The parties were married in September 1992, moved to Rome as Shotton's work required it and within 17 months of their initial meeting, Roberts returned to Canada and the parties began living separate and apart. At the time of marriage, Roberts was 40 years old and Shotton was 46 years old. Roberts had a Bachelor of Arts degree and a journalism degree. She was employed as a waitress when the parties married. Shotton had a PhD and worked for the Government of Canada from 1974 to 1992. In 1992, he took a job with the United Nations and was sent to Rome. Roberts did not work during the marriage and after the separation, she returned to waitressing. At trial, Roberts was awarded one-third of the matrimonial assets, approximately $100,000. The matrimonial assets included a margin account, an RRSP account, an apartment building, pension contributions, shares, two bank accounts and some furniture. The trial judge found that the margin account, set up in Shotton's name in 1974, was a matrimonial asset and not a business asset. Roberts was also awarded monthly spousal support of $900 per month for five years. The judge found that she had suffered an economic disadvantage due to the breakdown of the marriage, her employment was interrupted, and it would take several years for her to re-establish herself. The husband appealed the division of assets.
- Was the division of assets by the trial judge unfair?
Appeal allowed with costs.
Bateman, writing for a unanimous court, overturned the decision of the trial judge. He held that the purpose of matrimonial property legislation is to fairly distribute assets, but it is not to arbitrarily redistribute or equalize wealth between married persons, i.e. it is not designed to benefit "gold diggers".
There are some presumptions in marriages of "reasonable duration". It is presumed that:
- a spouse's non-monetary contribution to a marriage, through child care and homemaking, is deserving of recognition;
- parties operate as a team, pooling resources and making decisions in reliance on their joint means;
- the disadvantage to a non-income earning spouse on marriage breakdown should be alleviated to the extent appropriate through a fair distribution of the assets;
- in most marriages, it is unfair, undesirable and unnecessary to trace each asset brought into the marriage by each party; and
- where one party assumes primary responsibility for the organization of the marital assets, that spouse should not be permitted to arrange the assets in a way that disadvantages the other spouse on dissolution of the marriage.
However, in a short marriage, the circumstances of the marriage must be analysed to see if a different approach is warranted to achieve a fair division of assets. The above presumptions should not be made if it would result in an inequitable outcome.
Applying this reasoning to the case at bar, it is clear the cohabitation period of the spouses was short (<17 months). All of the matrimonial assets were brought in by the husband, and the wife did not do any significant domestic activities. The change in value of the assets during the marriage was slight. Roberts did have some minor involvement with the apartment building, but limited to minor maintenance over a few months. On balance, a 1/3 share in the assets was clearly unfair. The trial judge placed inadequate weight on the combined effect of the two applicable s. 13 factors: the date and manner of acquisition of the assets (s. 13(e)) and the length of the cohabitation during the marriage (s. 13(d)).
While Bateman agrees that generally the best result is found by totalling the assets and awarding a percentage, given the facts of this case, a more equitable result could be found by dividing the assets individually. The only assets then which were deserving of division were those acquired during the marriage - the furniture in Rome, the pension contribution made during the marriage, and the bank accounts in Rome, for a total award of $24,000. Bateman also removed the five year support order as the wife was now back in her original financial position, and awarded a single $5,000 lump sum final support payment.
- The purpose of the Matrimonial Property Act is the fair distribution of assets, not to redistribute wealth.
- Presumptions which apply to lengthy marriages do not necessarily apply to short marriages.
- In short marriages, the court can deviate from the ordinary classification of matrimonial assets and develop an equitable scheme.