Was Husband in Contempt for Not Achieving the Impossible?
The facts in Malboeuf v. Hanna raised an interesting issue: Should a spouse be held in contempt for failing to satisfy a court Order that was impossible to comply with in the first place?
At an earlier hearing to address issues arising from their separation, the court ordered the husband to designate the wife as the irrevocable beneficiary of his life insurance policy. Under the wording of the Order he was required within 30 days to “make arrangements to change the existing beneficiary designations to ‘irrevocable’ beneficiary designations ‘in trust for the children’ (if allowed by the insurer). The goal was to secure the husband’s child support obligations towards their children by making the wife the trustee of the funds.
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The problem was that the insurer, RBC Insurance, did not allow such irrevocable designations on its policies.
This prompted the wife to claim that the husband was accordingly in breach of the strict wording of the Order, and should be found in contempt of court. At the least, he should have circumvented the obstacle raised by RBC’s policy by taking reasonable, good faith steps to try to achieve that required outcome through other means. For example, he could have obtained a further Order requiring RBC to make the designation irrevocable, or could have purchased a new policy that did allow such designations to be made.
The husband countered that he had satisfied the technical wording of the Order by making the request to RBC; from there, it was out of his hands. The “irrevocable” designation would be in place but for the fact that RBC did not allow it.
The court reviewed the law on civil contempt of court, noting that to prove the husband’s contempt the wife had to show all three of the following:
1) that there was a clear and unequivocal Order stating what the husband should/should not do,
2) the husband actually knew the terms of the Order, and
3) he intentionally failed to do what was ordered of him.
The court added that even with all three elements established, it still had the power to override a contempt finding if it felt the husband had acted in good faith to take reasonable steps to try to comply.
In this scenario, the court concluded that the husband was not in breach. First of all, the Order did not clearly and unequivocally require him to irrevocably designate the wife, but rather contained built-in wording that contemplated a potential hurdle (i.e. “if allowed by the insurer”). That alone absolved the husband from being held in contempt.
Nor was there anything in the wording of the Order that clearly and unequivocally required him to take other steps, such as getting a new policy or getting a court to force RBC to bend its policy. Without such added obligations being clearly placed upon him, the husband could not be found in contempt in this situation.
For the full text of the decision, see: