A fresh perspective on divorce, spousal support, child support, parenting after separation and everything family law

Family Law Act: spouse defined

Much has been written about the new Family Law Act‘s definition of the term spouse. Lots of people ask me about the term as well. How long do you have to live together to be a spouse? When does a relationship begin? When does a relationship end?

Here is what the statute has to say:

Spouses and relationships between spouses

3 (1) A person is a spouse for the purposes of this Act if the person

(a) is married to another person, or
(b) has lived with another person in a marriage-like relationship, and
(i) has done so for a continuous period of at least 2 years, or
(ii) except in Parts 5 [Property Division] and 6 [Pension Division], has a child with the other person.

(2) A spouse includes a former spouse.

(3) A relationship between spouses begins on the earlier of the following:
(a) the date on which they began to live together in a marriage-like relationship;
(b) the date of their marriage.

(4) For the purposes of this Act,
(a) spouses may be separated despite continuing to live in the same residence, and
(b) the court may consider, as evidence of separation,
(i) communication, by one spouse to the other spouse, of an intention to separate permanently, and
(ii) an action, taken by a spouse, that demonstrates the spouse’s intention to separate permanently.

Basically if you have lived with someone in a “marriage-like relationship” for a continuous period of two years you are a spouse of that person.

No wedding, no problem... you still have an equal opportunity to annoy your spouse... Photo Credit: C.P.Storm

No wedding, no problem… you still have an equal opportunity to annoy your spouse…
Photo Credit: C.P.Storm

Additionally, if you have a child with a person (but have not lived together for two years) you are a spouse except for the purposes of property division and pension division.

What is a marriage like relationship? There is no exact definition. However, if you are anything more than platonic roommates you should consider getting legal advice about the status of your relationship – there have been many court cases looking at different factors of couple’s living arrangements to try an determine if they are “marriage like”.

Provincial Court of British Columbia: jurisdiction over a pet dog

A recent Provincial Court of British Columbia decision made a ruling about a pet dog.

While courts have been reluctant to make custody or access orders in regard to family pets, in the decision of Custodio v. Pucci, the Honourable Judge J. Challenger found that the court had jurisdiction to make an order in regard to family pets (if they are treated as property):

The court has jurisdiction under s. 3(1)(b) of the Act to order the return of a dog as a dog is considered a piece of property.  In Watson v. Hayward, a decision of my sister Judge Dhillon, rendered July 2, 2002 reported at 2002 BCPC 259 (CanLII), 2002 BCPC 259, she canvassed the legal principles applicable in such a matter.

On such an application the court must consider whether there is an issue to be tried, and I am satisfied on Ms. Custodio’s evidence that there is an issue to be tried, whether she has demonstrated a strong prima facie case and based on the documents and her evidence, if that was accepted by the court, indeed she has a strong prima facie case and likely a strong case at trial.  The third issue is whether irreparable harm will result not compensable by damages at common law if the interim order is not granted and, finally, where the balance of convenience lies.

Judge Dhillon distinguished cases involving pets from cases involving inanimate pieces of property.  That case involved a breeder who had reclaimed a dog as a result of what was alleged to be neglect of the dog by the person who had purchased it from the breeder which distinguishes the case on its facts.

The “Act” that is being referred to above is the Small Claims Act.  Section 3(1)(b) of that Act gives the Provincial Court of British Columbia:

3  (1) The Provincial Court has jurisdiction in a claim for

(a) debt or damages,

(b) recovery of personal property,

(c) specific performance of an agreement relating to personal property or services, or

(d) relief from opposing claims to personal property

if the amount claimed or the value of the personal property or services is equal to or less than an amount that is prescribed by regulation, excluding interest and costs.

(2) The Provincial Court does not have jurisdiction in a claim for libel, slander or malicious prosecution.

So, if your family pet is worth $25,000.00 or less, you can bring a claim in the Provincial Court of British Columbia (see Small Claims BC as a starting point).  If your pet is worth more than $25,000.00 the Supreme Court of British Columbia would be the court to hear your case (unless you decide to abandon the portion of your claim over $25,000.00, in which case you could still proceed in the Provincial Court of British Columbia).

“If you are keeping a white lion cub (apparently $138,000.00) as a pet in British Columbia you are going to have some other legal issues arise …”

Facebook: Is posting photographs of your children on Facebook a parenting concern?

I was reading through recent British Columbia Supreme Court  judgments and I came across the case of Bain v. Bain.

