“Home” is Where the Dispute Is

Written on behalf of Arbesman Hamilton LLP

In everyday conversation, people may take the simple definitions of words for granted. Take for example the word “home.” Easy enough, right? Most people have a general understanding of what the word “home” means, and it’s probably not a point of contention in most conversations. However, in the legal world, the definitions of seemingly simple words can lead parties to court. That was the case in a recent decision from the Court of Appeal of Alberta, where the court was asked to determine what “home” meant in the context of an estate dispute.

The facts

When the testator died, he left behind two daughters as well as a brother, at least one sister, and several friends. The court described his relationship with his daughters as close, explaining he bought them each a motorcycle when they became adults, and had given one of them $20,000 shortly before his death. While he was business partners with his brother, they were not close socially.

The testator’s will was signed on February 10, 2004. In it, he named his brother as his estate trustee. The will stipulated he was leaving his “home” to his two daughters and the residue of the estate to his brother.

The dispute

The brother and the daughters had a disagreement over who was to inherit some of the testator’s personal property, specifically the contents of the home, which included four motorcycles, a truck, a motorcycle trailer parked in the garage, scrap metal stored elsewhere, and a tax-free savings account and some other bank accounts.

At the original trial, the testator’s lawyer swore an affidavit stating the testator had told him he wanted to leave his “home” to his kids and everything else to his brother. They did not discuss what the testator meant by “home.” However, several friends of the testator stated he had told them he intended to leave his residence and “all his personal property” (with some exceptions) to his daughters. One friend said, “he was giving everything else that was personal, with the exception of one Gold Wing Motorcycle, to his daughters.”

The trial decision

The brother had taken the position that anything not in the actual home should be given to him. However, the trial judge determined that the testator considered his garage as part of his home. An affidavit presented at the original trial stated, “He would say he was at home even when he was in his garage working. He was often in his garage working on cars or otherwise in his spare time. It was evident to me that he considered his garage his ‘home’”.

The trial judge concluded that the word home can have a very broad meaning, writing,

“A home is something very different from a hotel or lodgings… A home is a place where you find not merely the reasonable comforts of life, but also those comforts which are peculiarly associated with what the English people term home.”

The trial judge concluded the testator’s home, garage, and personal property located within them should be given to the daughters.

On
appeal

The court outlined the four fundamental principles that govern the interpretation of a will. It listed them as follows:

“First, a will must be interpreted to give effect to the intention of the testator. No other principle is more important than this one.

Second, a court must read the entire will, just the same way an adjudicator interpreting a contract or a statute must read the whole contract or statute.

Third, a court must assume that the testator intended the words in the will to have their ordinary meaning in the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.

Fourth, a court may canvas extrinsic evidence to ascertain the testator’s intention.”

In looking at the fourth factor, the court determined that the testator thought of his garage as his home and that his intention was to give his daughters the contents of it.

Estate disputes can be complicated, emotionally charged, and lengthy affairs. Legal disputes can be costly, depleting the financial health of an estate. At Arbesman Hamilton LLP we work to resolve legal disputes through out-of-court settlements, mediations, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. However, we are ready to represent our clients in court should litigation become necessary. We understand that each case has unique issues and we work with our clients to address those through our personalized and focused approach. Please call us at 416-481-5604 or reach us online to schedule a consultation today.