Can A Couple Orally Agree Not to Divide Their Property? Will a Court Respect that Agreement?

GeorgiaLeeLang059Today’s decision of Mr. Justice Kelleher of the British Columbia Supreme Court  provides an answer to the two questions posed above.

If a couple decide to live together, have no children, and confirm with one another that everything each of them owns or will own will always remain separate if the couple separate, will a court interfere?  In the case of Doell v. Prentice 2018 BCSC 1115 the Court said “yes” it will.

This common law couple lived together for 23 years on property purchased with Mr. Prentice’s savings. He was a highly skilled bricklayer and stone mason, while Ms. Doell, who had a university degree, worked in menial positions taking care of dogs and horses. Her annual income was less than a full-time minimum wage job.

Many witnesses testified they were aware of the couple’s financial arrangements which were apparently openly discussed with their friends and relatives. Ms. Doell reputedly said that if their relationship ended she would leave with her belongings but nothing of her husband’s. However, after she left the home she shared with Mr. Prentice she changed her mind and brought a court action seeking an equal division of property and spousal support. Mr. Prentice argued that she should receive no property and no spousal support despite her status as a common law spouse under the law.

The judge reviewed the evidence finding they never shared property, had no joint accounts or joint credit cards; she paid for her expenses and he paid for his. When they ate at a restaurant they each paid their way. Mr. Prentice bought several other properties and fixed them up. When he sold a property he did not share the sale proceeds with  his wife.  Ms. Doell was of the view that she would not work on the properties as they were not hers and she would get nothing back for her services.

Later, during the relationship, Ms. Doell purchased a property in joint tenancy with her mother and made it clear that it was not intended to be shared with Mr. Prentice. At that point she moved her dog care business to her new property. Unfortunately, Ms Doell fell off her horse and had a concussion which caused migraine headaches. Still later several of her animals unexpectedly died which caused her upset and depression. She changed her will deleting any gift to Mr. Prentice.  By this time the relationship was clearly coming to an end.

The Court was satisfied that the parties entered into an oral contract to keep their property separate. As for spousal support, there was no definitive evidence that Ms. Doell had agreed to give up that claim.

The Court reviewed s. 95(2)  of the Family Law Act to determine if it would be “significantly unfair” not to deviate from the oral agreement:

(2)        For the purposes of subsection (1), the Supreme Court may consider one or more of the following:

(a)        the duration of the relationship between the spouses;

(b)        the terms of any agreement between the spouses, other than an agreement described in section 93 (1) [setting aside agreements respecting property division];

(c)        a spouse’s contribution to the career or career potential of the other spouse;

(d)        whether family debt was incurred in the normal course of the relationship between the spouses;

(e)        if the amount of family debt exceeds the value of family property, the ability of each spouse to pay a share of the family debt;

(f)         whether a spouse, after the date of separation, caused a significant decrease or increase in the value of family property or family debt beyond market trends;

(g)        the fact that a spouse, other than a spouse acting in good faith,

(i)  substantially reduced the value of family property, or

(ii) disposed of, transferred or converted property that is or would have been family property, or exchanged property that is or would have been family property into another form, causing the other spouse’s interest in the property or family property to be defeated or adversely affected;

(h)        a tax liability that may be incurred by a spouse as a result of a transfer or sale of property or as a result of an order;

(i)         any other factor, other than the consideration referred to in subsection (3), that may lead to significant unfairness.

After reviewing similar cases, the Court ordered that the property of the parties would be divided 80/20 in favour of Mr. Prentice, however, he would pay indefinite spousal support of $850 per month.

Would it have made a difference if this couple had written down their agreement? Probably not. After 23 years together it is unlikely that an agreement not to share assets, where one party has an abundance and the other, very little, would be upheld by a court in British Columbia.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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“Extreme” Family Law Litigation Decried by the Court

GeorgiaLeeLang025Despite family law Rules of Court that call for the “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of a family law case on its merits”, there always seem to be those cases that take on the qualities of “scorched earth” litigation. Oliverio v. Oliverio 2017 BCSC 1704 appears to be one of those cases.

