Self-Sufficiency: Does Your Ex Get to Suggest Your Career Path?
After a divorce, former spouses each have a duty to become financially self-sufficient. But when one of them is legally obligated to pay spousal support to the other, some questions arise:
Is the payor spouse entitled to give advice on the recipient spouse’s post-divorce career path? And should the recipient spouse be faulted for not taking those suggestions on-board?
These were the issues for the Ontario court’s consideration in a case called Howard v. Howard. The husband and wife were in a traditional 17-year marriage when they separated. The husband was an extremely successful family physician, earning double the average of other family physicians in Ontario. But – as the court put it: “Dr. Howard believes he is sharing too much of that income” with the wife, who had left a promising career to raise their children. She had not worked outside the home after the first few years of their marriage.
They came to a mediated agreement on the amount of support the husband should pay in the first five years post-separation. It totalled about $9,000 a month for child support, and $12,300 for spousal support, based on his income of $600,000 per year. When the support came up for review after five years, they had a 5-day trial to determine whether it was appropriate to set new amounts.
In this context, the husband claimed the wife had made inadequate efforts to become self-sufficient, and that she could easily have obtained full-time employment as a teacher since their separation. As the court explained:
He complains that the [wife’s] efforts since separation have been weak and ill-founded. In particular, during trial he and his counsel complained about the failure of Ms. Howard to accept suggestions from them as to career paths, including suggestions that she take courses to become a pharmacist, or move to British Columbia with the children to obtain employment there as a teacher.
Since separation, Dr. Howard has been on a campaign to obtain employment for his ex-wife. He has made suggestions as to job opportunities, going so far as to suggest that Ms. Howard move back to British Columbia with the children to teach due to the recent lack of teachers in that province. He made this suggestion through correspondence from his lawyer, as he similarly suggested that she go into pharmacology or teaching French in Ontario. When Ms. Howard went back to university in an attempt to go to medical school, he also took a position on this, stating that it was a waste of time as medical schools only invest in younger students with a long future in medicine.
Given what he considered his wife’s stubborn resistance to his suggestions, the husband asked the court to fault her for her lack of self-sufficiency, by reducing the amount and duration of her support going-forward.
In response, the wife said that she had indeed made reasonable efforts to become self-sufficient, but that her current work as a tutor and supply teacher are “as good as it gets for someone out of the work force as long as she has been”. As for her lack of receptivity to the husband’s unsolicited career counselling:
Ms. Howard says that Dr. Howard was controlling and abusive during marriage. She says that he is not the person to make suggestions as to her career opportunities and that this simply continues the course of abuse and control experienced by her during cohabitation and marriage.
The court agreed that the wife was entitled to spousal support on several bases (i.e. both compensatory and non-compensatory), and set the amount and duration in keeping with various factors. As for the husband’s attempt to unilaterally guide her career choices, the court agreed that this was not the husband’s place, especially in the acrimonious circumstances. The court said:
Dr. Howard complained when giving evidence that Ms. Howard was dismissive of his suggestions. However, and it was apparent to me from the testimony of both parties, this was a bitter and acrimonious separation for the parties and the children. I agree with the [the wife] that Dr. Howard was not the person to suggest career paths for her and it is not surprising that she would take a dim view of those suggestions during this very difficult and hostile marriage breakdown.
The court added that under Canadian law, the goal of self-sufficiency is subject to a caveat, which is that it is expected of spouse only “so far as is practicable.” It pointed out that the husband’s unsolicited job coaching was also self-serving, since if the wife got a job in the suggested fields, it would reduce the amount of support he owed her.