In this decision, the Honorable Mr. Justice Crawford addressed a mother’s concern about her former husband posting pictures of their daughters on Facebook.  Mr. Justice Crawford stated at paragraph 16:

 As well, there have been concerns about Mr. Bain’s parenting.

He has made available on the internet by way of Facebook, pictures of the children in their very early years. There is a danger of publishing such pictures in this day and age, which should be apparent to any parent, let alone the father of two small daughters. Therefore, there shall be this order:

Mr. Bain shall forthwith remove from Facebook, and any other public medium, any and all pictures and references, comments or written words regarding the children.

When I was reading this decision I noted that:

  • We do not have an idea or description of the nature of the pictures posted on Facebook;
  • Mr. Bain did not attend the hearing; and
  • Justice Crawford did indicate some problems with Ms. Bain’s affidavit evidence.

I mention the above points because they indicate that there might have been another side to the story (no one was there to advocate on behalf of Mr. Bain or put his point of view forward).

It is also interesting that the reasons for judgment set out a series of incidents indicating poor judgment on the part of Mr. Bain (not just the Facebook pictures) – can the [lack of] judgment used in posting the  of the Facebook pictures be inferred from the rest of the  communication/conduct on the part of Mr. Bain that is described?

So – is posting pictures of children on Facebook a parenting concern?

In some circumstances I think it is appropriate to post family pictures on Facebook.

I have posted pictures of other people`s kids in my Facebook albums (for example at my wedding) – should I take these down?

Many of my  friends and relatives have children – they are wonderful parents and frequent Facebook “kid-pic” posters.  Posting pictures on Facebook seems to be commonly used instead of mailing out school pictures or family portraits – how else would we get to see our nieces and nephews across the country celebrate their Birthday (maybe the event could be broadcast to the extended family over Skype…?).

Obviously the decisions to post pictures of children on Facebook/the internet are an individual decision for parents.  For example, one of my good friends who had a baby over the Christmas break e-mailed out a newborn picture to our group of friends and said “Dad says only clothed pics of Baby on the net”.

My general thought on this is as follows:

  • Adjust your privacy settings to make sure that only people who are close friends/family can see pictures of your kids;
  • If you are not able to adjust your privacy settings – remove the photographs of your kids from Facebook (do you really want random strangers seeing your photos?);
  • Avoid posting pictures that will cause the children personal humiliation to them later in life (when the are a teenager) and remember:
George Takei

“This picture was copied from the Facebook page of someone I don`t know, George Takei, without his permission or knowledge“

Do you think it is appropriate to post pictures of children on Facebook…?  If so, what are the restrictions and limitations you use when deciding what to post?

Without Prejudice: what does it mean?

What does “without prejudice” mean and why is it on the top of so many letters my lawyer gets from my husband’s lawyer?

A British Columbia Supreme Court decision released last week looked at the definition and meaning of without prejudice and applied it to the family law context.

There are lots of differently worded definitions of “without prejudice”.

I like to think of it generally as meaning:

What happens in settlement negotiations stays in settlement negotiations.  A settlement offer cannot be brought up in court, put in an affidavit or used as evidence in proceedings (unless both parties agree).

What makes something without prejudice?

The Honourable Mr. Justice Cole cited a previous decision of the court, setting out the requirements for correspondence to be without prejudice:

The words “without prejudice” are not necessary to invoke the privilege. The privilege is determined by the circumstances. There are only two requirements:

1) A litigious dispute exists or is contemplated; and

2) The purpose of the communication is to buy peace or effect settlement or respond to such a communication.

So how does without prejudice work? Can you provide an example?

Here is a hypothetical example – My husband are recently separated.  Our lawyers have organized a four-way meeting to see if we can resolve our disputes through negotiation.  At the four-way meeting we discuss two hotly contested issues: who keeps the family dog and who gets to stay in the Sunday running group.  I offer to give my husband the family dog  if he will agree to move to Fort McMurray (so I won’t  bump into him at the Running Room).

We cannot resolve our disputes and go to court.  My husband tries bring up my earlier offer to give up the dog in court.   Lucky for me, this offer is not admissible in the court proceeding because it is made in a settlement negotiation.  Further, my husband could not use my offer to give up the dog as evidence that I did not want the dog or that I was a bad dog owner.

Why do we have “without prejudice”?

We have the concept of without prejudice to encourage settlement and the early resolution of disputes outside of the court process.  If offers people made to try and settle matters could be brought up in court, far fewer offers would be made.

