Variation claim should or will override the defence of estrangement if the long-term minimal or total absence of contact was based on the advice of a medical doctor or a qualified counsellor.

It would particularly assist the disinherited victim if such medical/counselling advice were passed onto the family members who were causing the continuing abuse, on or after family counselling has failed. At least records would be available to show attempts were made at reconciliation.

The common consensus of the general public, and even some judges, is the view that the black sheep or scapegoat should simply never give up at attempting to reconcile with the family, and that the fault must be with the ostracized one, not the family. Thus the scapegoat is victimized not once, but twice.

It is inconceivable for anyone raised in a “normal” environment to comprehend that an estrangement could occur for anything but valid and rational reasons. In my practice, the majority of estrangements are almost always the result of petty issues and irrational reactions to them.


Court Awards for “Scapegoat Abuse”

A.D.Y. vs. M.Y.Y. and D.E.Y. (1994) 5 WWR 623 involves a case of egregious physical and mental abuse. His parents subjected their child to years of physical and mental abuse during his troubled childhood, in which he was, inter alia, hyperactive.

The plaintiff recovered damages of $260,000 in his action against his parents for damages for assault, battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of mental suffering.

The term “scapegoat” was used by the expert witness. Dr. Briggs’ opinion is that the plaintiff was the family scapegoat.

No one will disagree with the fact that [A.]’s family experienced periods of considerable stress during [A.]’s 12 years of living within the family.

There will be some dispute as to [A.]’s contribution to that stress because of his Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactivity, and his induction into the role of family scapegoat. There will be considerably more disagreement as to whether the problems [A.] presented (both because of his disorder and because of his reactivity to family stress and their management of him) justified measures taken against him that were unusually harsh. These measures were carried out in persistent and extreme ways to the point of becoming ritualized punishment and degradation in the name of management and behavioural control. A long term pattern of physical and emotional abuse is evident, carried out both by [A.]’s parents directly and indirectly by their promoting and endorsing physical and/or emotional abuse by certain of [A.]’s siblings.



Black sheep/scapegoats are often, not surprisingly, disinherited by their parents. The view of the black sheep/scapegoats is that they were singled out as very young children to be blamed for things that were neither their fault nor in their control or the accusations simply were not rational.

Those types of dysfunctional situations can arise in almost any type of home, but in particular in homes where there are narcissistic parents and/or alcohol, drug, or mental issues.

If a black sheep/scapegoat learns he or she is to be disinherited, the person should seek legal advice, as well as medical and psychological counselling to ascertain whether it would be in his or her best interest to attempt a reconciliation with the dysfunctional family, given the individual’s own history.


For many black sheep/scapegoats, there are simply two choices.

1. No family contact

2. Continued abusive family relations

While every child craves parental love and approval and vice versa, in the world of the dysfunctional family that is an impossible illusion, especially for those assigned black sheep/scapegoat status.


Further reading on blacksheep and scapegoats:

Cutting Ties with the Family and Estrangement

4 Unhealthy Roles Created in Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional Families: Scapegoat Child Sues Parents and Wins

