Top 10 Tips on Drafting Domestic Contracts
Any domestic agreement (which in Ontario can include a marriage contract, cohabitation agreement or separation agreement), must be drafted with great care and attention to detail. After all, it is a binding legal contract that – when done right – will govern the rights and responsibilities of the spouses or relationship partners who have entered into it.
At the risk of stating the obvious: If you want a good, airtight domestic contract, you should see an experienced lawyer who specializes in Family Law. Among other reasons, this is because the provincial Family Law Act that governs many of the matters that are purportedly covered by domestic contracts, and it is vital to understand the interplay between the legislation and any agreement you may reach with your spouse.
But before you consult a lawyer, here are some tips that we can provide in order to help formulate the types of issues you want to address in your own domestic contract, and to help you understand and navigate the agreement-drafting process:
Tip 1:Be Thorough
- Any good domestic contract must cover all the legal points, avoid inadvertent loopholes, and withstand the passage of time. It should also contemplate certain tangential implications (such as income tax consequences), and should provide for a mechanism by which any disputes are to be resolved.
Tip 2: Be Precise
- The agreement must also be in clear precise language that you and your spouse can easily understand and follow. Legal jargon – or “legalese” as it is sometimes called – should be avoided; this includes old-fashioned terms such as “party of the first part”, “aforesaid” and “hereafter”.
Tip 3: Confirm the Facts
- Makes sure that the statements and pre-suppositions that form the basis of the agreement are factually correct. This includes obvious things such each spouse’s legal name and the address of any homes or recreational properties; but it also includes making sure that any dates or date-ranges, business addresses and bank account numbers referred to in the agreement are reflected with precision.
Tip 4: Be Specific
- Individual or family assets should be itemized and described in great detail, to avoid uncertainty and confusion. This naturally includes physical tangible objects, but can also include more esoteric items such as corporate shares, interests in timeshare properties, etc. It is wise to include long lists of items in a Schedule to the agreement rather than the main body, to avoid cluttering the main part of the agreement, and to allow for easier amendment of those lists if necessary.
Tip 5: Avoid the Kits
- There are some domestic agreement “kits” on the market, that purport to provide legal clauses that can be customized to suit. However, these should be avoided, because One Size Usually Fits None. Indeed, it is dangerous to use any precedent unless you fully understand its meaning and the legal implications; that’s what lawyers are for.
Tip 6: Avoid Boilerplate, Too
- Similarly, even if you avoid the pre-fabricated agreements, it’s important to beware of using standardized “boilerplate” clauses, that are drafted broadly and aimed at covering off a wide range of scenarios and contingencies. Only rarely will these provide the best coverage of your unique situation.
Tip 7: Try to Guess the Future
- The agreement should contemplate that there may be gradual changes over time, or that certain likely events may arise in the future. These might include changes in custody, or the re-marriage of one or both spouses, for example. These kinds of potential scenarios should be discussed with your spouse and reflected in the agreement whenever possible.
Tip 8: Watch Out for Loose Ends
- In tandem with the need to address future contingencies is the need to identify “loose ends” and “loopholes” in the drafted agreement. This is another area where the advice of a good Family Law lawyer is particularly helpful.
Tip 9: Be Realistic
- Although the agreement should be comprehensive, it cannot possibly purport to govern every aspect of either spouse’s day-to-day living. Terms or obligations that are unrealistic or too difficult to live by will be the first ones that get breached, with a dispute between spouses being the inevitable consequence.
Tip 10: Get it Reviewed
- Most domestic agreements are drafted during a point in time when the two of you are in a positive, happy, pro-relationship headspace (e.g. in the case of pre-nuptial contracts or cohabitation agreements), and it’s precisely the time when many important matters can get overlooked, glossed over, or brushed aside as “unimportant”. It’s therefore particularly important to have such agreements reviewed by a lawyer specializing in Family Law: Not only will that lawyer know the law and apply a trained eye to the wording of the document, but he or she will emphasize the need for each of you to get independent legal advice.
These tips are just a starting-point, but they go a long way toward making sure that any domestic contract that you draft will have the intended effect between you and your spouse. This in turn will avoid disputes – or worse, having the agreement (or parts of it) be overturned by a court.
At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders. For more information, visit our main site.