All About Estates

Who is a “Spouse”?

A ‘Playboy’ Millionaire’s Legacy

The estate litigation of dismembered multi-millionaire Gang Yuan has once again made headlines. Last Friday, the British Columbia Court of Appeal denied leave to appeal by one of five mothers to his children who sought to establish that she was a “spouse” to Mr. Yuan.

Mr. Yuan came to Canada in 2007. The ‘playboy’ millionaire fathered 5 children with 5 mothers, while romantically engaging as many as 68 women. He made his fortune through investments in Saskatchewan real estate and agriculture. After a falling out with a business partner, he was shot and killed. His body was sectioned into over 100 pieces.

As Mr. Yuan had no will, the distribution of his assets is governed by B.C.’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”). The legal question considered by Justice Myers of the B.C. Supreme Court is whether section 21 WESA applied. Section 21 outlines the distribution scheme applicable in a situation where there is one surviving spouse plus surviving issue. Section 22 allows for multiple spouses (see my previous blog relating to polygamy on intestacy in another B.C. case) in an intestacy situation. Section 23 outlines the same in a situation where there are only surviving issue and no spouses.

If the applicant (named “Mother 1” by the B.C. courts) had succeeded in establishing she was the spouse of Mr. Yuan, she would have been entitled to a $150,000.00 preferential share plus an entitlement to half of the $21 million dollar estate. Failing that (and assuming no other mother can establish themselves as spouse), sections 23 and 24 would direct the estate’s residue to flow to all five children equally.

Who is a “Spouse” in British Columbia?

Section 2 of WESA defines “spouse” as two persons who were either married to each other, or had “lived with each other in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years”. Justice Myers looked to case-law on B.C.’s Family Law Act in finding that a list of 22 factors grouped into 7 categories, as set out in the Ontario case of Moldowich v. Penttinen was applicable in determining whether Mother 1 was a spouse. He further reviewed applicable legal principles, such as the common law rule that co-habitation is not a requirement for a marriage-like relationship, but mutual intent is.

In making his finding that Mother 1 was not a spouse, Justice Myers considered the simultaneous nature of Mr. Yuan’s relationship with at least 3 other mothers, his continued use of dating websites, and his romantic liaisons with other women. Even if Mother 1 may have been in a marriage-like relationship with Mr. Yuan, this ended in 2014. The 2-year “marriage-like” relationship requirement is counted retroactively from the date of the intestate’s death, and so that relationship would not entitle Mother 1 to a spousal share.

Who is a “Spouse” in Ontario?

While Ontario law on intestate succession is similar to B.C. law, there is one key difference. Common law spouses or those in a “marriage-like” relationship do not qualify for intestate inheritance under Ontario law.

The Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”) is Ontario’s analogue to WESA. Subsection 1(1) of the SLRA. It defines “spouse”, as having the same meaning of section 1 within Ontario’s Family Law Act: either of two persons who are married together, or who have contracted to be married in good faith (but the marriage was found to be null). The only exception to the above deals with Part V on dependant support. Common law spouses in Ontario may qualify for support, but not for intestate succession.

Under Ontario law, Mother 1 would not have been entitled to a share of Mr. Yuan’s estate outright.

This difference in law between jurisdictions reflects an interesting divergence in the balancing of policy goals between the two legislatures. For Ontario, the marriage requirement allows for greater certainty as to who is a “spouse” capable of inheriting in an intestate situation. For B.C., the allowance of “marriage-like” relationships provides the court with greater flexibility in awarding inheritances to surviving spouses who may be analogous to a married spouse in every other way.

For those who reside in or have assets and relationships in multiple jurisdictions, this case may serve as a cautionary tale on the necessity of adequate estate planning.

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About Tyler Lin
Tyler Lin completed his articles at de VRIES LITIGATION LLP. His practice focuses on estate, trust and capacity litigation.

1 Comment

  1. Gali Gelbart

    August 10, 2022 - 8:49 pm

    Interesting article, thank you. Its especially useful that you outlined the difference between the British Columbia and Ontario legislation.

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