As a note, some feel that “without prejudice” is over used – and that if you make an offer it should be a reasonable one that you believe in.  My thought on this is that it is useful to have without prejudice discussions and offers, as it helps move things forward.  That being said, the phrase can be overused.

Are there limitations to something being “without prejudice”?

Yes, there are.  You cannot use “without prejudice” to get away with/hide from misleading the court or perjury.  As stated by Mr. Justice Burnyeat in the case of Berry v. Cypost:

While it generally the case that the public interest in encouraging settlements will not be served by making without prejudice statements or documents admissible, I am satisfied that the overriding public interest to discourage perjury will not be served by protecting potential evidence of perjury behind without prejudice settlement discussions. In the words of Tysoe, J.A. in Greenwood, the protection of without prejudice settlement discussions was “… never intended to give protection to this sort of thing” (at p. 268). As was stated by the authors of “The Law of Evidence in Canada”:

The privilege cannot be used as a means to deceive the courts as to the facts, by excluding evidence which would repel a charge of fraud made by a party or who is shown by the impugned communication to have effected a waiver or made an election (at p. 729).

Additionally, a party can make their offer “without prejudice” except to costs.  As JP Boyd summarizes (in his 2009 blog on the topic of “without prejudice”):

Proper “without prejudice” letters can’t even be put into evidence to argue costs after trial, unless the letter contains a statement saying that the author intends to reply on the letter for the purpose of arguing costs.

Some helpful tips:

  1. Do not rely on something being without prejudice – it is important to make your intention abundantly clear at the beginning of a discussion (preferably record in writing that your negotiations are without prejudice.  You do not want to later end up in a discussion/court hearing focused on if your communication was intended to be without prejudice (there are better ways to spend your time and money);
  2. Check with your lawyer before you shoot off an offer (your lawyer will have useful feedback on the offer you are making and if it is an appropriate time to make it);
  3. Do not use disrespectful/offensive language even if you think that you are using it in a “without prejudice” context (you never know where the correspondence will show up – being without prejudice does not mean people cannot read it;
  4. If you make a demand it may not be considered without prejudice; and
  5. If you are not sure if something is without prejudice, ask your lawyer.

Some additional reading:

  1. Without Prejudice vs. Solicitor Client Privilege (Christelle Vaval);
  2. What’s Without Prejudice and What’s Not (JP Boyd); and
  3. Sopinka, Lederman and Bryant, The Law of Evidence in Canada

Obviously I would never offer to give up the family dog!

Undue Hardship: what is it and do I qualify?

A decision released today by the Supreme Court of British Columbia sets out a useful summary of the law of undue hardship.

What is Undue Hardship?

Undue hardship has a few legal definitions and meanings.

In family law undue hardship refers to something a parent could claim under the Federal Child Support Guidelines (Section 10) in certain cases.  Section 10 of the Guidelines sets out some circumstances that might lead to a finding of undue hardship, as follows:

  • the parent has responsibility for an unusually high level of debts reasonably incurred to support the parents and their children prior to the separation or to earn a living;
  • the parent has unusually high expenses in relation to exercising access to a child;
  • the parent has a legal duty under a judgment, order or written separation agreement to support any person;
  • the parent has a legal duty to support a child, other than a child of the marriage, who is: under the age of majority, or the age of majority or over but is unable, by reason of illness, disability or other cause, to obtain the necessaries of life; and
  • the parent has a legal duty to support any person who is unable to obtain the necessaries of life due to an illness or disability.

According to Justice Canada’s website:

In some situations, the amount of child support set in the child support tables, combined with other circumstances, could create undue hardship for you, for the other parent, or for a child. In those situations, a different child support amount could be determined.

 What is the test for undue hardship?

The British Columbia Court of Appeal explained the two part test in a 1993 decision as follows:

The undue hardship test under s. 10 is two-fold. The spouse applying for relief under this section must prove that payment of the table amounts would cause undue hardship under s. 10(1) having regard to the criteria in s. 10(2). If this test is met, the applicant must go on to establish that, if required to pay the amount of maintenance otherwise payable under the guideline table, the standard of living of his or her household would be lower than that of the household of the other spouse. If this dual test is met, the court has a discretion to award a different amount of maintenance than that otherwise required under the Guidelines.

Part 1: What is evidence of undue hardship

Master McCallum, as he then was, gave some examples of what might constitute hardship in a 1999 Supreme Court of British Columbia decision:

Evidence of hardship might include evidence of having to move from one’s accommodation, give up a vehicle, operate on a restricted diet and so forth.

