National Post

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Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Six-year legal fight has taken its toll on B.C. couple
Support payment case: Implications of ruling weigh heavily on both parties

Mark Hume
National Post

Frank Bracklow has now spent almost as much time in court trying to cut ties to his ex-wife as he spent married to her.

When the Supreme Court of Canada hands down its much-awaited judgment tomorrow, six years after Marie Bracklow first took him to court, both hope it will finally end the legal debate.

"I'm glad it's coming to an end, one way or another," said Mr. Bracklow yesterday from the small central British Columbia town of Mackenzie, where he works as a heavy duty mechanic for a forest company.

"You've got to get on with your life after a divorce. And I hope now I'll finally be able to do that."

But Mr. Bracklow worries about what will happen if the court rules against him, and directs him to resume support payments which ended three years ago, but which his former wife has argued should continue indefinitely because she is ill.

"Why should I have to pay for somebody till they're 65? This was a short-term marriage," he said. "When a divorce is granted, and it's final, that should be the end of it.

"It would be different if kids were involved. I could see lengthy support payments for that. But when there are no kids, it's going to the extreme to talk about the continuing payments being proposed here."

It's Marie Bracklow's health -- it deteriorated so much in the final years of her marriage that she could no longer work -- that has made her dependency a crucial and complicating issue.

Mr. Bracklow, who has not spoken about the precedent-setting case until now, said when he first went to court, in 1993, he thought it was going to be a simple judgment.

He'd been married to Marie for three years, they had no children, and had been economic equals entering the relationship.

Things didn't work out in the marriage, he said, for reasons he won't discuss.

He denied the divorce was triggered by her fibromyalgia, an ailment that causes her constant muscle ache, some memory loss and dizziness. She was diagnosed with the condition in 1992, the same year the Bracklows separated.

"There was a lot of other things that took place -- that was not the only reason," he said.

At first Mr. Bracklow was ordered to pay $400 a month until 1996. Under appeal, the case has gone to the highest court in Canada, as Ms. Bracklow seeks continued support.

The courts have seen in Bracklow v. Bracklow a bigger issue than a simple debate about support payments. Being weighed are questions about how long the responsibilities entered into in marriage, should last after a relationship has fallen apart.

"Originally, I didn't feel it would go this far," said Mr. Bracklow. "But the implications of this are huge. I'm aware of that now.

"I've had a lot of people -- men and women -- come up to me and say 'You'd better not lose this one. I've got an ex out there who could come after me.'

"If you start thinking about it, it gets a bit scary," Mr. Bracklow said. "If they say marriage means till death do you part -- think of the implications for everyone who's married. Does that mean common-law people will be affected, too?

"Does it apply to medical and dental benefits, too? And, if they are your responsibility till death do you part, what happens when you remarry? What happens to the other spouse and to kids you have later? Most companies only recognize one spouse, so what implications does it have for businesses?"

Mr. Bracklow said he's trying not to think about the implications of the judgment.

"You get anxious going to court. But I just came to realize whatever will be will be. You'd end up going crazy if you worried about it."

Mr. Bracklow said he never thought the case would go to the Supreme Court.

"When do you throw in the towel?" he asked.

"I guess it boiled down to this: Do I pay upwards of $100,000 in alimony over 20 years, or do I turn and fight it?

"It got to a point where I could not turn back. I'd already spent $20,000 on legal fees. So we went on."

Mr. Bracklow said he appreciates the significance the case holds.

"As far as I'm concerned, this isn't my case anymore -- it belongs to Canada," he said.

For Marie Bracklow, however, the case is very much about her, and the way she lives her life.

"Right now, I'm living below the poverty level, so the outcome means a great deal to my life," she said yesterday.

"If seven years ago you told me I'd be living like this, I'd have never believed you, not after working all those years."

Ms. Bracklow lives in a basement suite in Burnaby, B.C., and pays $300 a month in rent. Her total income from disability benefits is about $787 per month. The $400 in monthly support payments she is seeking would "bring a little normality to my life."

Ms. Bracklow was working as an accountant and in good health in 1985, when she met Frank and they fell in love. The two married in 1989, after living together for several years.

They had an active life together, but, by 1991, she had to stop work because of emotional problems. In 1992, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an ailment that affects an estimated 820,000 Canadians and has no known cause, or cure.

"It was after the diagnosis of this that Frank decided there was no marriage. Frank decided he didn't want a sick wife," she said. "The (lower) courts said you don't have to deal with a sick wife, you're free of obligation. But I'm hoping the Supreme Court will disagree."

Mr. Bracklow said she doesn't feel any animosity toward her former husband, and that her court challenge was not an attempt to get even. Rather, she wanted the courts to give her a fair settlement.

"He came to me and said he wanted a legal separation. He gave me a proposal -- but there was no (support) payment. I said 'No, we'll let the courts decide this.' That's how it started," she said. "I didn't realize it was going to be such an important case. All the attention is surprising. Now I hope to win it for me, and the other people who are in the same situation.

"I think there's a responsibility in the marriage vows that does continue," she said.

Ms. Bracklow was married and divorced before she met Frank Bracklow, but said she wanted her marriage to Mr. Bracklow to last forever.

"When I married Frank, it was for the long haul."

She said her illness makes continued support vital.

"A divorce between two healthy people is an entirely different thing than a divorce when only one is healthy," she said.

"I know had it been the other way around, I would have been there for him."

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