The application heard by Master Muir sought orders imputing income, determining the quantum of child and spousal support, and the sale of the family home. Other orders sought in the Notice of Application had been resolved or adjourned by the parties. Nonetheless, the application took more than a day-and-a-half of court time over three separate dates.

What was equally remarkable was the two boxes of materials presented to the court containing 160 affidavits, with 26 affidavits filed by the respondent wife and 15 filed by the claimant husband in respect of the orders sought. Master Muir described this mountain of material as evidence of “an unhealthy and abusive litigation climate”.

The preparation of 160 affidavits is almost too much to contemplate and the cost enormous.

She said:

“This approach to family issues is counter to the fundamental basis of our present family system which encourages negotiation, not litigation. This is not supposed to be a war. It is supposed to be a civilized allocation of rights, responsibilities, and assets following a family break-up.”

Master Muir declared that this style of litigation was unnecessary, damaging to the parties and their children, and a waste of family assets on litigation costs. She noted that the parties had accessed capital in the amount of almost $700,000, much of which was used to fund their legal expenses, albeit their trial was still eight months away.

As both husband and wife were not employed, although capable of employment, the court imputed $95,000 of income to the husband and $25,000 to the wife, and ordered child support with a set-off to account for their equal parenting arrangement. The wife also received spousal support at the mid-range. The application for the sale of the home was dismissed.

Finally, Master Muir implored counsel to speak to their clients. She said:

“I ask that counsel convey those sentiments to their clients in the hope that this can be reined in and the parties can refocus on resolving this in some other way.”

As a mediator and arbitrator, I know this case could be resolved within 60 days, if not less, using a mediation/arbitration model, where a legal professional mediates the disputed issues, with those unresolved being decided by that legal professional. And probably at a cost of less than $20,000…just sayin’

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Why Would You Hire a Lawyer if You Don’t Want to Take Their Advice?

BarristerI could never understand why someone would hire a high-priced, hotshot lawyer but refuse to take their advice.  It happens more frequently than you might realize, sometimes the result of an uneducated neighbour or friend, who after going through their own divorce, deigns to give (bad) advice to all who will listen. Other times it’s a litigant who thinks he or she knows better.

In a recent case in Vancouver, a lawyer had a difficult time persuading her client that his strategic decisions were wrong-headed and would ultimately lead to disaster. Here’s what the lawyer told her doubting client:

“Family law is a breed apart. Affidavit evidence is generally full of crap, most of which doesn’t matter. ” (Editorial comment: A true statement)

“…if you bring numerous expensive court applications that are out of the ordinary in family law in response to her material, you can guarantee she will get her advance for legal fees because you will have proved to the court what she has said in her material that you will seek to prolong the court proceedings by litigation tactics that are outside the norm in family law and not only will they be unsuccessful, those tactics will backfire spectacularly.” (Editorial comment: Also true)

“You might be better served with a puppet lawyer than with someone who is trying to save you money and grief. Think about it, as once you start down this type of path, you have blown your potential opportunity to get this litigation over with relatively easily.” (Editorial comment: A puppet lawyer is a stooge, a dupe)

“We won’t fire you now because you are stuck with a rapidly approaching court date but (John) or (Jane) will have to argue the motions you want to argue that I think are a waste of time and money, as my reputation as ethical counsel with the court and other lawyers is important to me and I don’t want the court or other counsel to think I am suddenly trying to rip off my clients by bringing motions that appear to be designed to make me money and not to help my clients.” (Editorial comment: Lawyers cannot abandon clients if a hearing is pending)

Tough words, but ethical lawyers who see their clients heading in the wrong direction are obliged to point out the crash course they are on. Most often the solicitor/client relationship ends dramatically, with unpaid legal bills and complaints to the lawyer’s governing body. (Editorial comment: Most times these complaints are dismissed)

To you who hire lawyers, you’d be wise to remember that the legal system is a  complex maze that requires  a steady hand at the wheel, a driver who has the expertise you need and the interest and passion to pursue justice on your behalf. Of course, in all litigation there are winners and losers, and competent counsel should tell you what side you will likely land on.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

 

 

 

 

 

The Curse of the In-Person Litigant

GEO_edited-1I guess I’ve been lucky because I have never had to do a trial where the opposing party acted in person, “pro se”, as they call it in the United States.

