As anyone who has ever watched the show Friends can attest, “breaks” can happen in any relationship. For those attempting to claim common law spousal status however, what impact, if any, do such “breaks” have upon the length of time that the couple has to be together? Do you have to re-set the clock of the relationship after every “break”, or can the “breaks” be ignored?
Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act incorporates the definition of “spouse” from section 29 of the Family Law Act. Section 29 of the Family Law Act in turn defines “spouse” as including “two persons who are not married to each other and have cohabited continuously for a period of not less than three years“. This definition is often what is being referred to when someone says that a relationship is “common law”, with significant corresponding legal rights potentially being given to the two individuals if they are found to be “spouses”.
As the word “continuously” is included in the definition, one would be forgiven for thinking that there cannot be any “breaks” in the relationship, and that you must have a continuous three year period of “cohabitation” for two people to be considered spouses. As we will see below however, this may not necessarily be the case.
I have previously blogged about the factors that the court may look to in determining whether two people are “cohabitating”, with the Supreme Court of Canada in M. v. H. having confirmed that you look to the factors listed in Molodowich v. Penttinen to determine whether to individuals are “cohabitating” to the extent that their relationship becomes spousal. For the purpose of this blog however, the interesting question which follows is whether a couple who otherwise meets enough of the factors from Molodowich to be considered to be “cohabitating”, but had a “break” in their relationship during the three year period, could still be considered “spouses”.
In Boothe v. Gore,  O.J. No. 4376, the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) provides the following commentary regarding the effect of a “break” on a relationship:
“The law in Ontario recognizes that a man and a woman are considered to have continuously cohabitated, despite that while living together, there might have been separations for varying periods of time before reconciling. Cohabitation does not terminate until either party regards it as being at an end, and, demonstrate convincingly that this is the party’s intent. A brief cooling off period does not convincingly show a settled state of mind that cohabitation has terminated…
The effects of temporary separations depends on the intention of the parties. When one party leaves the other and provides an objective basis to believe that they do not intend to resume cohabitation and the separation lasts for a meaningful period of time, the period of cohabitation could well have been interrupted.” [emphasis added]
As Boothe v. Gore suggests, a “break” in a relationship should not necessarily preclude a finding that two persons are common law spouses. Rather, the court is to attempt to ascertain the intentions of the parties at the time of the “break”, with the spousal status only coming to a close if either of the parties regards the relationship as being “at an end“, or the period of separation lasts for a “meaningful period of time“.
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We sometimes hear about an elderly person marrying a much younger person. What we often do not consider, however, is the possibility that such a marriage is entered into by a “predatory” spouse in order to take advantage of an elderly victim with the ultimate goal of assuming control of his or her finances.
The “predator” is often a caregiver or a family friend or neighbour. In most cases, it is a person who uses a position of trust to cause an elderly victim to change a Will, a power of attorney, an insurance policy designation or other documents. It is also not uncommon for inter vivos transfers to be made while the senior is alive.
According to Ontario law, the act of marriage grants the new spouse certain property rights, specifically with respect to the matrimonial home and spousal support. The most significant effect of a marriage, however, is the fact that the Succession Law Reform Act, revokes any Will executed prior to the marriage. To make matters worse, predatory marriages often occur in private such that the senior’s family members are not aware that he or she has married.
The evidentiary burden imposed upon the elderly victim’s adult family members to prove that a marriage should be declared void as it is a marriage of a “predatory” nature is significant.
Why is it so tough to show that a marriage is void?
Capacity is a fluid concept. It means that a person could have capacity for one task and no capacity for another, as capacity is time and situation specific. Capacity to enter into a marriage, is the lowest threshold of capacity. As such, a person can be entirely capable to enter into a marriage but may be incapable of managing his or her own financial affairs.
In addition, a person likely does not just lose capacity in a day; it is a gradual process such that there is a “grey zone” between having capacity and having no capacity at all. It is in that “grey zone” that a predator will take advantage because a person may start forgetting things but is otherwise capable for all intents and purposes.
Because of that, many are of the opinion that Ontario laws make seniors an easy target for “predatory marriages”. Will there be a change in the law coming our way, in light of the growing phenomenon of such marriages? Only time will tell.
For more information regarding this growing concern and the manner in which this issue has been treated by the courts, please see a paper by Kimberly Whaley of WEL Partners on Predatory Marriages.
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Occasionally, a person finds themselves in a situation in which, following their spouse’s death, they were either not adequately provided for under their spouse’s Will or were not provided for at all.
Especially in situations where the deceased fully supported his or her spouse, one viable option is for the surviving spouse to assert a claim for support under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, RSO 1990, c. S. 26 (the “SLRA”).
A surviving spouse, either married or common-law as defined in the SLRA fits into the definition of a “dependant” and is thus entitled to support from the deceased spouse’s estate. The question for the Court is whether the deceased made adequate provision for his/her surviving spouse and, if not, what ought to be the quantum of support.
Under the SLRA, a “dependant” includes not just married spouses, but also either of two persons who,
- were married to each other by a marriage that was terminated or declared a nullity; or
- are not married to each other and have cohabited,
- continuously for a period of not less than three years, or
- in a relationship of some permanence, if they are the natural or adoptive parents of a child.
It is important to keep in mind that such a claim under the SLRA must be brought within six months of obtaining probate, unless the Court allows for an extension of time. Probate is another term for a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee with a Will that is usually obtained by the Estate Trustee for proper administration of the Estate.
The Court may consider various factors in assessing the nature, amount and duration of support, including the eighteen factors listed under section 62(1) of the SLRA some of which are:
- The Dependant’s current assets and means;
- The Dependant’s capacity to contribute to their own support;
- The Dependant’s age and physical and mental health;
- The Dependant’s needs – with regard to accustomed standard of living;
- Any agreement between the Dependant and the deceased spouse; and
- The proximity and the duration of the Dependant’s relationship with the deceased spouse.
If a claim for dependant’s relief is successful, the Court has broad discretion and can make a variety of orders for support, including but not limited to:
- A monthly or annual payment, for an indefinite or limited period of time or until the occurrence of a specific event;
- A lump sum payment;
- The transfer of specified property, either absolutely, for life, or a specified number of years; or
- The possession or use of any specified property for life or for such period as the Court considers appropriate.
In any event, if a person believes that they may have a good case for a Dependant’s Support Claim under the SLRA, it is important to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible so as to file the claim within the allotted limitation period and discuss any other options.
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