BC’ s Groundbreaking “Family Law Act” Coming Soon

Last July British Columbia’s Attorney-General Mike DeJong held a press conference to announce his Liberal government’s intention to update British Columbia’s “Family Relations Act”, an announcement that was welcomed in most quarters.

After months of meetings with stakeholders and detailed input from a blue-ribbon committee made up of government representatives and some of British Columbia’s senior family law lawyers, the recommendations for change were challenged, debated and then fine-tuned. To the government’s credit, they listened well.

Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point, in his recent Throne Speech, advised British Columbians that a new “Family Law Act” will be introduced this Fall to replace the 1979 Family Relations Act, news that many of us have been long waiting to hear.

How important is the new law to families in crisis? While tinkering with language may not seem innovative, in the area of custody and access it is significant. Many progressive lawyers already avoid words like “custody” and “access” because of their clients’ negative reaction to language that suggests one parent has ownership of the child, a “custodial” parent, and the other has “access”, a term that has become pejorative over time. The new legislation removes this language, replacing “custody” with “guardianship” and “access” with “parenting time”.

The drafters of the new law hope that the abandonment of these traditional expressions will eliminate conflict between parents based merely on semantics.

Some of the other substantive changes include:

1. New rights granted to common law spouses that will treat them the same as legally married spouses. Currently common law spouses are not entitled to apply for a division of family property upon the breakdown of their relationship. A complicated and ponderous legal concept may be invoked, but it is more expensive and provides nominal compensation. (the doctrine of unjust enrichment)

The new law will open the door for common law spouses to enjoy the same property law benefits as legally married spouses. The law will ensure that common law spouses who live in a marriage-like relationship for two years or less than two years, but have a child, will be treated like married spouses in respect of their family assets. This change will, of course, also apply to same-sex couples. British Columbia will lead the way as the first province in Canada to grant equal property rights to separating common law spouses.

2. Issues arising from reproductive technology will be covered in the new law. For example, where a child has three parents i.e. a birth mother, the birth mother’s partner and a sperm donor, each of them may have parental rights if they enter into an agreement. As well, a surrogate mother will not be forced to give up her child, just because she has signed an agreement to do so. None of these important social issues have previously been addressed in British Columbia’s family law.

3. Spousal support will not terminate upon the death of a payor spouse, but may continue and be paid from the estate of the deceased spouse. Today in British Columbia it is very difficult to convince a judge that a long-term spouse should be protected from the sudden termination of spousal support because of the payor’s death. A 60-year-old divorced woman who has no employment skills and has spent years as a stay-at-home mom can be left with no financial resources if her husband dies. This change in the law may positively impact the feminization of poverty.

4. Overall, the focus will move from a court-centered approach to out-of court resolutions. Mediation and collaborative law will continue to be highlighted. Family law arbitration will be introduced, a process where “private judges”, usually senior lawyers or retired judges, will have authority to make decisions for warring couples who wish to avoid the expense, delay, and lack of privacy intrinsic to court proceedings.

Bringing family law into the 21st century is long overdue, however, the success of the new Family Law Act will depend on lawyers and judges recognizing the policy shift that underscores this legislation. It is time to admit that a court-centred, adversarial approach simply is not working for most Canadians caught in the throes of divorce.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Custody Battle After Divorce Poisons Children

Parents who fight over child custody and access bring out the worst in themselves and often poison their children along the way. Divorce lawyers who are stuck in the middle of high conflict family disputes often remind their clients that children deserve both a mother and a father, and that a child immersed in conflict is usually headed for a disastrous future.

Frequently, the worst of these types of conflict peter out once the children mature, interact with their peers and begin to think for themselves. Some parents also eventually recognize
their anger hurts them more than it does their ex-spouse. But not always.

A recent court case in Illinois illustrates the worst possible outcome where parents refuse to put their children first and instead continue with angry reprisals and revenge, apparently oblivious to the seeds of destruction they are sowing, for themselves and their children.

In Miner and Miner v. Garrity 2011 IL App (1st) 1103023-U the Court of Appeal dealt with a lawsuit brought against Kimblerly Garrity, mother of the plaintiffs, Steven and Kathryn, who were 20 and 18-years old when they commenced their lawsuit.

Their father, attorney Steven Miner, together with two other attorneys, filed the suit for them which claimed damages of $50,000 each, alleging their mother had intentionally or negligently inflicted emotional distress on them during their young lives.

Mr. Miner was quick to point out in media interviews that he tried to talk his two children out of filing the lawsuit, but they insisted. His protestations are unbelievable in view of the claims he advanced on their behalf.

The Garrity/Miner marriage ended after ten-years in 1995. Mr. Miner was awarded sole custody of Steven and joint custody with his ex, of Kathryn, who resided primarily with him. So how bad an access parent was Kimberly Garrity?

The children’s grievances included their distress when their mother tried unsuccessfully to obtain primary residence of Kathyrn. She also allegedly treated the children unequally, requested medical receipts from their father before she would pay her one-half share, and referred to their father as a “Disneyland” dad.

Worse yet was the claim that when her mother began living with another man, Kathryn’s distress caused her to gain weight, which was only exceeded by her mother’s gall in taking a new name when she remarried, a change that upset Kathryn.

