It’s not uncommon for the burden of household work to fall to one party in a relationship. This can sometimes be because of work schedules, or it could be because only one party works outside of the home. In other instances, like those seen in a recent decision from the Court of Appeal of Alberta, it may be because one party is pursuing an athletic career that requires support. The case saw the court addressing how the law of unjust enrichment and a joint family venture should be applied when a couple separates.

The background

The appellant and the respondent were in a common law relationship for 13 years, beginning in 1997 and ending in 2010. During this period the respondent was a professional ice hockey player who participated in three Olympic Games. The appellant had greater financial means at the beginning of their relationship, but the tides eventually turned after the respondent began to earn more income. Some of the price money, grants, and gifts the respondent earned were used to pay off the mortgage of the couple’s primary home, which had originally been purchased in the appellant’s name. At this time the respondent’s name was also added to the title. The respondent’s income also paid for renovations to the primary residence as well as a rental property.

When the relationship came to an end the respondent sued for an equal division of the primary residence. The appellant counterclaimed, seeking a share of the respondent’s assets. Her claim was based on unjust enrichment and joint family venture. Her allegations were that she carried the burden of performing most of the domestic work in the relationship, including preparing lunches for the respondent while she was training, providing assistant coach and administrative assistance after the respondent retired and became a coach, and assisted the respondent with the rental property. She also claimed she was terminated from her employment because of the respondent, but also said she did not tailor her work schedule because of the relationship.  The respondent denied the appellant provided the services as described.

The couple did not have children, travelled together occasionally (but also separately), kept separate bank accounts and credit cards, and shared most expenses.

The decision of the trial judge

The trial judge ultimately preferred the evidence of the respondent and her witnesses. The trial judge found that while the appellant may have performed some of the assistance she claimed, her allegations were overstated. The trial judge found that unjust enrichment was established, but not a joint family venture.

The joint family venture claim was analyzed by the court by considering four factors: mutual effort, economic integration, actual intent, and priority of the family. While the judge found some evidence of mutual effort, the remaining three factors were note established. The court described the trial judge’s assessment of the relationship as follows,

“The respondent was very exacting in the parties’ accounting and allotment of household expenses. She found the respondent intended to keep her wealth separate and communicated that to the appellant through her conduct. This included the designations of single status on the respondent’s tax returns. Priority of the family, meaning a party has given priority to the family in their decision made to her detriment, was found by the trial judge not to have been established on the appellant’s work history.”

The trial judge awarded the appellant $45,000 and ordered the value of the primary residence to be split equally.

The appeal

The appellant had three grounds of appeal. They were laid out as follows:

  1. the trial judge misunderstood the law of unjust enrichment as it relates to common-law partners, and consequently committed a palpable and overriding error;
  2. the trial judge ignored, forgot, or misapprehended material evidence in finding the parties were not engaged in a joint family venture during their 13-year relationship; and
  3. in making the above errors, the trial judge failed to remedy the disproportionate retention of the wealth accumulated during the relationship by the respondent.

The first two grounds were based on the judge’s findings of fact. This means the appellant had to prove the trial judge made a palpable and overriding error in her finding there to be no joint family venture. In plain language, this is a high standard of proof requiring there to be an error that is plainly seen.

The court agreed with the trial judge’s finding of unjust enrichment. The trial judge correctly asked whether the respondent had been enriched, whether the appellant suffered a corresponding detriment, and whether there was no “juristic reason” for the enrichment. Additionally, the court found that while the trial judge may have ignored or omitted some of the evidence, the errors did not amount to a palpable or overriding error. As a result, the appeal was dismissed.

The team at Jason P. Howie, Professional Corporation has over 25 years of family law experience. In that time there have been few scenarios we have not come across. We work with our clients to listen and understand their concerns while providing exceptional legal advice. Our firm takes a calm, rational approach to separation and divorce, and we help our clients do the same. Please call us at 519.973.1500 or online to see how we can help you today.