Wednesday, April 28, 1999Is $120,000 a year in child support too much for two teens?
Supreme Court asked whether payments should rise with parent's income
OTTAWA - How much is enough? In the opinion of Thomas Baker, who makes close to $1-million a year, enough for his teenage daughters amounts to less than 2% of his income.
Mr. Baker's lawyers argue it is absurd that he should be forced to pay $120,000 in family support, more than most Canadians earn in a year.
The question seemed to discomfort the Supreme Court of Canada judges as they listened to arguments yesterday. They reserved judgment on the dispute, which began 13 years ago when the Toronto businessman left his wife and two young children.
Their decision could overturn sections of the Divorce Act that apply to rich Canadians.
Since 1997, those sections have said divorced parents must pay a percentage of their incomes in family support. In Mr. Baker's case, that's $10,034 a month.
"Even allowing for the luxuries some wealthy families choose to indulge, it is inconceivable and one might say, irresponsible, for parents to spend such large amounts on their children," his lawyers argued.
But so far, lower court judges have agreed that Monica Francis is only getting what she and her daughters are entitled to.
"Some people may think it's a lot of money, but they don't live in the world of Thomas Baker," said her lawyer, Nicole Tellier.
"It's a drop in the bucket to Mr. Baker -- he's got $78-million."
What the Supreme Court must wrestle with is whether child-support payments are a kind of dividend that rises with the fortunes of one parent. "Parliament is presumed not to have intended absurd results," Mr. Baker's lawyers argued.
It is clear Mr. Baker's daughters were not raised in poverty.
Lauren, 15, and Leslie, 13, may not spend much time in their father's $5-million mansion in the Bridle Path district of Toronto. They live with their schoolteacher mother in a rundown section of the city.
But it's no secret the thrice-married businessman pays for their private schooling, clothes, and personal items, in addition to $30,000 a year in family support.
Leslie Baker was only five days old when the dispute began.
Thomas Baker and Monica Francis met in 1976 and lived together until they married in 1979. Ms. Baker, then 23, was a schoolteacher. Mr. Baker, 29, was a promising young lawyer at the firm of Campbell Godfrey Lewtas. They purchased a modest home and had their first daughter in 1983. The pair split up five days after the birth of their second child in July, 1985.
Five months later, Ms. Francis signed a separation agreement, against the advice of her lawyer. It provided her with a car and $30,000 from the sale of their family home.
Mr. Baker also agreed to pay $1,250 a child each month in family support, a sum of $30,000 a year, an after-tax cost to him of about $15,000.
In 1988, Ms. Francis took legal action to have the separation agreement cancelled.
When the case finally arrived before Justice Mary Lou Benotto in 1997, Mr. Baker had become a very wealthy man, with personal assets of more than $78-million. Judge Benotto heard testimony he spent significant sums of money on his daughters, including ski trips to Whistler, B.C., and dining in the best restaurants, during their custodial visits.
Ms. Francis' lawyer argued the vast chasm between the two lifestyles left the children hurt and confused.
Judge Benotto sided with her, awarding a lump sum of $500,000, and raising Mr. Baker's monthly payments to $10,034.
Mr. Baker appealed the ruling, but Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Rosalie Abella upheld the decision. Undaunted, Mr. Baker won leave to appeal to the nation's highest court.
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