We have written in the past about various types of unconventional relationships that were found in court to be ‘spouse-like’, prompting a judge to order spousal support payments after the relationship had broken down. One, in particular, involved a couple who had never cohabitated but had spent much of their time together, including travelling for long periods of time. In that case, one of the parties had also been financially dependent on the other for the bulk of their 14-year relationship. Despite the fact that they had never married or officially lived together, the court awarded the dependent partner considerable monthly spousal support after their separation.
Another recent decision has now further expanded the definition of a ‘marriage-like relationship’ to include a relationship that took place almost entirely online. Though this case is was decided by a British Columbia court, the decision could have a broader impact as family courts across Canada examine increasingly non-traditional relationships in light of claims for spousal support.
In the case at hand, the relationship began in 2014 when the woman, H, attended a Buddhist ceremony where she met the man, D, who was a high lama at a Buddhist educational institute. After the ceremony, H, who lived in British Columbia, decided to pursue a calling to become a Buddhist nun and arranged to spend three years at a meditation retreat in New York. While at the retreat, she met with D two more times. On one of D’s visits to the monastery, H alleged that D sexually assaulted her in her boarding room, at which point she became pregnant with D’s child.
Despite the traumatic start to their relationship, H met with D to inform him that she was pregnant with his child. D was reluctant to accept this at first, but then provided H with his contact information. The parties began regularly communicating through private instant message apps, emails, and the occasional telephone call. D eventually transferred a large sum of money to H to cover the following expenses:
H claimed that the parties had regularly discussed the fact that they planned to eventually move in together, and plans were made for D to visit B.C. to meet the child. However, before the visit could take place, D informed H that he had to ‘disappear’ to Europe for some time and would need to reschedule the visit. This was the last communication H had from D. At that point, H initiated a claim against D for child support and a declaration of parentage. After the initial filing, she changed counsel and filed an application to amend her claim to also include a claim for spousal support. This was the application before the court in the decision at hand.
The Court emphasized that determining the nature of a relationship is highly subjective, depending on the facts involved. While some judges have attempted to create a checklist of factors to consider when determining whether a couple was in a ‘marriage-like’ relationship, the Court in this case noted that the BCCA has repeatedly cautioned against using a checklist approach and instead viewing each case holistically.
In the case at hand, the Court examined documentary evidence, and found found the following:
[T]he parties appear to have expressed genuine care and affection for one another. They appear to have discussed marriage, trust, honesty, finances, mutual obligations and acquiring family property. These are not matters one would expect [D] to discuss with a friend or a follower, or even with the mother of his child, without a marriage-like element of the relationship.
Ultimately, the court found that despite the fact that D and H had never cohabitated, and had only met in person a few times, the evidence was sufficient to allow H to add a claim for spousal support to her overall claim against D. Whether support will be granted remains to be determined, however.
Support obligations can be ever-changing depending on family circumstances, and as this case demonstrates, the obligation to pay can arise even in non-traditional situations. In order to be sure of your rights and obligations regarding support in the event your relationship breaks down, the best option is to set the terms out clearly in a valid domestic contract. This will ensure both parties are fully aware of how they will manage a potential breakup from a financial standpoint, and help to avoid costly litigation down the road.
If you would like to discuss your options with respect to creating a family law contract or if you are unsure of your rights and responsibilities regarding support, the family lawyers at Mincher Koeman can provide necessary guidance. Our exclusive focus on family law helps our clients navigate the emotional and financial challenges a family law matter can present. If you have a family law issue that you need assistance with, please contact us online or phone at (403) 901-3000 to talk with one of our lawyers today.
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