If Cinderella had not married a prince, she might have cared a bit more about her legal status as a stepchild to her evil stepmother. It is common ground that the relationships between stepparents and stepchildren can be difficult. Vince Dixon of the Chicago Tribune recently provided saga guidance on how to mitigate some of those potential problems. Communication is generally the key. But for step-grandparents, the introduction of stepchildren into their lives is a matter generally beyond their control. It is often a wonderful and vibrant experience but the legal consequences are not generally discussed. How is an inheritance to be handled when a stepparent or step-grandparent dies? What are the legal rights of step-children to inherit?
The short answer is: it depends. The starting point is what the will says. If the stepchild is specifically named and granted a bequest, they will inherit. But what of the occasions where the bequest is more ambiguous, for example, where there is no specific bequest and the beneficiaries are referred to only as “my children” or “my grandchildren”. In the past, Courts generally did not include in the definition of “child” or “grandchild” either illegitimate or stepchildren. Thankfully, that rule has been somewhat relaxed to a rebuttable presumption in favour of legal descendants rather than an inviolable rule. Now, in interpreting a will to see if stepchildren (grand or otherwise) are to inherit, the Courts will, where there is ambiguity, look to the context of the will and other external evidence that may assist in that interpretation.
The decision in Re Lang 2011 BCSC 972 is an illustration. Mrs. Lang passed away leaving two grandchildren and a single great-grandchild. Her will provided that the residue of her estate was to be divided equally between her “grandchildren and great-grandchildren”. Her 27 step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren argued that they were included in that bequest. In the end, the Court disagreed and held that the term “grandchildren and great-grandchildren” in the context of Mrs. Long’s will meant her natural off-spring, not step-children. In reaching this conclusion, the Court was prepared to consider the will of Mrs. Lang’s predeceased husband, notes of the solicitor who drafted the will and handwritten notes by Mrs. Lang. The Court put the greatest weight on the internal references in Mrs. Lang’s will and her handwritten notes, all of which seemed to indicate her bequest was intended only for her legal descendants, the two grandchildren and the great-grandchild.
Given the increasing prevalence of blended families, it may be a good idea to discus with grandparents (your parents) how they wish to treat any step-grandchildren they may have. This will avoid resort to the courts as the 30 people in the Re Lang case needed to do. It is better to have a testator’s intentions spelled out in their will, even if it means the certainty of exclusion. The alternative is litigation and the cost and hard feelings that can create.