Background – The Man with Two Lives
The deceased, Michael Widner, died unexpectedly in 2017. He was the victim of a homicide. In the words of Duncan J., he left behind a “complicated legacy”.
At the time of his death, he was married to both the defendant, Sabrina Widner, and was also in a long-term marriage-like relationship with plaintiff, Sara Boughton, for eight years. He fathered multiple children with both. On all accounts, Michael was a loving father to all of his children.
Michael lived a double life. He would split his time between two households, spending half of every week with each spouse. Sabrina was told that he was working out of town for half of each week. Sabrina did not know about Sara.
Sara knew that Michael was married to another woman, and was still spending half of each week with her and her children. However, Michael told her that he was in the process of finalizing their divorce and did not want to strain the relationship with his children. Although frustrated that the divorce never took place, she never lost hope. While suspicious, she always gave him the benefit of the doubt because they had children together and she loved him.
It was held that Michael’s income was connected to his relationship with the infamous biker gang, Hell’s Angels. While Sabrina argued otherwise, Duncan J. found that Michael funded both relationships, including the vast majority of the payments with which he purchased his family homes for Sabrina and their children. Michael routinely paid for everything in cash, and has claimed very little income on his taxes.
When Michael became missing, Sabrina consulted a psychic. This psychic alerted her of the existence of Sara, who was his “other girlfriend”, and warned her of a man named “Shawn”. Days later, when Michael’s body was recovered near Port Renfrew, a man named Shawn tracked down Sabrina and offered for the Hell’s Angels to pay for the funeral if she would allow them to “vest” his casket. Needless to say, Sabrina was shocked and upset to discover Michael’s ties to this gang, and his secret life with another family.
Legal Issue – Part III Section 22 of the WESA
Michael died without a will, leaving behind two spouses. Therefore, Part III, section 22 of B.C.’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”) would govern the distribution of his assets. Because Michael paid for the majority of his family homes with Sabrina, a portion of these homes worth $150,000, would form the majority of his estate’s assets.
Polygamy is a federal criminal offense under section 293 of Canada’s Criminal Code. Mr. Stamm, counsel to the defendant Sabrina, has argued that section 293 should prohibit Duncan J. from using the powers granted to her under Part III, section 22 of WESA, as to do so is to sanction polygamy.
Duncan J. had two responses. First, she interpreted section 293 narrowly. This section only prohibits multiple marriages, but does not prohibit multiple marriage-like relationships, common law cohabitation or adultery.
Secondly, just because a situation is unlikely because it may border on being a crime, doesn’t mean that provincial legislations, in this case WESA, has not and should not accounted for it. In fact, it is the purpose of legislation to account for all possible circumstances, however unlikely.
After finding that Sara was indeed a spouse under the meaning of Part II of WESA, Duncan J. turned her attention to the legislative history of Part III, section 22, which governs the distribution of intestacy assets for those with two or more spouses. Citing the entirety of the relevant portion of the legislative debate between Opposition critic, Mr. Krog, and Mr. de Jong representing the liberal Government, Duncan J. found that Part III, section 22 was valid and applicable in this instance.
Therefore, pursuant to section 22 and the doctrine of unjust enrichment, Michael’s estate (worth $150,000 from the proceeds of sale of his family homes) was divided equally between both surviving spouses, Sara and Sabrina.
It is not easy to live a double life. However, it may be even more difficult to be the unaware surviving spouse of one of those lives. Human relationships can be diverse, and societal attitudes are quickly shifting to be accepting and accommodating. This is demonstrated in the prudent legislative planning behind Part III, section 22 of WESA.
This decision shows that no matter how unlikely the type of relationship arrangement is, and regardless if all participating parties are aware, all surviving spouses have rights and deserve equal protection under the law.