Globe and Mail

Poor little rich girls

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 18, 1999

Thomas Baker was such a bad husband that it would be comical if it weren't so awful. When his wife was eight months pregnant with their second child, he informed her their marriage was in trouble. He left when the baby was five days old. He went off to make a fortune, and she went back to work teaching.

That was in 1985. He's been fighting her ever since. In 1988, she asked for an increase in child-support payments. He stalled her for nine years. In 1997, a judge ordered him to cough up. He appealed. He lost. He appealed again. He hired the toughest and most expensive divorce lawyer in Canada, and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court before he lost again. He blew away enough money in legal fees to keep his kids and their kids in ponies and ballet lessons forever. Our question for today is: Why did he fight?

Mr. Baker has $78-million, and lives on the Bridle Path. His neighbour is Conrad Black. His kids live in North Toronto with their mother, Monica Francis, and their neighbours are struggling. Why didn't he just cut the cheque?

"It's a matter of principle," said his lawyer, Stephen Grant, a few months ago. "There's no reason he should be transferring wealth to his ex-wife when it exceeds what the children's needs are." He would also like his daughters to learn the value of money. "He has very strict ideas about their industry and self-reliance and their own contribution."

Other veterans of the spousal wars have a different take. As one weary family lawyer told me: "It's all about the wife."

Mr. Baker may be the villain who gives ex-husbands as a class a bad name. And sure, other ex-husbands are good guys. That said, the family dynamics of the Baker-Francis fight strike a familiar refrain. It goes: Sure, I'll support the kids. But I don't want my ex to get one damn red cent. (Please feel free to reverse the genders if it makes you feel better.)

Trouble is, real life is messy. No one has yet figured out a way to sever the kids from the parent who's raising them. If they eat steak, their mother might eat steak too. If they live in a nice house, she'll be there too. If they ride to school in a car, she'll probably be driving it. The custodial parent gains the benefit of the money that supports the kids, and that drives certain noncustodial parents nuts. They call it alimony in disguise, a sneaky wealth transfer to the ex. "It always comes down to a two-word argument: TOO MUCH," says the weary family lawyer.

Mr. Baker wanted to be the one doling out the goodies. He doled out ski vacations and restaurant meals and Skybox seats. His kids got to admire his art collection, which was worth more than the house they lived in. And at the end of every visit to the $5-million mansion on the Bridle Path, he sent them home in a chauffeured car. "He has been an incredibly generous father," said his lawyer.

For the past two years, he's fought their mother over $10,000 a month, the amount that was awarded at the support trial. He argued that $10,000 a month was much more money than they needed. This is obviously true. But he couldn't argue that it was more than he could afford, or more than other parents on the Bridle Path spend on their kids, or more than he spends to raise his other four kids (he got married two more times), or, in the end, more than they deserved.

Fathers' rights lobbies will not be happy about this ruling. They complain that fathers never get enough credit for the money they shell out when the kids are with them. They argue that high support payments encourage ex-wives to sit around eating bonbons (and sometimes they're right about that). They argue that support payments shouldn't be some kind of blank cheque, and that the already female-friendly courts shouldn't be encouraged to ratchet up the bucks every time a noncustodial spouse starts to do a little better in life. Or, in short: it's TOO MUCH.

The government tried to put an end to all this squabbling when it passed a law that set out a mandatory payment schedule for child support. No more arguments. Read the tables, and pay up. This case was about how the tables pertain to rich people, whose income is off the charts. What the Supreme Court said was: The tables apply to the rich, too. From each according to his means. A bad premise for capitalism, but a good one for children.

Unfortunately, even Parliament can't repeal human nature. So long as there are ex-spouses with kids, there will be warfare, with the kids as pawns, hostages, victims and booty all at once. That's the way adults are sometimes. As for Mr. Baker, I wouldn't count him out yet. He's no quitter. The girls are only 14 and 15. He's got years and years and years yet to appeal for variations. He's got a limitless pot of money to fight with.

And what will his girls, Lauren and Lesley, make of all this when they grow up? What will they think of the fact that their father spent a million dollars to fight their mother? Will they be grateful for the private schools, the gifts, the trips? Or will they curse his wealth? I wonder.

E-mail: mwente@globeandmail.ca

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