This blog was written by Sue Noorloos LLB, an Estate and Trust Consultant with Scotiatrust in London.
Estrangement is defined as “one or more relatives intentionally choosing to end contact because of an ongoing negative relationship”, according to a recent article published in the New York Times called Debunking Myths about Estrangement.
As estate planners, it is pertinent to understand that research on family ruptures has intensified over the past five years. These findings challenge the notion that estrangement is uncommon and that family relationships cannot be easily dissolved. Lucy Blake, of Hill University in England published a review of 51 articles in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. This research has debunked several common myths:
- Estrangement is rare. Actually, estrangement is quite common. A 2014 study of British adults revealed that 8% had cut of a family member. 19% reported that they or another relative were no longer in contact with family.
- Estrangement happens suddenly. Research has challenged this by demonstrating that it occurs gradually. Conversations may be limited or reduced to small talk, attendance at family celebrations or holidays decline or family members move a great distance away.
- A singular reason or event causes estrangement. Multiple reasons for rupture are more common and include factors like choosing a partner over a parent, domestic violence, divorce, or failing health.
- Estrangement happens on a whim. A study of 26 adults demonstrated that estrangement from parents happened due to abuse, betrayal and/or poor parenting. These three factors were not mutually exclusive and often overlapped. Distancing often began in childhood and was a long term process rather than whim.
Will drafters and estate planners are no strangers to estrangement. Some testators wish to specify the basis for disinheriting a family member directly in the Will or in a letter. Where there has been no contact for generations, others may elect to gift their estates to charity, friends, or distant relatives. An opposite approach is seen when the Testator attempts to make amends financially by providing the estranged child with an equal share of the estate.
Finally, impending death can turn terms of estrangement into terms of endearment resulting in a reunified relationship and a hastily re-written Will. Canadians enjoy testamentary freedom but clients should be encouraged to consider the impact of their estate plan on both estranged and non-estranged family relationships.