Inheritance in domestic relationships and stepchildren
Adult daughter claiming
Was she an ‘eligible person’ within the law?
The claimant said her mother had been the deceased’s domestic partner for over forty years, ending when he died. She argued this meant she was in effect a stepdaughter and so within the definitions of an ‘eligible person’ under the law. Being an eligible person she claimed that the deceased failed to make adequate provision for her proper maintenance and support.
Family provision legislation in Victoria
The requirements for this are set out under Part IV, Family Provision, of the Administration and Probate Act 1958 (VIC) and as amended. The deceased had never married and had no natural children. When the mother died the deceased then commenced a domestic relationship with another lady leaving everything to her.
Not a ‘stepchild’
Defending the deceased’s will2 the executor argued she was not an ‘eligible person’. This was because she was not a ‘stepchild’ within the meaning of the legislation, and she had no prospects of success.
The effect of a family provision order by the court
A family provision order has the effect of altering the will of a deceased or the intestacy provisions applicable to a deceased’s estate. There are no rights at general law to alter the distribution of a deceased’s estate otherwise than in accordance with a testator’s wishes.
The issues for the Court to determine were:
Eligibility of a stepchild to make a claim for provision
- Whether she was an eligible person under the definition given for an ‘eligible person’ in section 90 of the Administration and Probate Act 1958. In recent times the Victorian Parliament passed changes to the eligibility rules for applicants seeking family provision under the Act – set out under s 90 of the Administration and Probate Act 1958 (VIC), link above. For anyone wishing to make a claim for provision out of a deceased’s estate, it is necessary they fall within one of the categories in s 90.
Whether a stepchild of the deceased in the circumstances
- Whether a child of a former domestic partner of the deceased is a stepchild of the deceased.
When does the step-child/step-parent relationship end?
- Whether the relationship of step-child to step-parent ends on the death of the natural parent. Does the relationship survive the natural parent’s death when they die first?
No definition for ‘stepchild’ given under the Act
Section 90 of the Act states that an “eligible person” means:
(i) under the age of 18 years; or
(ii) a full-time student aged between 18 years and 25 years; or
(iii) a stepchild with a disability;
(e) a former spouse or former domestic partner of the deceased if the person, at the time of the deceased’s death— …
(f) a child or stepchild of the deceased not referred to in paragraph (b) or (c);
(g) …to (k)..
A stepchild can be an “eligible person” under the Act, but the problem was that the legislation does not define the word ‘stepchild’ itself.This meant that if the applicant plaintiff was not a stepchild of the deceased, then she is not an eligible person under the Administration and Probate Act, and therefore cannot make a claim for provision from his estate.
Different points of view on who can be a stepchild
Not surprisingly both sides had different interpretations. The applicant’s main argument was that as she was a child of the former domestic partner of the deceased, she can be categorised as a stepchild and so an ‘eligible person’.
The defendant executor said that the statute contained no definition of stepchild or like terms, so it was necessary to look at the ordinary meaning of the term ‘stepchild’. He argued that the marriage relationship was intrinsic to working out the meaning. As the deceased was never married to the applicant’s mother, it followed that the applicant could not be a stepchild of the deceased and so not eligible to apply for provision.
The Court noted the evidence of Parliament’s intention that applicants for family provision included a child of a parent who had been in a domestic partnership.
Stepchild continued to be the stepchild of the deceased
As to when the relationship between step-parent and step-child ends or continues, the Court said that if the natural parent died before the deceased, and at the time were still in a domestic partnership with the deceased, then the stepchild continues to be the stepchild of the deceased, for the purposes of eligibility provisions of the Act.
The Judge said that in his view the inclusion in the definition of ‘eligible person’ under the legislation of a domestic partner of the deceased at the time of the deceased’s death, with equal status to a spouse, is an indication that the legislature may have intended that stepchildren of domestic partnerships should be encompassed in the meaning of stepchild. The Judge concluded that the plaintiff was a stepchild and an eligible person to make a claim for family provision.
On the other issues the Court said that:
By analogy with the common law position of a stepchild of a marriage, the relationship of stepparent and stepchild of a domestic partnership for the purposes of Part IV ends if, before the death of the deceased, the domestic partnership ends otherwise than by the death of the parent. That is, if the domestic partnership ends by complete separation, or what might loosely be called dissolution.
But, if the domestic partnership remains undissolved at the time of death of the natural parent, again by analogy with the position at common law, the relationship of affinity between stepparent and stepchild continues.
What the Court of Appeal said
The executor’s appeal to the Court of Appeal3 was dismissed. The Court of Appeal said the case was a question about the statutory construction on the meaning of ‘stepchild’ within the definition of ‘eligible person’ in s 90 of the Act. The Court concluded that the child of the deceased’s former domestic partner was the deceased’s stepchild and eligible to make a claim for family provision.
1. Bail v Scott-Mackenzie  VSC 563
2. Defending the deceased’s intentions as expressed in their will is part of the role of being an executor.
3. Scott-Mackenzie v Bail  VSCA 108
BHS Legal, updated August 2023
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.
Historic Dunolly Courthouse 1858, Victoria. B Stead.