In a landmark decision that could affect thousands of divorced citizens and may even influence legal opinion beyond its borders, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCoC) ruled on December 21 that spouses who agree on spousal support payments will face an uphill battle if they try and change that agreement in the future.
The ruling draws a line in the financial sand for husbands from two separate divorce cases, who respectively argued that the spousal support agreements they entered into were no longer valid – one because he felt his wife was healthy enough to work outside the home and yet chose not to, the other because the stock market had wreaked havoc on his wealth and he could no longer afford to pay.
Ultimately, the SCoC stated that the core issue was not one of proposals, but of proof. In other words, spouses who want to revisit their spousal support agreements for any reason must prove that there is a material change in circumstances that would justify the change. Apparently, neither spouse on the losing end of yesterday’s ruling met this burden of proof.
“At stressful times following separation, couples sign agreements to end the dispute,” Phil Epstein, a Toronto-based family lawyer told the Globe and Mail. “But they need to pause and remember that these agreements may bind them for a lifetime. Long-term agreements therefore need change mechanisms that can be utilized to make sure they remain fair.” It’s a viewpoint shared by Dalhousie University law professor Rollie Thompson. “You should always be careful in signing an agreement including spousal support, but no more careful after these decisions than before.”
It’s yet to be seen if either ex-husband will appeal the matter. Suffice it to say, even if that happens (and such a development would be years in the making), Canada’s highest court has signalled that as far as spousal support agreements go, it’s essentially buyer and seller beware for the foreseeable future.