Why lucky? Because some of the worst trial horror stories involve litigants acting for themselves while their spouse has to pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour to respond to often marginally relevant or unreasonable litigation tactics.

A good example is the case of G.T. v A.T. 2014 NY Slip Op 24035 where Mr. T., a well-educated engineer, just short a few credits for his doctorate degree, turned what should have been a three-day trial into a 12-day debacle.

Judge H. Patrick Leis III of the New York Supreme Court described Mr. T.’s behaviour in the opening paragraph of his Reasons:

“This case highlights the difficulties that arise when one party uses their self-represented status as both a sword and a shield in an attempt to gain undue advantage and behaves in a manner that the court would never tolerate from an attorney. The manner in which the defendant presented his minimal evidence, fueled by his own emotional agenda, lacked direction, reason and oftentimes was totally devoid of probative value.”

In many family law cases a case management judge is assigned to deal with all pretrial matters and preside over the trial. Such was the case in G.T. v. A.T., where Mr. T. and his wife brought their procedural issues to Judge Leis for resolution.

During this 18-month period Mr. T. expressed his satisfaction to the Court with the way these preliminary matters were handled.

Nothing Mr. T. said pretrial could have foretold the application he brought when the trial commenced.

With almost no notice to his wife’s lawyer, Mr. T. argued that Judge Leis should recuse (remove) himself as the trial judge because he had been “disrespectful of the parties’ culture and faith, repeatedly pressuring Mr. T. to retain counsel with coercion and threats”.

Mr. T.’s complaints of judicial threats were held to be without foundation, Judge Leis pointing out that he was in receipt of five letters from Mr. T., all glowing with praise of the judge’s pretrial rulings. Remarkably it was Mr. T. who was disrespectful, advising the judge that if he did not recuse himself he would report him to the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

But that was just Day 1. Mr. T. wasted additional court time with a rambling, unfocused, and mainly irrelevant opening statement, the gist of which was his desire to reconcile with his wife.

He then cross-examined his long-suffering wife for four days, ignoring the Court’s direction that he should ask questions of her, not deliver time-consuming, self-serving statements.

He also disregarded the Judge’s evidentiary rulings and even after admonishment carried on with lines of questioning that were beyond the scope of the trial. He refused to abandon his recusal argument and raised issues about orders pronounced by the court months before. Worst of all, he was rude and nasty, shouting aggressively at his wife and her lawyer.

Of course, the main victim of his flagrant abuse of the court system was his wife, who had to take an additional nine days of holiday from her workplace to complete what should have been a three-day trial, and was now subject to ever-increasing legal fees.

Interestingly, Mr. T. had quit his job shortly after the couple separated, a tactic that was futile, since Judge Leis imputed $120,000 income to him, despite his refusal to work.

Unfortunately, short of finding a belligerent litigant in contempt of court, all a judge can do is award costs. That’s just what Judge Leis did, saying:

“Simple justice dictates that the defendant who chooses to function from a position of anger and resentment, not be allowed to purposely drive up the plaintiff’s counsel fees and act in such an inappropriate manner, without being made responsible for all of the trial fees. Therefore, in an exercise of this court’s discretion, the defendant is responsible for all of the plaintiff’s counsel fees for trial.”

You think Mr. T. is done with court proceedings? Think again…there’s always the appeal court.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Family Law Firm Tells It Like It Is

DSC00258_1I don’t know about you, but I like people, companies, organizations etc. that tell you what they are really all about and where they are at.

For most of the public, law firms are not particularly transparent entities. They deal in complicated subject matters and use complex language to describe what they do, if they ever explain it at all.

Not so, however, with respect to the Columbia, South Carolina law firm of Pincus Family Law. Their firm website tells you exactly what they will do and what they won’t. Their critics say their to-the-point abruptness can’t be good for business. Consider the following excerpts from their website.

Under the heading “Client Expectations” the following paraphrased rules are set out:

1. They do not work weekends and they will not provide clients with a weekend emergency number;

2. They will not routinely respond to email from clients on a weekend, however, if they do on occasion respond, this is the exception and not the rule;

3. They are good at what they do but they are not perfect. They are human beings with the same frailties as their clients. If a mistake is made, they will fix it quickly, but they do not expect to be harangued or insulted by their clients for human error;

4. They will return client phone calls in the order they are received by the firm, subject to their assessment as to client priority. Calling their office three or four times a day will not change the priority assigned to a call;

5. Legal Assistants and Paralegals are available to answer clients’ questions and provide status updates and their hourly billing rates are substantially less than the firm’s lawyers;

6. Being “nice” to your spouse during the divorce process is a laudable goal, but do not expect to get any concessions or consideration from your spouse as a result of your civility;

7. In the litigation process, your spouse’s lawyer will file documents called “pleadings”. These pleadings will contain allegations that may be upsetting to you. Don’t waste your emotional energy fretting over these documents. The allegations are “standard-operating procedure” and may or may not be true;

8. Courtrooms are overbooked and often there are an insufficient number of judges to handle all the scheduled cases. Don’t blame us if we cannot obtain hearing dates as early as you or we would wish. We have no control over court scheduling;

9. Your spouse may retain counsel who are “nasty” or who procrastinate. Once again, that is not our fault. We will work within the rules to keep your case moving forward but we cannot be held responsible for your spouse’s lawyers’ personality disorder or their delay tactics;

10. In divorce and family law, nothing happens quickly. That’s just the way the system is, so be prepared.

My impression? I love it! I have never seen a family law firm that has more succinctly identified some of the major client issues that cause friction between attorney and client. Certainly, many divorce lawyers operate on the same terms, they just don’t do their clients the favour of telling them.

As award-winning journalist Roberta Baskin has noted, there is a public feeding frenzy for transparency, and Pincus Law delivers all of that. Kudos to them!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Why Family Law Lawyers Will Always Bill By the Hour

GEO CASUALI read a piece in the Huffington Post this week written by Jim Halfens of Divorce Hotel, who argued that it was about time that divorce lawyers charged a fixed fee for the legal work they perform, instead of sticking to the “old way” of hourly billing.

It will never happen and for good reason! If Mr. Halfen knew the frailties of the family court system and the opportunities for abuse and delay, he would understand. But let me paint you a picture of regular occurrences in the practice of family law;

A client asks you to draw up a comprehensive separation agreement or prenuptial agreement, which without complications will cost in the range of $3,000. The problem is that often clients will request the agreement, expend the funds, all without having any idea whether their spouse will agree or sign the agreement.

Of course, it is an utter waste of time to present an agreement to your spouse, the terms of which have never been discussed with him or her. My practice is to warn clients that they may be wasting money, if they haven’t bothered to determine if their spouse is “on side”.

Once the client believes their spouse will cooperate, it is a “go” for the agreement and usually clients want to know exactly how much it will cost and want you to guarantee that fee estimate.

But it can’t be done….because every agreement and spouse is different and you can never rely on a client’s advice that their situation is straight forward. For example, it is commonplace to ask your client to provide you with a list of all their assets, their estimated values, and also their debts and the amounts owing. You also need the same information from their partner.

Of course, you can’t forget to request their recent personal and corporate tax returns, and in the case of companies, the financial statements as well. While the client may imagine their financial situation is simple, usually it is not, particularly where there are more sophisticated assets, like trusts, annuities and off-shore assets. But you don’t know any of that until you receive all the documents and my experience is that you never get everything you need or it trickles in over a lengthy period of time.

Lawyers bill for their expertise and the time it takes them to complete a task for their client. In this agreement scenario, it would be foolish to quote a fixed fee for ten hours of time, when it may take you twenty hours, or more. Another difficulty is that once the agreement is complete, your client’s partner will take it to her or his lawyer to review and negotiate. That could take two hours or ten hours, because initially you don’t often know who your client’s spouse will retain. One thing lawyers know is the negotiation styles of their colleagues, some lawyers are known to be reasonable, but others are not.

