This article was originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of the Expert Witness.
The Court of Appeal has stated that other “accelerated inheritances” should be deducted from each person’s dependency award (at paragraph  in Brooks). I have two comments to make on this topic.
First, as a relatively minor point I would mention that the deduction used must be the present value gain involved, not the amount inherited at the time. The “gain” now is reduced somewhat by the loss of the same amount in the future, at the deceased’s without-accident expected age of death. Of course for a young spouse this latter present value is small, but it is not zero. The Court was probably aware of this issue but as the paragraph was written one would simply deduct what was received shortly after the premature death.
Second, and far more importantly, I would argue that to deduct any accelerated inheritances would be an enormous and unjustified change to existing practice – note that for a middle-aged couple with significant assets, the deduction from a normal dependency award could be very large. For example, if they have assets of $400,000, the supposed gain to one spouse from early receipt of the partner’s half of those assets would be a large fraction of the $200,000 (about ¾ of it, or over $150,000, for a couple aged 40). Assuming a gross dependency award of perhaps $450,000 (= $30,000 times a multiplier of 15), the loss would be reduced by more than a third. I suggest with all due respect that this would be incorrect and unjust.
In a fatal accident case we have always been concerned with assessing the spouse’s (and children’s) loss of labour income. We are not supposed to consider the assets (or lack thereof) of the family, except to the extent they are relevant in estimating lost labour income. In particular it would seem quite unfair that two families who had suffered identical losses of labour income would receive very different dependency awards, should the Court’s suggestion be adopted. (It is perhaps even more bothersome to consider that between those two families, the one that had failed to save much of their income would be granted the larger award!) Similarly, a child who might normally be entitled to a dependency award in the tens of thousands could receive nothing, if his or her share of the estate’s assets was significant.
I have in fact seen at least one attempt to apply such a deduction, disguised within a cross-dependency methodology. The expert in question simply counted interest income along with each person’s labour income in estimating the family total, and of course this led to the survivor “gaining” something that partially offset the loss of dependency on labour income. I do not recall the exact figure but it was of the same order of magnitude as the following example: Assume interest income of $10,000 per year ($5,000 for each spouse). Using cross-dependency with 30 percent consumed by each person and 40 percent going to indivisibles, the survivor formerly benefited from $7,000 of that income. To be formal about it, the survivor received $4,000 (40 percent of their own $5,000 and the same amount from the deceased) for indivisibles and $3,000 (30 percent of each side’s funds) for exclusive personal consumption. After the death, the cross-dependency methodology presumes that she gains $3,000, consisting of the deceased’s supposedly saved personal consumption (30 percent x $5,000 x 2). All of these are annual figures only and the present values over decades would be much larger. The deduction of almost half the family’s assets (as opposed to just the interest on those assets) would be even worse. As discussed previously in this newsletter, we strongly disagree with the cross-dependency method – even when it is applied only to labour income it can imply that the survivor is better off without their spouse. The courts are free to use this method if and when they see fit, but I would ask that at the very least they refrain from allowing the deduction of accelerated inheritances, since that falsely reduces a future loss of labour income using assets the family already owns. In a great many cases this method would eliminate any dependency losses (consider a couple within ten or fifteen years of retirement – their assets are already substantial and there are relatively few years of labour left). One would like to think that survivors will not be asked to pay the defense the amount by which they have been made “better off,” but we have already seen cases where this has occurred across different years (i.e. a cross-dependency “gain” in some years is left in a multiyear calculation in order to offset losses occurring in others).
I hope that the Court will in the future clarify which, if any, accelerated inheritances they would like to see deducted from dependency awards. In addition, it would be preferable to have the sole vs. cross dependency debate settled definitively – it hardly seems fair when two otherwise identical families in similar fatal accident cases can receive very different awards, depending on the method favoured by each of the judges involved. The same discrepancy could be made even more pronounced if some judges deduct accelerated inheritance while others do not. Ideally, I would prefer to have the legislature consider each of these issues and impose some uniformity.