Even more petty was Steven’s complaint that his mother forced him to wear a seatbelt when he was 7-years old, and Kathryn’s upset at her mother’s refusal to take her to a car show. Both were also slighted by either no birthday or Christmas cards, or cards that were declared inappropriate and contained no cash or check for them.

One of the “inappropriate” cards from American Greetings showed a table full of red tomatoes with the centre tomato wearing googly eye glasses. The card read “Son I got you this birthday card because it’s just like you…different from all the rest.” On the inside Steven’s mother wrote “Have a great day! Love and Hugs, Mom xoxoxox”. How insensitive!

Not surprisingly, their litany of childish complaints impressed no one and simply confirmed their outrageous sense of entitlement, immaturity and lack of gratitude. Their father’s role in their claims of “bad mothering” deserves even greater rebuke. His participation was both contemptible and shabby.

Needless to say, their lawsuit was thrown out of court, as it should have been.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Ten Signs Your Divorce is “Off the Rails”

Don’t we all like to think that if divorce was in our future, our uncoupling would be civilized, respectful and rational. For many divorcing spouses it can be that way, particularly where there are no children and minimal assets, however, all the best intentions for an amicable parting can quickly dissipate once spouses abandon the high-road for the ditch.

If you are involved in a so-called “amicable divorce”, are there identifiable signs that signal your divorce may be meandering to the low-road? Of course, there are. Be aware of the following:

1. YOU HAVE A NEW PARTNER Often amicable divorces remain that way until a husband begins a serious relationship with a new lady. One of the easiest ways to have your divorce come “off the rails” is to flaunt a new paramour, before your wife is emotionally ready, which in some cases is never.

2. YOU DECIDE TO CLOSE THE CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTS It is not uncommon for husbands to maintain the financial status quo until they realize their separated spouses’ credit card spending is three times the pre-separation amount. Delicacy is required to rein in the spending, without ruining the convivial settlement discussions. A useful strategy is to terminate all major credit cards except one, which remains available to your spouse, albeit with a much lower credit facility. This can only be done with advance notice to your spouse.

3. YOU TAKE THE CHILDREN ON A VACATION WITH YOUR NEW “FRIEND” You have pleasant post-separation discussions and agree on summer vacation access with your kids, but fail to tell your wife you will be bringing along your 25-year-old girlfriend. Surprises are always dangerous. You are better off to advise your spouse in advance and find a compromise if she adamantly opposes the extra company. Perhaps the girlfriend only visits for a couple of nights or not at all?

4. YOUR WIFE FINDS YOUR PRE-SEPARATION CREDIT CARD STATEMENTS WITH JEWELLERY PURCHASES SHE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT The divorce process always involves the exchange of financial information, including credit card statements. If your wife finds purchases from Tiffany’s or Birk’s, made before the separation and she is not the recipient, watch out. Still worse, are cancelled cheques on your joint account confirming you were paying your girlfriend’s rent before you and your spouse separated.

5. YOUR WIFE FINDS OUT YOU WERE SLEEPING WITH THE NANNY IN THE MARITAL BED The marriage is now over but your wife learns from reliable sources that you were sleeping with the children’s nanny during the marriage. This is a sure-fire way to generate anger and humiliation in your wife, something that usually gets in the way of future courteous communication.

6. YOUR WIFE LEARNS THAT THE “SMALL” MORTGAGE ON THE FAMILY HOME EATS UP OVER HALF OF THE HOME EQUITY Your secret financial dealings during the marriage are now exposed and your wife is shocked to learn that what she thought was a $100,000 mortgage on the family residence is actually $250,000 as a result of undisclosed stock investments made with borrowed monies. It’s even worse if the stock is now worth considerably less or nothing at all.

7. YOU ADVISE YOUR SPOUSE THAT YOU WILL NEVER GIVE UP CUSTODY OF THE FAMILY PET You think everything is settled and leave the conversation about Muffy and Fido to the end, only to realize that neither of you will give up the family pet. Yes, judges now also decide who gets custody of the cat and dog, where the parties cannot agree. This issue can be a deal-breaker.

8. YOU GRADUALLY CANCEL MANY OF YOUR ACCESS VISITS WITH YOUR CHILDREN You tell your spouse you want to remain an active, involved parent, but your weekly visits are now monthly visits and you have failed to show up for some of your visits, leaving your children crying and your ex seething.

9. YOUR SPOUSE MAKES IT DIFFICULT TO SEE THE CHILDREN Parenting time starts off well but disintegrates when your spouse realizes her financial expectations are unrealistically inflated and she now needs leverage to obtain a better financial outcome. What better pawn than the children?

10. YOU TELL YOUR STAY-AT-HOME SPOUSE YOU WILL QUIT YOUR JOB BEFORE YOU EVER PAY HER SPOUSAL SUPPORT You are usually a traditional husband who has no problem paying child support, but believes a 50-year-old wife who worked as a bank teller twenty years ago, should immediately find full-time employment because the children are all in school. What else is she going to do all day?

Negotiating a reasonable divorce settlement can be a minefield if a spouse is not aware of the dangerous trigger points that invite hostility, embarrassment or distrust. A strategic family law lawyer is one who can assist you to manoeuvre the settlement terrain without stepping on a divorce landmine.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang