Grey Divorce: Spousal Support for Husbands?

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Is it more difficult for a husband to obtain a spousal support order? Mr. Lee would likely say that it is….(Lee v. Lee, 2014 BCCA 383)

The Lee’s were married for 20 years with no children and were ages 56 and 49 at the time of the appeal. Mr. Lee spent ten-years as a “car man” with Canadian National Railways and part-time as a doorman at a bar. Mrs. Lee spent these years earning a bachelor and master’s degree at her own expense and eventually became a high school principal earning $120,000 per annum. Mr. Lee’s CNR income topped out at $48,000, but came to an end as a result of a car accident that “made it impossible for him to wear a hard hat”. He then began to work part-time as a personal trainer earning $10,000 per year. However, he never filed tax returns, citing his nominal income as the reason.

Mr. Lee received an ICBC settlement of $320,000 that he said was used for family expenses, including a payment of $240,000 against the mortgage on their first family home. The evidence showed that the parties lived well beyond their means and repeatedly remortgaged their home to pay down credit card debt and overdraft lines of credit.

Mr. Lee suddenly told his wife that the marriage was finished and moved in with a policewoman who earned a base salary of between $75,000 and $90,000, before overtime. While his new partner’s income records were subpoenaed she did not produce them.

Mr. Lee claimed spousal support pointing to the significant disparity in income between he and his wife. He agreed to an imputation of income in the amount of $40,000 per annum and sought monthly support of $2,100.00 for seven and one-half years when he would receive a CNR pension of $1,490.00 per month.

Mr. Lee received a modest reapportionment of the net family assets of $186,485.00 and a Part 6 division of their respective pensions. The Court discounted his argument that his contribution to the pay down of the mortgage supported a larger reapportionment. The judge did not accept that his contribution was greater than his wife’s, given her high income, and noted that much of his settlement was used to purchase a Subaru vehicle, a Corvette including $20,000 in modifications, another Subaru, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, all for himself.

The trial judge held that Mr. Lee was not entitled to spousal support in addition to 54% of the net family assets, finding there was no basis for compensatory or needs-based support. Mr. Lee had received about $19,000 in voluntary interim support that he was ordered to repay to his wife.

The husband’s spousal support appeal was essentially about his entitlement to the standard of living that Mrs. Lee would continue to enjoy post-divorce.

Madam Justice Newbury remarked that Mr. Lee had not forgone any educational or career opportunities or made any other “sacrifice”. He also did not make a substantially greater contribution to the family than did Mrs. Lee.

She identified the “question of principle” raised by Mr. Lee’s appeal succinctly:

“Whether it can be said that by virtue only of the disparity between his and Mrs. Lee’s income going forward, he can be said either to have suffered a disadvantage by reason of breakdown of the marriage, or to have a claim to spousal support on the basis of need.”

Madam Justice Newbury acknowledged the generalized comments of Madam Justice L’Heureux-Dube in Moge v. Moge that suggested the question before her could be answered in the affirmative, however, she also averted to the oft-cited proposition that “marriage per se does not automatically entitle a spouse to support.”

The Court cited extensive portions of Professor Carol Rogerson’s article from 2001 titled “Spousal Support Post-Bracklow” 19 CFLQ 185, including where Ms. Rogerson referred to a quote from the Ontario Supreme Court in Keller v. Black (2000) 182 DLR 4th 690:

“It seems that Bracklow has taken us to the point where any significant reduction in the standard of living of a spouse, resulting from marriage breakdown will warrant a support order—with the quantum and/or duration of the support being used to tweak the order so as to achieve justice in each case.”

Madam Justice Newbury agreed that the Court’s comments in Keller v. Black aptly described the approach adopted in British Columbia as well, however, she found there was no precedent for an award of spousal support based “solely on the disparity of incomes, or even solely on the basis of the non-compensatory model” referring to several cases including Chutter v. Chutter 2008 BCCA 507; Hodgkinson v. Hodgkinson 2006 BCCA 158; and Fisher v. Fisher 2008 ONCA 11.

She also noted that in Farrar v. Farrar 2003 63 OR 3d 141 the trial judge ordered Mrs. Farrar to pay her spouse the sum of $12,000.00 solely on the basis he was in need and she had the ability to pay, an order overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal stating that “the differential in income alone did not provide a basis for awarding spousal support.”

Equalization of income was also considered in Griffiths v. Griffiths 2011 ABCA 359 where the appeal court said:

“Equalization of incomes, or even of lifestyles, is not a basis alone for non-compensatory spousal support. Still less is equalization of incomes each year. Loss of access to the fruits of the respondent’s future labour is not a recognized underpinning to entitlement to spousal support, absent other considerations.”

Most notably, the Court found that if Mr. Lee had not formed a new relationship the current case law in British Columbia would have permitted an award of spousal support, given 20 years of marriage, but:

“whether it would have been a material error in law or a wrong exercise of discretion to refuse support in such circumstances is another matter…To rule as a matter of law that Mr. Lee should be compensated indefinitely for the “loss” of the ability to share in Mrs. Lee’s income and lifestyle would, taken to its logical conclusion, mean that support must be ordered on one model or the other in virtually every case that comes before the court.”

The majority held that the only appropriate change to the trial judgment should be the elimination of Mr. Lee’s obligation to repay his wife for the interim support. Dissenting on this point alone, Madam Justice Bennett held that the repayment order was sound in law based on the economic effect of Mr. Lee’s new relationship with a partner who owned her own home and earned a substantial income.

Mrs. Lee was awarded 90% of her costs.

IMPORTANT ‘TAKE-AWAYS” FROM LEE

After reading Lee v. Lee I got the sense that the trial judge did not like or respect Mr. Lee. The trial judge referred to Mr. Lee’s admission that he had been selling steroids and growth hormones illegally; earning $200.00 a month, a modest sum that was contradicted by third party evidence. The Court also acknowledged that money Mr. Lee had borrowed or assets acquired remained undocumented or incompletely explained. The Court also found that the standard of living enjoyed by the Lees was illusory as it was accommodated with borrowed money.

The trial judge expressed skepticism that Mr. Lee’s employment choices were limited to part-time personal training, referring to a video recording taken surreptitiously by a private investigator that filmed Mr. Lee at his gym lifting heavy weights with considerable agility. There was also expert evidence that a full-time trainer with only a high school education could earn up to $60,000 a year.

Mr. Lee’s assertion that his financial contribution to the marriage exceeded his wife’s received short shrift with the Court of Appeal emphasizing that it was neither desirable or necessary to carry out an accounting of “who paid what” during the marriage.

Undoubtedly gender played a role in the court’s ultimate conclusion. Madam Justice Newbury referred to “transitional support” allowing that:
“Such awards have regularly been made in favour of women, but rarely in favour of men, perhaps reflecting that, as Rogerson suggests, “Non-compensatory support is significantly structured by social norms of what is fair and just. The economic dependency of husbands on wives is not reinforced and naturalized by strong cultural norms, as is the dependency of wives on husbands…”

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