Court Upholds Separation Agreement as Being “In Substantial Compliance” with the Law
Do you have a two-decades-old separation agreement that you are trying to have overturned? Then the recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Smith v. Smith might be of interest to you.
The facts were these: Before getting married, and just as they were about to move in together, the husband and wife signed a cohabitation agreement, in which the wife gave up any claim to spousal support. The husband had previously had a prior relationship end badly and was eager not to have history repeat itself.
When they split 18 years (and two kids) later, the wife claimed spousal support nonetheless, but the trial judge upheld the terms of the separation agreement and dismissed her claim.
She brought an appeal, claiming that the trial judge had erred. She wanted the agreement to release her spousal support overturned since she claimed it did not conform to the provisions of the federal Divorce Act – whether viewed from the time it was signed or now.
The Appeal Court took a closer look at the situation, including the wife’s assertion that the trial judge had overlooked certain facts, such as:
- The alleged power imbalance between her and the husband;
- The lack of any discussion about spousal support; and
- The fact that she had no independent legal advice when she signed the agreement (though she admitted having the chance to obtain it at the time).
The Appeal Court rejected these arguments. It pointed out that when tasked with reviewing a separation agreement purporting to release spousal support, a court’s job involved two steps: to first consider the circumstances at the time it was reached, and then to look at the substance to see whether it complied at the time with the federal Divorce Act.
During the first step, the court pointed to specific findings of fact that the trial judge had made, namely:
- The wife knew the husband wanted a cohabitation agreement, and they had discussed it before she received the draft prepared by his lawyer.
- She skimmed the agreement, read some parts, and did not read others.
- She had a full six weeks to obtain independent legal advice, but – by her own admission – chose not to do so.
- At the time she signed the agreement, she thought it was fair. There was no fraud, coercion, or duress.
As for the second step, the Court found the agreement to be in “substantial compliance” with the Divorce Act. More importantly, in light of all the circumstances including the economic disadvantages suffered by each spouse because of their 18-year marriage, the wife would not be entitled to spousal support even if the separation agreement did not exist.
The Court affirmed the trial judge’s conclusions, dismissed the appeal, and confirmed the validity of the agreement.
For the full text of the decision, see: