In an case I had reported on a few weeks ago, the marriage contract between the husband and wife – drafted by the wife’s lawyer – had contained an inadvertent drafting error, giving the husband the full value of the matrimonial home, when the actual intent was to give him only half. The relationship irrevocably broke down shortly after the agreement was signed. In examining whether the flawed agreement should nonetheless be enforced, the court concluded that the proper solution was to overturn the part containing the error; all the more so because the husband was aware of the drafting mistake and was trying to take advantage of it. This conclusion was confirmed on appeal.
One of the many issues that had to be examined in the case, was the effect on the husband’s extramarital affair on the negotiation process. An earlier judge at trial had been accused of placing undue emphasis on the husband’s cheating, when deciding some of the other issues in the wife’s favour.
That same judge had addressed the impact of the wife’s insistence that if they were to reconcile, he would have to end the affair and get tested for sexually-transmitted diseases. It was against this background, over a brief 3-week period, that the defective marriage contract had been negotiated. As the trial judge explained:
[The wife] had three preconditions to reconciliation. The centrepiece of these conditions was that [the husband] stop his affair immediately and commit to the reconciliation process. [The husband] represented to [the wife] that he terminated his affair. He told her that he was in the wrong and that the most important thing to him was the survival of their marriage and family. On that representation, [the wife] went out of town to consider reconciling with [the husband].
The problem was, that the husband had not actually ended his contact with the woman, even though he told the wife otherwise. Even as one of the last drafts of the marriage contract was being exchanged between the lawyers, he had seen his affair partner only days earlier, while on a business trip to California.
The trial judge had to examine the effect of this revelation on the validity of the contract.
The husband’s promise that he would be committed to reconciliation, and his devoting to making the marriage work, imposed a heightened obligation of good faith on him, the judge found. Marriage contracts, unlike separation agreements, are subject to an utmost duty of good faith and fair dealing between the spouses. The judge disagreed with prior rulings that suggested that an extramarital affair need not be disclosed because the Family Law Act and the Family Law Rules deal only with financial disclosure by spouses. Instead, the judge found that an affair could be relevant particularly if the couple was negotiating a marriage contract in circumstances of attempted reconciliation.
With that said, the trial judge applied the principles to these facts:
In this case, [the husband] told [the wife] that he had ended the affair and that his total dedication was to seeing the marriage work. This fact alone was a prerequisite for [the wife] to entertain the idea of entering into a process of reconciliation and, eventually, give this process priority over her involvement in the negotiation process of the Marriage Contract, which dealt with her most substantial assets.
I find that the perception created in [the wife’s] mind that [the husband] was committed to the marriage due to the termination of his affair renders evidence that he continued to see this woman during the negotiation process of the Marriage Contract relevant.
However, the trial judge went on to make an important distinction on these facts: The husband had admitted to continuing to see his affair partner in California, but he did not admit that he was actually continuing the affair with her. As he explained:
Having said that, I cannot find on the evidence in this case that [the husband] continued to have an affair with this other woman during the negotiation process. In this regard, I find the following:
(1) [The husband] admitted to [the wife] that he was having an affair and that he wanted out of the marriage at the end of March 2006.
(2) Although he stated in his evidence that he ended the affair when he committed to reconciliation, he admitted that he continued to see this same woman during the negotiation period. The woman with whom [the husband] was having an affair lived in California and he admitted to travelling through California in July 2006 in the midst of the Marriage Contract negotiations. Admitting to continuing to see her does not allow me to conclude that he was continuing the affair.
I do not find that [the husband’s] affair with this other woman impacted on the negotiation process. Although [the husband’s] resumption of his affair, at the time that his wife was in the extreme vulnerable state that she was, is reprehensible, such conduct cannot be connected to the issue of whether this Marriage Contract should be set aside.
The matter went on to later appeal, with the court focusing on other grounds. But it was an interesting, and rather thinly-sliced, legal issue and conclusion.
What are your thoughts on the trial judge’s reasoning?
For the full text of the decisions, see:
Related Appeal and Costs decisions:
Stevens v. Stevens, 2012 ONSC 6881 (CanLII)
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