Court Cases & Orders

Were They Former “Spouses”? Or Just “Roommates”?

Written by Russell Alexander ria@russellalexander.com / (905) 655-6335

Were They Former “Spouses”? Or Just “Roommates”?

In what it called an “unusual case”, the court had to determine whether the man and woman were spouses in the Family law sense, or simply roommates who benefited from living together in various circumstances, over the span of the years they knew each other.

The trajectory of the couple’s relationship – and its eventual legal demise – was rather unique. In 1983 the woman, who was Canadian, met the man of Egyptian background in the U.S. where they were both students.  They began a relationship.  The woman returned to Canada and they continued to see each other long-distance. The man was qualifying to be a doctor. They married quietly in 1984, then again in 1986 in a religious ceremony with friends present.

With the woman living and working in Canada, the man turned down a good U.S. job in the medical field to join her there. The man bought a condominium in anticipation of their life together, but the woman never really joined him after the marriage; instead she engaged in a series of what were essentially stalling tactics that saw her travel to and remain in Vancouver near family.

By 1989, the man concluded that the woman had no intention of moving from Vancouver to Toronto to be with him, and he realized the relationship was going nowhere. They had not had any sexual contact or physical intimacy whatsoever since their second wedding in 1986.  The man started divorce proceedings in 1990, which prompted the distraught woman to call several times asking to reconcile. The man refused, and their divorce ultimately became final in 1990.

Still, they continued to be involved in each other’s lives in some respects.  The man became a Canadian citizen and got a good job in Toronto. Even though he wanted nothing to do with the woman relationship-wise, he acquiesced in renting out part of his condo to her. Conversely, she helped him from time-to-time, advising on various business matters. However they kept their finances separate, and their social time together was occasional.

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The man insisted they were nothing more than good friends, but the woman sought $325,000 in spousal support – Rick Pettica, Associate Laywer

In 1999, the woman moved out of the condo and brought a court claim asking for $325,000 in lump-sum support as a former “spouse” under the Divorce Act, or alternatively under the Ontario Family Law Act because they were still a couple. The man insisted they were nothing more than good friends throughout their entire time together.

The court eventually heard the matter in 2005.  The court described the tenor of the litigation this way:

The parties’ positions couldn’t be more polarized. At its heart, the dispute is whether the [the woman] was a “spouse” entitled to the kinds of relief available following the breakdown of a conjugal relationship — or whether she was really just a “room mate” or “friend”, who benefited from the [man’s] kindness and generosity.

The court began by considering the extent of their conjugal relationship and cohabitation.  This, the court said, was the conceptual basis for the entitlement to support.

First, the court made some interesting observations about the personalities of each of the parties, writing:

[The woman] is a very bright woman with great strategic ability. In spite of presenting numerous lapses of memory in the course of her testimony, I believe she is really quite gifted and does not forget much. I doubt much escapes her attention or awareness. She loves business, planning and complexity. Her ability to understand and manipulate numbers was well-demonstrated. I believe she is able to manipulate people too. She is aggressive in business and finance, and she is willing to take chances. Money is very important to her. She likes to have it, control it, and keep it. …

[The man] is equally bright. He is gentle, somewhat passive, inattentive to detail and perhaps naïve. His main love is his work. Beyond that he prefers to leave the details to someone else. In spite of a very good income and substantial assets, he lives relatively simply. He is not lavish in his spending, but gets what he needs. He doesn’t know much about money or its management. Money is just another detail. He doesn’t have time for a large social circle, but he is very loyal to friends, and family is important to him. He is optimistic, trusting, generous with friends and family, pragmatic and somewhat conservative in social values and lifestyle. He is a quiet person. He doesn’t like confrontation, and avoids it if at all possible.

[The woman’s] aggressive personality and interest in money found a soft spot in [the man’s] more passive approach to people and material things. I do not conclude that [the woman] set out consciously to take advantage of [the man]. They were truly friends. However, their very different personalities produced a synergy that led them to a very unusual lifestyle.

Next, the court described the parties’ sleeping arrangements throughout those periods when they were living under the same roof:

While there was a sharing of beds, it was a very unusual situation. It seems that the initiative was [the woman’s], not [the man’s].  He testified that [the woman] would crawl into his bed from time to time, not vice-versa. [The woman] did not dispute this, and the shared bed was never described by her as “our” bed. When they did share a bed, they might as well have been in separate rooms or different cities because there was never any sexual, intimate or other physical contact. …

I conclude that any sharing of a bed was not done as a mutual expression of comfort, love, companionship or sexual satisfaction. It could not have been more platonic.

This was in addition to other evidence that persuaded the court that the parties were truly just friends, and that their relationship was mutually convenient. Neither of them supported the other financially, nor did they assist each other in pursuing their career. They essentially maintained separate lives and residences.

Tellingly, there was no evidence that he and the woman socialized as a couple, nor that they pooled their resources or had joint bank accounts. The man’s workplace colleagues all thought he was single, and he dated other women from time to time. The extent of their interaction seemed to involve playing sports, eating out and travelling.

On this basis – and after noting that the woman’s evidence lacked credibility in important respects – the court ultimately concluded that the pair were not in a conjugal relationship either before or after their 1989 divorce, stating:

When I take all of this into account and consider the evidence closely, giving [the woman] every allowance, and considering the evidence as a whole, I conclude that her testimony is not reliable or credible in many important respects. In the result, I do not believe her on the important aspects of her characterization of the relationship and many of issues raised in respect of her financial circumstances. Although I am also skeptical of the likelihood that a man could allow a woman to live with him and even sleep in his bed for so many years without being in a conjugal relationship, I conclude this was indeed how they lived.

It was probably the relaxed “friendship” of a man and woman, mutually convenient to each, based on individual personalities and separate motivations — but not a relationship of trusting partners, throwing their lot in life together, sharing and mutually supporting one another in conjugal love. …

The court ruled that the woman was not entitled to spousal support in the circumstances.

For the full text of the decision, see:

Feng v. Philips, 2005 CanLII 51909

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the founder of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers and is the firm’s senior partner. At Russell Alexander, 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. We have locations in Toronto, Markham, Whitby (Brooklin), Oshawa, Concord, Lindsay, and Peterborough.

For more information, visit our website, or you can call us at: 905-655-6335.