Husband Wants to Revoke $33 Million in Gifts to the Wife – Sparks Dispute Over International Law
A recent high-stakes Family Law case out of Quebec has an international aspect, and raises an interesting issue about a judge’s discretion to suspend local proceedings in favour of those that are simultaneously going forward in another country.
The couple married in Belgium and then moved with their children to Quebec. When the relationship went sour, they each took a different path toward divorce: The husband applied in Belgium, while the wife applied for divorce in Quebec. The husband’s choice was strategic: Under Belgian law, he was entitled to revoke all gifts that he had given the wife during the marriage – estimated at $33 million and located mainly in Quebec – by taking certain steps which started with him sending her a letter (which he did). The gift revocation was subsequently confirmed by the Belgian court in a formal order.
On the strength of having obtained this Belgian court order, the husband then asked the Quebec court to stay (i.e. suspend) the wife’s divorce proceedings in Quebec, to avoid parallel – and potentially conflicting or inconsistent – legal proceedings. He asked for an international lis pendens (which is Latin for “pending litigation”).
At trial, the Quebec judge refused to grant the husband’s stay request. She concluded that if she recognized the Belgian court order allowing the husband to revoke the gifts, it would be discriminatory here in Canada. That conclusion disqualified the matter from being eligible for an international lis pendens under the governing test; with that in mind, the trial judge instead used her discretion to allow the wife’s divorce application to go forward in Quebec.
The husband successfully appealed that outcome. The Quebec Court of Appeal granted the husband’s stay request, finding that the trial judge had been premature in concluding outright that the Belgian court order allowing the gift revocation could not be recognized in Quebec. Her analysis on this point was unreasonable, and warranted the Appeal Court’s reversal.
The next and final appeal was by the wife, this time to the Supreme Court of Canada where she was vindicated. That Court began the analysis by noting that an appeal court should only interfere with a trial judge’s ruling on specific, well-established legal grounds. None of those were present here.
Next, the Court conceded that to be eligible to obtain a stay, the husband merely had to establish that it was possible that the eventual decision of the Belgian court would not be manifestly inconsistent with public order, and that it would be susceptible to being recognized in Quebec. But even if he did so, the trial judge still retained her discretion to decide whether to grant the stay, nonetheless. In other words, it was still open to her to conclude that in the circumstances it was appropriate to decline to order a stay, and that is precisely what she did in this case.
The Supreme Court of Canada restored that trial decision, effectively allowing the wife’s Quebec-based divorce proceedings – with the embedded issues relating to the $33 million in gifts – to go forward.
For the full text of the Supreme Court of Canada decision, see: