Determining Whether a Pair was a Couple


Not every long-term relationship leads to marriage, and in fact, some long-running friendships may have romantic periods in them. However, somewhere between the definition of “relationship” and “friends” there is a line drawn. On one side of the line, there exists no legal obligation to one another once a relationship concludes. On the other side of the line, there exists family law obligations such as spousal support. For people with informal yet romantic relationships, there may be disagreements over how serious the relationship was in the event the relationship comes to an end. A recent decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Haughton v. Corner, looks at how courts determine the seriousness of a relationship while also explaining the different standards of proof required by people seeking temporary versus permeant spousal support.

Parties to a Relationship Don’t Agree on Whether They were Spouses

The applicant and the respondent were in a relationship of some kind for extended periods between 2007 and 2019. During this time there were periods when the respondent lived at the applicant’s home, periods when they lived apart, and periods where the applicant lived at the respondent’s home.

When the relationship finally came to an end the applicant applied to the court for spousal support. However, the respondent told the court he and the applicant were “friends with benefits” and not a couple. His affidavit claimed that he mostly lived with the applicant between 2008 and 2014, staying at her house 3-4 nights per week. He said he stayed in a trailer or with friends on other nights of the week. He told the court he paid $500 per month in rent during these years, though also said payments were sometimes made in the form of paying for household expenses. The respondent bought his own residence in 2014 and said he and the applicant maintained their relationship until she moved in with him the following year. He said she paid him $1,000 per month in rent and that she stayed with him 3-4 nights per week during the final years of their relationship.

The applicant’s position was that the parties were in an exclusive relationship and presented themselves to friends and family as a couple. They showed the court Christmas cards that people sent to them, indicating they were a couple. She said they made household purchases together and assisted each other financially when required.

Determining Whether People in a Relationship are Spouses

It should be noted that this is a decision for temporary spousal support, to be put in place until a full trial can occur. The court explained early in the decision that the applicant does not have as high a burden of proof when asking for temporary support, and that instead of proving her entire case, the applicant only had to prove on the balance of probabilities that she has a case to make.

With that in mind, the court took the time to outline the elements needed to meet the definition of “spouse.” The Family Law Act states that spouses are people “who are not married to each other and have cohabited for a period of not less than three years.” It goes on to define “cohabitate” as living “together in a conjugal relationship, whether within or outside of marriage.”

Over the years, the courts have determined that three factors can help determine if a relationship is conjugal. These are:

(a)   being exclusive to one another;

(b)   sleeping, shopping, gardening, cooking, cleaning, socializing and living together as a couple; and

(c)   representing themselves as such to their friends.

The court applied the narratives provided by the applicant and the respondent and determined the respondent’s version of the relationship was not believable. The court said the evidence provided by the applicant, including photographs of them presenting as a couple, bank loans to the applicant guaranteed by the respondent, and receipts for large household purchases. The court also noted that there was no proof the applicant paid rent to him, while also stating that instead of paying rent he would purchase household goods and pay for household expenses. This led the court to explain that another way of defining that would be a sharing of expenses. The issue of exclusivity was also not contented, with neither party being involved in a relationship with anyone else over the years in question.

This led the court to determine the parties were spouses. The next issue they had to determine was for how long they cohabitated. This is significant because it is a factor used to help determine how much spousal support is to be paid.

The applicant said they lived together from November 2007 until June 2019. The respondent says the relationship started in 2008 and ended in 2017, with a one-year break in between. He said he maintained his own residence exclusively as a requirement of bail conditions related to a previous criminal matter. He said he would not have been able to live anywhere other than his trailer until November 2008. Ultimately, the court found that while the respondent may have had a legal obligation to live alone, he and the applicant were still in a serious relationship with both of them understanding he could not move out until 2008, and so the relationship was deemed to have begun in 2007.

Johnson Miller Family Lawyers Can Help You with Family Law Issues

The family law team at Johnson Miller Family Lawyers has decades of experience helping clients work through a wide range of family law issues, including separation, divorce spousal support, and property division. We understand that our clients bring with them unique needs and circumstances, and we work tirelessly to help them achieve a resolution that is best for them and their families, including through the use of mediation in order to avoid litigation when possible. To see how we can help you, please reach out to us online or by phone at 519-973-1500.


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