Part 2: Standard of living comparison

The standard of living comparison  reminds me of the lyrics in Gold Digger:

I know somebody payin child support for one of his kids
His baby momma’s car and crib is bigger than his
You will see him on TV Any Given Sunday
Win the Superbowl and drive off in a Hyundai

I am reminded of the Gold Digger lyrics for two reasons (neither of which being that I like the message in the song).  They are:

  1. The examples given would not likely, on their own, lead to a successful undue hardship claim.  As the British Columbia Court of Appeal has said (adopting an Ontario judgment): “Undue hardship is a tough threshold”; and
  2. Undue hardship is one area of family law that does invite parties to compare the standard of living in their respective households.   The Guidelines state that an application for undue hardship must be denied if it is of the opinion of the court that the household of the spouse who claims undue hardship would (after determining the amount of child support) have a higher standard of living than the household of the other spouse.  Basically, if the gentleman described by Kanye did have a bigger house and car than the mother of his child, he would fail in his hardship claim.

The  British Columbia Supreme Court decision released today not only provides a useful review of the law surrounding undue hardship – it is also interesting because it adopts language from Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench decision Jackson v. Holloway, stating  a party “has an obligation and is expected to organize his … affairs with due regard to that obligation.”

Divorce: how long does it take?

Kim Kardashian separated from Kris Humphries after 72 days of marriage, but 365 days later, the divorce proceedings are still inching towards trial.

As reported in the Vancouver Sun:

Superior Court Judge Stephen Moloney told attorneys for Kardashian and NBA player Kris Humphries to return to court in mid-February to set a trial date to either dissolve or annul the couple’s 72-day marriage. He didn’t set a deadline for depositions and other pre-trial investigation to be completed, but indicated a trial could be held early next year if it is ready by Feb. 15.

 So how long does it take to get a divorce?

Legal time requirements for divorce are different in different countries.  In Canada, the Divorce Act sets out that a court can grant a divorce if there has been a breakdown of the marriage.    A breakdown of a marriage is described in Section 8 of the Divorce Act as:

8(2) Breakdown of a marriage is established only if

  • (a) the spouses have lived separate and apart for at least one year immediately preceding the determination of the divorce proceeding and were living separate and apart at the commencement of the proceeding; or
  • (b) the spouse against whom the divorce proceeding is brought has, since celebration of the marriage,
    • (i) committed adultery, or
    • (ii) treated the other spouse with physical or mental cruelty of such a kind as to render intolerable the continued cohabitation of the spouses.

So, in Canada, you have to have lived separate and apart from your estranged spouse for one year prior to a divorce being granted unless there has been adultery or cruelty (as a note, if you are proceeding on adultery or cruelty there are specific evidentiary requirements that must be met).  After the year of separation, the process of getting the actual divorce usually between a couple of weeks and a couple of months if it is uncontested.  A breakdown of the timeline and steps can be found on JP Boyd’s family law resource.

Also, the Divorce Act sets out that a court in a province may only grant a divorce if one of the spouses has been ordinarily residence in that province for one year immediately preceding the commencement of divorce proceedings.

If a divorce can be finalized after one year of separation, why are my divorce proceedings entering year three?

The answer is, quite simply, if you agree on everything, and you file all of the right paper work, correctly filled out, at the  correct time and in the correct place, your divorce will move along quickly.

As summarized by the Ministry of Justice:

A divorce is relatively easy to get if your reason for the divorce is that you have been separated for a year or more and:

  • you both agree that you want a divorce, and you are not asking the court to settle any other issues, such as custodyaccess or support (this is usually called an “uncontested” divorce), or
  • you both agree that you want a divorce and agree on all other details, such as custody and support (this is called a “joint divorce action”), or
  • you alone are asking for a divorce and for the court to settle other issues, such as custody and support, and your spouse does not dispute the divorce or any of the issues.

A divorce is more complicated to get if your reason for the divorce is cruelty or adultery or your spouse decides to dispute the divorce or any other issues. This is often called a “defended” divorce.

It is when there are issues of disagreement that a divorce can span out longer periods of time.  For example, in the 2008 British Columbia Court of Appeal decision, Laxton v. Coglon, deals with a case in which divorce proceedings had been ongoing since 2001.

New Yorker Cartoon by Tom Cheney

 

Each family is different.  The length of time it takes to resolve the issues involved in your divorce will vary from others you know.