When Does a Common Law Marriage Come to an End

It is not always clear, even between the spouses themselves, when a common law marriage came to a legal end.
The Courts have accordingly developed certain guidelines to assist them.
The test of whether a relationship is at an end is objective; W.A.S. v. D.W.T., 2003 BCSC 865, paras. 18-26; Eisener v. Baker, 2007 BCSC 83at paras. 32-37, Nathu v. Miller, 2009 BCSC 1155at paras. 64-68.
The issue of when the marriage-like relationship terminates in a common-law spousal relationship has recently been before this court in Markin v. Gysel, supra, and S. (W.A.) v. T. (D.W.) (2003), 40 R.F.L. (5th) 389, 2003 BCSC 865 (B.C. S.C.).
33      S. (W.A.) v. T. (D.W.) dealt with the breakdown of a long-term common-law relationship of approximately 20 years, in which both parties contributed financially and domestically, at least initially. The relationship was “fragile and uncertain” long before the couple separated, with Mr. T. developing serious drug and alcohol abuse problems at an early stage in the relationship. In relation to Ms. S.’s claim for spousal support, Groberman J. held that the court had no jurisdiction to grant such relief, because the application was brought seven weeks more than one year after the parties ceased to live together. Groberman J. also found that the parties had ceased to live in a marriage-like relationship long before the defendant physically moved out of their shared house. He stated at ¶21-23:
I reject the argument that the parties lived together after December 26, 2000. On that date, Ms. S. became aware that Mr. T. was having, and intended to continue to have, a romantic relationship with Ms. C. Ms. S. had clearly told him that he could not continue to live with her in those circumstances, and Mr. T. left. While Ms. S. may have had some hope that her relationship with Mr. T. could be resurrected, I find that there was no objective basis on which she could possibly have concluded that they were still living together.
In particular, I find that long before December 26, 2000, Mr. T. and Ms. S. ceased to have a marriage-like relationship. Aside from the pooling of financial resources, they had little to do with one another, and had very limited social interaction. They had had no intimate relations for over five years, and had not presented themselves as a couple to others for some time. Indeed, it is questionable whether the two were living together even before December 26, 2000, or were rather living separate and apart under the same roof.
34      S. (W.A.) v. T. (D.W.) was followed in Markin v. Gysel, supra. That case involved a four-year common-law relationship in which the parties had one child. After the man moved from the parties’ home, he voluntarily paid the woman $1,000 per month, plus expenses in relation to the home. With respect to when the parties ceased to live in a marriage-like relationship, Joyce J. held that the parties separated before the defendant actually moved out of the home. Although the parties continued to eat meals together and share the same bed for a time, the defendant had made clear his intentions that he did not want the relationship to continue, sexual relations terminated shortly thereafter, and he subsequently moved into a spare room before finally leaving the home.
35      Another relevant case is Thompson v. Floyd, 86 B.C.L.R. (3d) 56, 2001 BCCA 78 (B.C. C.A.). That case involved a common-law relationship that extended over a number of years. For health reasons, the plaintiff left the parties’ home and moved in with her family, although she continued regular communication and visits with the defendant. Despite the fact that the parties were physically separated, McEachern C.J.B.C. held that the trial judge had not erred in concluding that the marriage-like relationship continued, at least until the last time the couple had sexual relations. He noted that it was significant that neither party made a direct statement that they regarded the relationship to be over until the parties began discussing the sale of their home, a few months before the action was commenced (at ¶32).
36      Thus, it is clear from the cases that the point at which the parties ceased living in the same residence is not necessarily determinative of the date their marriage-like relationship terminated (see also Hughes v. Boyd, 2006 BCSC 1669 (B.C. S.C.) at ¶4, agreeing that the key issue is when the “marriage-like” quality of the relationship terminated, not simply when the parties ceased to live under the same roof). The key factors in determining when a couple have ceased living in a marriage-like relationship include the absence of sexual relations, a clear statement by one of the parties of his or her desire to terminate the relationship, physical separation of the parties into different rooms of the same house or different residences, or the couple no longer presenting themselves to the outside world as a couple. Additionally, the method in which the spouse filed income tax returns may be a relevant consideration (see Oswell, supra, at ¶7), and provides objective evidence of whether a person considered himself or herself to be involved in a marriage-like relationship.
37      In this case, Mr. Baker took clear action to terminate the marriage-like relationship on August 14, 2003. He moved his furniture out of the House and ceased to reside there. The parties ceased to have an intimate relationship at that time. He made clear that he did not want the relationship to continue. After this date, he was away most of the time. By October of 2003, Mr. Baker was making clear attempts to remove Ms. Eisener from title to the House. The plaintiff could not reasonably have believed that the relationship would continue after that point. Further, she identified herself as being single on her 2002 income tax return. Additionally, her behaviour in public and toward Ms. Rollin and Ms. Cousson contradicts her testimony that the parties remained in a marriage-like relationship until December 2004.

