All jurisdictions in Australia provide statutory rights for eligible persons to contest a Will on the basis that they have not been left adequate provision by the testator for their proper maintenance, education and advancement in life.
In New South Wales, an eligible person includes a spouse, de facto partner, or child (of any age) of the deceased. An eligible person may also include a former spouse and certain persons who were partly or wholly dependent upon the deceased or living in a close personal relationship with the deceased at the time of his or her death.
If a family provision claim is successful, the Court can order an appropriate adjustment to the terms of the Will to satisfy the claim. In doing so, the Court considers a range of factors including the needs of the applicant and his or her relationship with the deceased person.
The expectation that spouses should provide for each other generally places a widow’s needs ahead of other interested parties in a family provision claim. However, all cases will be individually assessed and balanced with the needs of the applicant and the competing needs of other entitled recipients.
The moral duty to provide for a spouse
There is a general expectancy that testators have a moral duty to provide for the proper maintenance of their spouse or de facto partner. The Court has explained this as providing what is necessary for the spouse to enjoy accommodation to the standard to which he or she is accustomed and, to the extent possible and having regard to the size of the estate, a fund to meet unforeseen contingencies. This is particularly so in long marriages or relationships.
Family provision claims by widows commonly involve a contest between the applicant and a child or children from the deceased’s former relationship.
The applicant will generally apply for greater provision than what has already been provided in the Will based on his or her personal and financial circumstances, current financial position and future needs.
Generally, the widow and children of the current relationship (if any) will stand favourably against the children of a former relationship. This is because the testator’s primary duty is perceived as being owed to his current family and the likelihood that the children of the former relationship may have already been provided for through child support payments. This of course is not always the case and each matter will turn on its own circumstances in consideration of a range of factors.
Determining the sufficiency of proper maintenance
The Courts have explained the difficulties of determining the meaning of ‘proper maintenance’. In Re Harris  SASR 497 it was considered to be ‘…more than a provision to keep the wolf from the door – it should at least be sufficient to keep the wolf from pattering round the house or lurking in some outhouse in the back yard – it should be sufficient to free the mind from any reasonable fear of any insufficiency as age increases and health and strength gradually fail’.
Sometimes, widows are left a ‘right of residency’ in the testator’s property. This allows the widow to occupy the family home or other property of the deceased for his or her lifetime with the intention that the property will pass to a residuary beneficiary, such as the testator’s child or children from a former marriage, after the widow’s death.
A right of residency however is not always practical and may be considered insufficient to meet the moral duty expected of the testator. The widow may, due to age or health, need to vacate the residence, being left vulnerable and without security of a home.
The alternative approach of leaving the home to the widow may also be inappropriate – if the widow passes soon after the deceased, then the result may be a significant capital asset being inherited by the spouse’s relatives, contrary to the wishes of the testator.
As can be seen there needs to be a balance between a tokenistic provision and the risk that a testator’s significant assets might inadvertently be inherited by an unintended beneficiary.
In Luciano v Rosenblum (1985) 2NSWLR 65 the Court gave some guidance as to the expectation of a widow after the passing of a spouse:
‘Where the marriage of a deceased and his widow has been long and harmonious, where the widow has loyally supported her husband and assisted him to build up and maintain his estate, the duty which a deceased owes to his widow can be no less than to the extent to which his assets permit him to achieve that result…’
A testator owes a moral duty to provide for his or her spouse and, as a general rule, a spouse will have priority over other entitled beneficiaries in a Will contest. Having said that, every case is different and will turn on its own unique circumstances.
There are a range of factors a Court must consider when assessing the merits of a family provision claim. Your family circumstances should be assessed in light of these factors when preparing your Will to minimise the potential of a Will contest when you pass.