The law has a conscience, believe it or not. So if you sign a contract that’s really bad, and unfair, and just plain dumb, the law’s conscience can swoop in and save you. A bizarre case from Ontario is a good example.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about this case is that the wife, a stay-at-home mom who ran off with another man after 34 years of marriage, never hired a lawyer — she got legal advice from her husband. And she trusted him. She believed him. So here’s a law school quiz: is it likely that a man who has been cuckolded and abandoned after 34 years is going to make sure his ex gets every penny that’s coming to her? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out.
Also weird is the fact that the judge — who, of course, set aside the ridiculously unfair separation contract on the basis that it shocked the conscience of the court — found that the husband may not have acted maliciously. Apparently, he may have honestly believed it was right and proper — and legal — that his ex should receive so little. The theory, which might have worked a century ago, was that “she did not work outside the home and therefore did not contribute.”
How bad was the deal? Very. In law she was entitled to indefinite spousal support of approximately $3000 a month, and because she was only in her early fifties at the time of separation, that could add up to a whole lot of money — perhaps seven figures. But instead, she accepted a lump sum of $25,000. Wow. Then there was the matrimonial home, to which she was on title as a half-owner. Her share of the proceeds would have been more than $100,000, but instead she transferred her half to him in exchange for his paying off a paltry $39,000 debt, on a joint line of credit. Then there was his pension, valued at $272,000. Instead of taking half, she took zero. “I didn’t question him,” she said, “because I didn’t think he would lie to me.” Fortunately for her, unconscionable contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
For a durable and responsibly-negotiated agreement, contact Shirley Levitan.
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(Bill Rogers is a Toronto-based lawyer, journalist, and family law mediator)