Deference in Spousal Support Decisions

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Lower courts are crucial in determining spousal support, often involving complex legal and emotional considerations. Trial judges carefully weigh factors like the length of the marriage, each spouse’s earning capacity, and their respective contributions to the marriage. However, regardless of a court’s effort to achieve the fairest solution, it is not uncommon for one party to be unhappy with a ruling. In these cases, the displeased party can appeal to the provincial Court of Appeal to determine whether such an order should be overturned. 

This blog post will examine spousal support awards in light of a recent decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal in which the appellant attempted to overturn a spousal support order by a lower court.

The Basics of Spousal Support

In Ontario, spousal support is governed by the provincial Family Law Act, which outlines the rights and obligations of spouses following separation or divorce. The Family Law Act emphasizes the importance of self-sufficiency for both parties while recognizing their potential economic disparities following a breakdown of the relationship. Spousal support may be awarded based on factors such as the length of the marriage or relationship, the roles each spouse played during the relationship, and their respective incomes and earning capacities.

The Family Law Act also considers the needs of any children involved and the importance of maintaining a standard of living similar to that established during the relationship. Spousal support can take various forms, such as lump-sum payments or periodic payments for a specified duration. Ontario courts have the discretion to make orders based on these factors, ensuring that support arrangements are fair and considerate of the circumstances of each case.

Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines

Canada’s Department of Justice has created a set of documents called the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines (the “Guidelines”), which assist in quantifying spousal support orders. However, these documents are a guideline rather than a complete solution in such calculations, and additional factors will be considered. The primary purpose of the Guidelines is to suggest appropriate ranges of support in a variety of situations. The Guidelines do not provide advice on whether a spouse is entitled to support, as each case will depend on its own facts.

Appellant Ordered to Pay Retroactive Non-Compensatory Spousal Support 

In Scheibler v. Scheibler, the appellant’s wife challenged a spousal support order made by a lower court, which included an “unusual set of circumstances.” The parties were married for approximately 17 years. During the marriage, the respondent’s husband engaged in various unsuccessful business ventures that generated limited revenue, including operating a wildlife sanctuary. As a result, he was financially dependent on his wife, who acquiesced to his “lifestyle and employment choices.” 

Based on these facts, the lower court ordered the wife to pay retroactive support for three years so that the husband could transition to financial independence. 

Court of Appeal Finds Judge Has Broad Deference to Determine Spousal Support The appellant appealed the order, seeking to have the order dismissed. Her arguments were as follows: 

  1. The trial judge erred by finding the husband was financially dependent on her based on his purchases of vehicles and equipment during the marriage; 
  2. The respondent did not disclose certain documents that would have assisted the judge in determining his actual income; 
  3. The respondent was capable of remunerative employment, he just chose not to be. 

Broadly, the Court dismissed the appeal on the ground that the trial judge was owed deference, and the above arguments were an attempt to reargue matters. The Court recognized a “high level of deference” for determining spousal support because of its fact-based nature. This aligns with the approach identified in Hickey v. Hickey, which held that significant deference promotes finality in family law and an appreciation of the trial judge’s ability to consider all the facts.  

Court of Appeal Finds No Errors in Trial Judge’s Reasoning

In the case, the Court noted ample evidence to make the above-order. It is undisputed that the wife paid the husband’s expenses. She also acquiesced to his lifestyle of not having a typical job despite encouraging him to “get a job.” Accordingly, the trial judge was open to determining that the husband was financially dependent on her. 

Overall, the Court found no errors in the trial judge’s reasoning and restated the high standard of deference that the Court will provide a trial judge when considering the appeal of such an order. This standard is difficult to reach, and only specific errors can result in the overturning of an order. 

Contact the Windsor Family Lawyers at Johnson Miller Family Lawyers for Advice on Spousal Support Awards

The compassionate family lawyers at Johnson Miller Family Lawyers in Windsor understand that spousal support can be contentious and confusing. If you have questions about whether you are entitled to spousal support or seek to appeal or vary an existing spousal support award, it is important to obtain legal advice to ensure you understand your rights, obligations, and options. To speak with a team member regarding your spousal support matter, contact us by phone at 519.973.1500 or reach out to us through our online form.

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