The Criteria of a Marriage-Like Relationship

The Criteria of a Marriage-Like Relationship

The criteria generally speaking for a marriage- like relationship are as follows, as recently laid out in  McFarlane v. Goodburn Estate 2014 BCSC 1449:

The question of whether a couple is to be regarded as having had a marriage-like relationship can be answered having regard to objective and subjective criteria.

The nature of the objective test and its limitations were described by Justice Cory in M. v. H. [1999] 2 S.C.R. 3, at para. 59:

Molodowich v. Penttinen (1980), 17 R.F.L. (2d) 376 (Ont. Dist. Ct.), sets out the generally accepted characteristics of a conjugal relationship. They include shared shelter, sexual and personal behaviour, services, social activities, economic support and children, as well as the societal perception of the couple. However, it was recognized that these elements may be present in varying degrees and not all are necessary for the relationship to be found to be conjugal. … In order to come within the definition, neither opposite-sex couples nor same-sex couples are required to fit precisely the traditional marital model to demonstrate that the relationship is “conjugal”.
22      In my view, there were sufficient objective indicators in this case for the couple to be regarded as spouses. They shared the plaintiff’s home and they shared her bed. The plaintiff provided care and support to Mr. Goodburn to the degree and in the manner of someone who was more than simply a friend. In their interactions with members of her family, and in their other social interactions, they would have appeared to function as a unit.
23      The subjective test, based on the court’s assessment of the parties’ degree of mutual commitment, is as stated by Justice Lambert in Gostlin v. Kergin (1986), [1986] 5 W.W.R. 1, 3 B.C.L.R. (2d) 264 (C.A.). Referencing the support obligations set out in s. 57 of the Family Relations Act, R.S.B.C. 1979, c. 121, he stated:
So I would ask whether the unmarried couple’s relationship was like the relationship of the married couple in that the unmarried couple have shown that they have voluntarily embraced the permanent support obligations of s. 57. If each partner had been asked, at any time during the relevant period of more than two years, whether, if their partner were to be suddenly disable for life, would they consider themselves committed to life-long financial and moral support of that partner, and the answer of both of them would have been “Yes”, then they are living together as husband and wife. If the answer would have been “No”, then they may be living together, but not as husband and wife.
24      As with any civil case, this aspect of the plaintiff’s claim need only be proven on a balance of probabilities. In my view, the reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the facts of this case is that the answer to that question would have been “Yes”.

Dysfunctional Families Are Everywhere



Dysfunctional families are everywhere.


Some years ago the Vancouver Sun ran a feature on dysfunctional families and  reported that one in three British Columbians expect to be disinherited by their parents.

Practising estate litigation for over 40 years, it is easy to believe there are more dysfunctional than functional families. Indeed the dysfunctional family is the bread and butter of our practice. With the growing number of second marriages and blended families, the numbers are ever increasing.

In this article wehope to share some insights into dysfunctional families. IWe have no scientific expertise, only a wealth of practical experience dealing with the financial, emotional and psychological aftermath of such families.


Most of us grow up believing our own family is “normal”. It is only with life experience that we may come to recognize there is perhaps “something unusual” about our own upbringing and family life. We may also come to realize that many families are unfortunately not the happy, healthy families to which we all aspire.

Typically a dysfunctional family is one where the relationships between parents and children are strained and unnatural. Although there may be many different root causes, such families usually involve one or more family member with a serious problem that impacts every other member of the family. In turn, the other family members adopt atypical roles and behavior that allow the family to function on a basic level. For example, an older child may assume a caretaking role towards younger siblings to cover for an alcoholic mother.

A dysfunctional family often means parents fail to adequately provide for their children’s emotional, psychological and/or physical needs. Such children often suffer from low self-esteem all of their lives. Needless to say, this impacts every aspect of their lives from jobs to marriages to financial security.

Many families may seem normal at first glance. Scratch the surface, however, and some surprising relationships are exposed. For example, a recent case involved a family who, four days before the death of the patriarch, learned that he had another family in another city. You can imagine the profound shock and grief caused by this deception. The surviving family questioned their basic beliefs about who they were.


