“In sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.” Those words are beginning to take on new meaning to all divorced Canadians as the country’s highest court tests the legal notion of a couple’s obligation to love, honor, and support “in sickness and in health” – even after the termination of their marriage.
The Canadian Supreme Court is being asked to rule on the case of Bracklow v. Bracklow, a three-year-old British Columbia marriage that ended in 1992. The court will determine if Frank Bracklow, a mechanic, is required to support his ex-wife, who is unable to work, for the rest of her life.
Sharon Bracklow had health problems when the marriage began, and her illness worsened during the marriage. She has not worked since 1991, and suffers from a variety of physical and emotional problems including obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar mood disorder. She currently lives in subsidized housing on monthly disability benefits. During their separation, Frank paid Sharon $400 a month in support until their divorce was granted. At that point, the judge ordered the support terminated on the grounds that Sharon Bracklow “was in no different circumstances than she would have been if they hadn’t gotten married.” The trial judge later said “in sickness and in health” had no legal significance.
The B.C. court also ruled against her, noting there was no clear agreement during the marriage that either spouse would be dependent on the other.
Sharon Bracklow has now taken her case to the Supreme Court in the hopes that the court will overrule the two B.C. courts on the grounds that she has a right to expect the wedding vows to be honored: when they exchanged their vows, she claims, they made a verbal commitment in front of witnesses that they would remain together in sickness and in health.
Last November, the Supreme Court reserved judgment on the case until late spring, and it may be awhile before we see the result of this appeal.
Bracklow v. Bracklow could revolutionize spousal support in Canada because the court’s ruling could determine whether a marriage should be treated as a lifelong “insurance policy” against misfortunes unconnected to the marriage.
Meanwhiles, some folks are wondering nervously whether their wedding vows will suddenly become legally-binding contracts. Promises, promises…
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