Even during this pandemic, there are some separated or separating spouses who are trying to take advantage of the situation, and the operation of Part 1 of Ontario's Family Law Act, to try to get ALL of their ex's wealth. It is important for married spouses to understand how that can happen, so they can plan accordingly.

Up until COVID19 hit, when it came to property matters, separated spouses were more concerned about what happens when assets increase significantly after separation and when those separated spouses share in that increase and when they don't. Unfortunately, due to the COVID19, the economy is facing the opposite situation, with people's RRSPs and other investment savings plummeting in value. Even with the Courts almost completely closed, many spouses are making legal claims to try to get ALL of what their ex has left. There may be some situations where that is the proper result, but in most it is not. This type of action is not unique to COVID19. It is also a concern whenever the economy takes a downturn. It was also a problem in 2008 and 2009.

To understand how his scam works, it is necessary to understand how property division works after a marriage occurs. There is no property division for common law couples under Ontario's Family Law Act. To briefly summarize and simplify how property division works (follow the links for a complete explanation), with some exceptions, married couples share the increase in their net worths from their date of marriage to the day they separate. That makes those two dates very important. With the possible exception of matrimonial homes, married spouses start counting how much net worth they have, and really how much what they have has increased in value from the date of marriage. For the purposes of property division under Ontario's Family Law Act, they stop considering their increase in net worth on the date they separate. But, in these trouble times, that same law means that they stop counting any decrease in network on the date of separation too.

The value of what a spouse owns before the date of marriage and after the date of separation don't matter. All that matters is what the married spouses had on those two dates. That fact is what makes this scam work.

Ontario Family Law recognizes that spouses do not have to physically separate, meaning one spouse walking out of the home, for the spouse to be separated. The law recognizes that spouses can live "separate and apart under the same roof." The law says that when the spouses move apart is not necessarily the important date for property division, but rather the important date is when they stop living together as husband and wife, even if they continue to reside under the same roof.

That gives at least one spouse a big incentive to say the marriage was over, and the parties stopped living as husband and wife BEFORE the COVID19 crisis hit. It gives an incentive to say the marriage ended before the value of their spouse's assets plummeted - and to say that they were just sharing the same space as co-tenants, not as spouses anymore.

To illustrate the advantage this gives, consider a situation where one spouse had $500,000 in investments, but no other significant assets on January 1, 2020 and the other spouse had very little. By the end of March, those investments have fallen to $250,000 in value and the stress of being isolated together in the home means that one spouse walks out. But, that spouse with no assets does not want to share in $250,000. That spouse wants to share in $500,000. So, that spouse says they separated - stopped living like spouses - on January 1 when the investments were worth $500,000. Under Ontario Ontario's property equalization scheme, that means that spouse would be owed an equalization payment of half the assets on January 1 - $250,000 - or ALL of what his or her ex has left.

That is an extreme case. Most won't have results that bad. But, it illustrates the point.

Of course, the opposite it also true. If the spouses had a big fight on New Years, never got along afterward, and stopped living like spouses then, the spouse with the investments has a BIG INCENTIVE to try to reconcile the relationship, even briefly, while the investment value has cratered. Because, if the spouses rekindle their relationship, even for a couple of days or nights, the date of separation becomes that last date, and they share in the LOW value for the assets. That could be a big help, particularly if everyone's investments rebound after the crisis.

The law is not so unreasonable as to allow one spouse to pick the date of separation that benefits him or her the most. If the parties cannot agree, it is a judge or family arbitrator that decides. With so much money potentially at stake, there is clear incentive for one spouse to lie or stretch the truth. Consequently, judges try to look at the facts objectively and ask themselves: "When would an objective person, who knew the couple, say the relationship was over?" In determining that, it is not just when the couple stopped having sex, or even when one spouse started having an affair (some relationships recover from that). The judge (or arbitrator) looks at factors such as:

  • when the spouses stopped eating together,
  • when they stopped going out or vacationing together,
  • when they stopped showing signs of affection for each other,
  • when they stopped referring to each other as spouses,
  • when they took the wedding rings off,
  • when they separated their finances (opened separate accounts or stopped paying each other's bills),
  • many other possible factors depending on the family's situation.

Determining when spouses separated in these difficult circumstances can be open to argument. Also, the separation date can be very dependent on the specific facts of the individual case. Since there can be a lot of money at stake, it is important for spouses in the midst of a separation to get in touch with a lawyer who can provide advice based on the specifics of the individual situation. The specific circumstances can make a big difference on what a separating spouse should do to protect himself or herself. It can be important even for someone to speak to a lawyer before he or she walks out to determine when might be the best time to do that, or even if that matters anymore. In these situations, the lawyer's advice can save a spouse thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars - especially when it helps avoid a scam.

For more information about family law related questions and advice, please contact John Schuman at john.schuman@devrylaw.ca or 416-446-5080.

"This article is intended to inform. Its content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon by readers as such. If you require legal assistance, please see a lawyer. Each case is unique and a lawyer with good training and sound judgment can provide you with advice tailored to your specific situation and needs."

Originally published 5th May 2020

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.