Can you disinherit an estranged child?

In every Australian State and Territory, “Family Provision” legislation exists to allow a natural child to bring a claim for provision (or further provision) from the estate of their deceased parent. At the very core of the Family Provision legislation is the recognition of a moral duty that a parent owes to their child.

Whilst the Law recognises that a parent owes a moral duty to their child, it also recognises that the moral duty will be impacted based on the nature of the relationship between the parent and the child. This moral factor must be weighed against the Applicant child’s financial need for provision from an estate.

But what if the relationship between the parent and child had been a strained one? Perhaps for a few years, or a few decades? What if the child or the parent had done something (or failed to do something) which caused a breakdown in the relationship? There is a vast array of case law which looks at “the character and conduct” of applicants, at “disentitling conduct” and “estrangement” between parent and child, and unfortunately, the case law can often be ad hoc and sometimes inconsistent.

What is consistent among the case law however is that the nature of the relationship between a child and their deceased parent is always taken into account by the Court and may serve to reduce or even deny a claim for provision in circumstances that may otherwise have presented a compelling case.

Let’s focus just on “estrangement” between a parent and their child.

We know from the case law that the cause of the estrangement is relevant. Estrangement that is caused entirely by a deceased parent’s unreasonable conduct or beliefs alone cannot amount to disentitling conduct on the part of an Applicant child. The Court therefore engages in a forensic analysis of the conduct and attitude of the deceased judged by prevailing community standards. As we know, moral standards are always changing and what was considered reasonable 30 years ago, may not be considered reasonable today.

Nonetheless, the cause of the estrangement is one factor. The period of estrangement is another factor – naturally, a longer period of estrangement may justify a lesser moral duty on behalf of the parent towards their child. Of course, moral duty needs to be weighed against other competing claims (e.g. the moral claim of a testator’s children may lose priority to those of the testator’s spouse (for example, the case of Temple v Cowell [2011]SASC 20).

It should be noted however that issues of fault within family relationships are inherently complex, and often relationship breakdowns have causes that are not exclusive to one party (as recognised by Young J in Walker v Walker)

More recently, in the case of Larkin v Leech-Larkin (judgement being delivered in October 2017), the NSW Supreme Court came across yet another case involving the estrangement between a mother and her son, Julian.

The mother had 4 sons and had left her entire estate to her second son Lucien. Two of her other sons had not made a claim against their mother’s estate. One son however ( Julian) decided to make a claim.

The Court recognised that Julian had a strained relationship with his mother caused predominantly by (a) Julian continuing to have a relationship with his father following his mother and father’s divorce and (b) Julian failing to have any meaningful contact with his mother over the past 40 years of her life, and no contact within the last 8 years of her life.

The Court also recognised that the other son, Lucien, who was the sole beneficiary of his mother’s estate, had a much closer relationship. They had a shared common interest (being their property in the Blue Mountains), and the Court also found that Lucien had spent a great deal of his own wealth towards this property.

The estate was worth approximately $680,000 and the Court ultimately dismissed the application by the estranged some Julian.

Does this case add anything further to the case law on estrangement and moral duty (and the principles in Keep v Bourke and Andrew v Andrew)? The short answer is “not really”.

The take-away point from this case is that we consistently see the Courts at the very least, having regard to the following:

  1. the family history and dynamic between family members, the parent and the Applicant child
  1. the nature and conduct of the Applicant child and his or her parent, and any dis-entitling conduct on part of the Applicant child;
  1. what is considered to be “prevailing community standards”; and
  1. weighing the above factors with against the applicant child’s financial need for provision from an estate.

Please contact our Estate Planning team if you need to carefully structure your estate plan, or if you believe you have been unfairly treated in the distribution of an estate.