Sunday, April 19, 2009

Is A Gun Collection “Household Furnishings?”

This is one of the issues raised in Zeitler v. Zeitler Estate, 2009 BCSC 500.

Alfons Zeitler died without a Will on April 26, 2007, leaving a common law spouse, Dina Zeitler, three children, and a complex mess of an estate (see a previous post on another court decision involving his estate here).

He owned a gun collection that he stored in his house. Dina Zeitler’s evidence was that

about a quarter of the residence gun collection was on display in the residence at any one time, while the remainder was stored in two large security vaults located in the residence. She stated that she and Alfons enjoyed the residence gun collection, rotating them for display, cleaning and polishing them, and showing them to guests. According to Dina, she and Alfons discussed the “make,” model and history of each rifle and upon occasion, would sit and visit while cleaning the guns. She said that Alfons taught her how to polish the guns although he did most of it himself.
On the other hand, one of Alfons Zeitler’s children gave quite different evidence:

According to Gregory, Dina disliked guns, and except on a few occasions when she came out into the yard with air rifles, she wanted nothing to do with them. He said that the guns in the display cases at the residence were never shot and rarely moved, and further, that the collection was not rotated, as Dina stated. Gregory also deposed that he never saw Dina clean, polish, or display any interest in the residence gun collection.
In British Columbia, the Section 96 of Estate Administration Act provides that when a spouse dies without a will leaving descendants the surviving spouse is entitled to the spousal home for her life, and the “household furnishings.” (The surviving spouse is also entitled to the first $65,000 and a share of the residue of the estate.) The definition of spouse includes common law spouses.

The term “household furnishings” is defined as “chattels associated with the enjoyment by the spouses of the spousal home.”

Madam Justice Arnold-Bailey rejected Dina Zeiler’s argument that the gun collection fell within the definition of “household furnishings.” The Judge looked at whether the “predominant characteristic” of the gun collection was as personal effects, or as something used or enjoyed by the spouses of the spousal home. In this case she found that the guns were in the nature of personal effects owned by Alfonse Zeitler.

Although this decision deals with a gun collection, Madam Justice Arnold Bailey’s reasoning set out below will provide a useful guide in future cases dealing with other chattels:

[ 34] To accept the submission of Dina’s counsel, any items of value owned by Alfons that he brought into the spousal home that the two of them enjoyed, even in a
transitory way, would constitute household furnishings. In my mind, to accept that submission would undermine the notion of a spouse’s personal property or the personal effects of one spouse vis-à-vis the other, and the notion of “household furnishings.” If one were to accept the logic of the proposition urged by Dina’s counsel, one might imagine that if Alfons had an antique missile collection, or an antique car collection stored in the garages of the spousal home or kept in a heated show room, such items could and would become household furnishings, just as long as both spouses enjoyed the same, even occasionally.

[35] In my view, the definition of household furnishings as “chattels usually associated with the enjoyment by the spouses of the spousal home” precludes such chattels that have as their predominant characteristic “personal effects” or “personal chattels” and are without a household use or a recognizable connection to the use, enjoyment or proper functioning of the spousal home.

[36] For example, an art collection belonging to one spouse and stored in crates in the basement of the spousal home, likely constitutes part of that spouse’s personal effects, but if all or the majority of the art collected was hung throughout the spousal home, then the same could legitimately be recognized as part of its “household urnishings.”

[37] In the present case, I am sceptical about Dina’s evidence about what she and Alfons used to do together in relation to the residence gun collection. I find that Dina’s claim that the guns were regularly rotated stretches common sense, and in that regard, I accept Gregory’s evidence to the contrary. However, even if I were to accept that evidence, I find that only one quarter of the collection was “on display” in the show cases at any one time.

[38] I find that the residence gun collection fulfilled no identified purpose or function associated with “the enjoyment by the spouses of the spousal home.” The enjoyment of the residential gun collection by Alfons, and to a lesser extent, Dina, was predominantly related to the gun collection itself, and not to their enjoyment of the spousal home. I do not regard the fact that a portion of it was on display in the spousal home as sufficient to make the entire residence gun collection “usually associated with the enjoyment by the spouses of the spousal home.”

[39] By definition, gun collections, like stamp collections, jewellery collections, art collections and the like, are, in the context of s. 96 of the EAA, the personal property of the person who collected them and to whom they belong, unless that predominant characteristic is overcome by their enjoyment by the spouses of the spousal home.

[40] The guns in the residence gun collection belonged to and were registered in Alfons’ name alone. I find that the fact that they were stored and maintained there with some involvement by Dina, with a portion of them on display, does not make them “household furnishings” within the definition contained in s. 96(1) of the EAA.

Accordingly, the gun collection will not go to Dina Zeitler.

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