The following are some examples of patterns occurring in dysfunctional families. Although classifed under various titles, there is often a great deal of overlap as often many problem behaviours occurs in the same family.

1) Addiction

In this scenario one or both parents have addictions relating to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, work or food. Any such addiction can clearly have strong negative effects on other family members. One case we had involved a crack cocaine addict who was disinherited by his father after moving in with him and turning his home into a crack house.

Alcohol abuse is far more common and is extremely destructive as well.

2) Physical Violence

In such families, one or both parents use physical violence as a means of control through intimidation. The children may be the victim of violence, may be forced to witness their mother being beaten, to participate in punishing siblings or simply may live in fear of explosive outbursts. Such children frequently grow up with anxiety and depression issues. What is more, they are far more susceptible to abuse themselves. Sons raised in such families are at a much higher risk of becoming abusive husbands while the daughters more often become victims of violence.

3) Lack of Emotional Support

In these families, one or both parents fail to provide their children with adequate emotional support (often they also fail to provide basic physical and financial care at the same time). For example, one case involved a man who had simply been ignored as a child and left to fend largely for himself. He grew up to be an emotional cripple who completely lacked social skills and lived a very isolated existence. Thus he was awarded a large share of his parents’ estates. He would need those funds to survive since he was effectively unemployable.

4) Religious Fundamentalism and Rigidly Dogmatic Beliefs

Such families frequently involve parents who exert a strong authoritarian control. These families rigidly adhere to a particular belief, sometimes religiously or culturally based. Compliance with cultural or religious expectations is not expected, it is demanded.

For example we had a one case involving an overly strict mother who put down the family dog because her daughters girls did not keep their room clean enough.

A more extreme example of such behavior would be the family “honour killings” we read of from time to time. These involve male family members killing a female member because she is believed to have “brought shame” on the family.

5) Overly Possessive Parents

We have had many cases involving overly possessive parents who exploit their children, treating them as possessions whose primary purpose is to respond to the parents’ needs. They often do not encourage their child to become independent. This sometimes results in this scenario where one child, typically the youngest, never leaves home. Instead the child cares for the parent until death and is often “rewarded” or “compensated” for his or her “sacrifice”. Most often the other siblings view him or her as a freeloader.

It is sometimes amazing to hear the childish emotions these situations continue to evoke in adult children. In one case we represented a youngest child who had never left home and who was rewarded with privileges and a larger inheritance than his 4 older siblings. At the examinations for discovery when the older sister was questioned as to why the others hated our client , she responded “Because he was allowed cheese sandwiches before bed, and we were not.”

5) Sexual Abuse

As more cases of family sexual abuse surface, it is clear that sexual abuse by anyone but especially a parent will produce lifelong emotional scars for the victim. Typically it is the father or stepfather who sexually abuses a daughter or stepdaughter. It is shocking however, how frequently mothers ignore the disclosures of abuse and deny that their husband (the breadwinner and meal ticket) could have perpetrated such acts. This failure to believe and to protect the child only aggravates an already difficult situation.

One case we had involved the death of a father who had divided his estate in equal shares among his children and one grandson. When his daughter was questioned as to the motives for such a distribution, she disclosed that her father had sired this son. .


Every family varies greatly in the frequency and severity of dysfunctional interactions.

In dysfunctional families children may be forced to take sides in conflicts, they may be ignored, discounted, criticized or abused. Other parents may be inappropriately intrusive, overly involved and protective. Many children of dysfunctional families complain that their parents were emotionally distant and uninvolved. The fundamentalist family may provide excessive rules while the addicted parents may provide no guidelines or structure. Some children may be rejected while their siblings receive preferential treatment. Children may be slapped, punched, kicked or emotionally abused and locked out of the house. Some children runaway or leave home at an early age. Others never leave.

The bottom line with all dysfunctional families is that such abuse and neglect inhibit the development of healthy adults with healthy relationships. As adults, such people often have difficulty in judging and trusting others and themselves. They often experience difficulties in their workplace, in their relationships and with their very identities.

What is more, in the world of the estate litigation, they are often disinherited.