National Post

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Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Experts predict 'groundbreaking' decision on alimony

Janice Tibbetts
Southam News

The Supreme Court will lay the ground rules on alimony for the second time this decade with a ruling tomorrow on what financial support, if any, a healthy spouse owes a sick one after a short-term marriage falls apart.

The battle of Bracklow v. Bracklow, a divorced British Columbia couple, is viewed as a crucial case dealing with the obligations of shorter marriages, and whether a vow to support each other "in sickness and health" means forever.

It's one of several cases in recent months in which the court has been asked to set benchmarks on marital obligations.

The court will rule whether Marie Bracklow, who suffers from physical and emotional problems and cannot work, is entitled to indefinite financial support from her former husband of six years, Frank Bracklow.

"Whatever they decide is going to be groundbreaking," predicted Toronto family lawyer John Syrtash. "If they decide against the wife, judges will be more leery of awarding support for short-term marriages. But if they award long-term indefinite support, that's going to be revolutionary."

In 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a landmark judgment that was applauded by women's groups.

In the unanimous decision, the top court set the tone for indefinite spousal support in the breakdown of long-term marriages by ordering Andrzej Moge to continue paying his former wife $150 a month indefinitely, even though the couple had split 19 years earlier.

Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dube wrote that divorced women shouldn't be forced into a life of poverty by inadequate support payments that end when a judge decides the wife has had enough time to become financially independent.

Since the Moge decision courts across the country have handed down conflicting rulings on whether short-term unions should mean long-term obligations.

The Bracklow battle is one of many in the last year testing the limits of family law.

Expected within weeks is another significant ruling dealing with what financial support, if any, one lesbian partner owes the woman she lived with for a decade.

The court also has made two strong declarations in recent months involving alimony and child support that signal that former spouses cannot walk away from financial obligations, whether they're to ex-wives or step-children, even in short-term marriages.

The court will hear later this spring a challenge from Thomas Baker, a wealthy Toronto man, who is challenging the federal government's new child support guidelines.

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