However, the agreement scenario is a piece of cake compared to the living nightmare if you must enter the family justice system, once negotiation and mediation have failed.(Unless of course, you are smart enough to agree to a private arbitration, but that’s another article) If you thought your lawyer was expensive before, this calamity will cost you not only heaps of money but also your emotional and psychological sanity. Where to begin?

After all the negotiations and mediations are at an end, the first thing you’ll have to do is attend a mandatory mediation with a judge, who may or may not be capable of facilitating a settlement. But it’s not like you haven’t already been there, done that. This first step will cost you several thousand dollars and it is not optional in most cases.

Once that has been a complete bust, you enter the nightmare called family law litigation, an experience that frightens even those who are courtroom addicts. The first shock is that you must produce every single piece of paper that has anything to do with the issues in your case, and I mean everything: your kid’s report cards, your kid’s medical records, all paper that is related to your assets and debts, including statements for long-lost bank accounts, credit card statements for the past five years, business records and financial statements, tax returns, and all the damning emails your spouse has sent to you, but that’s just the beginning.

Speaking of emails, most lawyers spend a lot of time reading lengthy email missives from their clients, and also multiple strings of nasty emails between client and his or her spouse, many of which will be producible for court. Hard to predict in advance whether you’ll need to read a hundred emails or several thousand. And don’t forget your lawyer will regularly scour the internet for damaging posts and pictures.

You’ll need to hire appraisers: lots of them, to value your home, your summer cottage, your cars, your boat and trailer, your wine collection, art collection, antique furniture, and your pension. But none of those appraisals will be definitive because your partner will do the same, and if you have a business, you need to set aside $30,000 or more to pay a business valuator. Welcome to the battle of the experts!

Worse than all of that is that when you finally prepare to go to court, you’ll get there and sit in a courtroom all day, only to learn that you have to come back another day, because the judge ran out of time. More delay and more costs because all that work your lawyer did to prepare, must be redone to prepare again, after all, your lawyer has dozens of clients and with even a delay of one week will not remember all the details without another review. You finally get a judge and you learn that you won’t get a decision for weeks, even months.

Tell me honestly, how do you provide your client with an infallible estimate of what it all will cost? That’s right, you don’t, because you can’t.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Happy 4th Anniversary Lawdiva!

_DSC4179 - Version 2Happy Anniversary to me…I mean to Lawdiva! On May 10, 2010 I started writing and just haven’t stopped. I’ve since learned that 70% of blogs die within several months of their commencement or just get so sick they fade away.

So, what has the last four years looked like?

1. Thanks to my earliest readers, in October 2010 I won Best Canadian Legal Blog. What a way to start!

2. By early 2011 my blog articles were published in The Huffington Post, Postmedia’s Canada.com, and many of Canada’s daily newspapers including the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, and Regina Leader Post.

3. I have written 588 articles on 13 broad topics including my favourites: family law, criminal law, bad lawyers…and judges, celebrity divorce, pop culture..

4. My stats indicate I receive on average 40 comments from readers every month, and that many more comments are posted on Facebook and LinkedIn. Which articles got the most comments? “Notables Who Failed Their Bar Exam” and my “Disbarred Series”, followed closely by “The Scourge of Family Law: Child Sexual Abuse”.

5. The editors of Canada’s largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, liked my Lori Douglas bondage judge stories so much they hired me to write one for them.

6. Award winning US website “abovethelaw” didn’t like my opinions on Judge Lori Douglas and berated me in their commentary…I took their attention as a compliment!

7. My story on the Coachella Music Festival appeared in Palm Spring’s Desert Sun newspaper before it hit my blog… I got lots of hate mail for having the nerve to criticize Coachella, an economic necessity for the little town of Indio, California. You know, I still think Snoop Dog is a ghastly role model for the thousands of young teens who subjected themselves to his filth…

8. Most of my followers are Canadian or American, but I also get readers from many other countries including China, India, Australia, Malta (with a big shout-out to my Aunt Petra), Japan, Russia, Guyana, Singapore, Trinidad, Thailand, South America, and Europe.

9. For me, the best part of penning Lawdiva is hearing from you or not hearing from you, but knowing you’re lurking around…

Keep lurking and I’ll keep writing!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang