National Post

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Saturday, October 23, 1999

An ex-wife's 'breathless' financial revenge
Big spending in Edmonton
Paul Waldie
National Post

After 27 years of marriage, Marilyn Westworth was devastated when her husband, David, announced he was leaving her for another woman. The two had been together since they were teenagers. They had three children and at one point owned three Edmonton companies together. Now Mr. Westworth was leaving her for a woman 14 years younger, who worked for one of their companies.

Ms. Westworth hit back. According to court documents, she liquidated $192,000 worth of their joint registered retirement savings, traded in a family car, drove one family business into the ground and spent $240,000 on home renovations, all in order to win substantial support payments. She even changed a $5,400 cheque Mr. Westworth gave her to read $55,400, court documents show.

Her financial imprudence was "breathless," one judge said in a decision released this week by the Alberta Court of Appeal. Ms. Westworth, 52, "took all these actions to deplete the assets, punish her husband, and put herself in an impecunious position so that she could claim spousal support," the ruling said.

The judges said many of the facts in the case were unique and one lawyer involved said it was among the more novel divorce cases to make it to the province's appeal court level.

Ms. Westworth denies deliberately destroying the family finances and says she has been so financially destroyed by the ordeal that she is selling the house.

"I just have my home with a whole bunch of liens against it," she said yesterday. "This is my life, and I have to put it behind me. I can't do anything more."

Mr. Westworth, 52, declined to discuss details of the case. "I don't know, you have to take a long view in these things I think," he said yesterday from his office at an environmental company he owns. "It was pretty bad, yeah. I think a lot of divorces don't turn out like this."

It all began more than 30 years ago when Mr. and Ms. Westworth met in Edmonton. He was a student at the University of Alberta, and she was working at the university. They were both 19 years old. They married four years later and had three children who are now 24, 14 and 10.

In 1976, they started an environmental consulting company called D.A. Westworth and Associates Ltd. Mr. Westworth worked as the main consultant, while Mrs. Westworth worked on the firm's accounting records. In 1988, Mr. Westworth invested in a coffee company called Bukoba Fine Coffees and Teas. Ms. Westworth ran the company's daily operations, which at one point had four stores and generated $500,000 a year in gross income, court records show. They also ran another venture called The Papermill, which collapsed a few years ago.

The family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. They earned at least $100,000 a year from their ventures and bought a $70,000 cottage.

But everything changed in the summer of 1994. Mr. Westworth's father died and Ms. Westworth says he never recovered. "He went through a mid-life crisis of 'what's happening in my life, I'm not happy,'" she said.

Four months later, he told Ms. Westworth he was leaving.

"He didn't even say why," Ms. Westworth recalled. "I said 'Are you involved with somebody?' and that's when he admitted it."

Mr. Westworth began living with Sharilyn Johnston, a biologist who worked in the environmental company.

"She was our employee, our employee," Ms. Westworth said. "He didn't come back."

The two separated immediately and hired lawyers to arrange a divorce and division of assets. But the fact that Mr. Westworth had left for another woman made "it impossible for us to communicate or settle anything on our own."

As the divorce discussions wore on, court records show Ms. Westworth made a series of what a judge called "improvident decisions." First, she traded in a car the couple owned for a leased vehicle, but then lost the car when the lease expired, costing the family $8,000.

Then she cashed in $192,000 worth of RRSPs, without telling Mr. Westworth, to renovate the family home and add a second floor. The cost of the renovations eventually soared to $240,000. When Mr. Westworth sent her a $5,400 cheque to cover his Visa bill, she changed the amount to $55,400 and used it to pay off her own Visa bill. "By this action, she stripped [Mr. Westworth's new] small company of its operating cash, requiring him to form a new company with one of his employees," the court ruled.

Ms. Westworth also stopped keeping records for Bukoba, which court records show was profitable, and withheld $19,000 in taxes the company owed to Revenue Canada. She also stopped paying amounts due on a line of credit and ran the company with her Visa card.

The court ruled that all of the actions were designed to hurt Mr. Westworth and force him to pay her substantial support.

"She shut down the business the day after her application for interim spousal support was denied, as the trial judge said, presumably because the court found her to be self-supporting," the appeal court said.

Ms. Westworth rejects that assessment. The home repairs were necessary she said. "I needed to expand our house ...It gave our family the lift we needed, especially myself. The home really needed stuff done to it. But by doing the renovation, it also added more space that was needed for running the business out of here."

She also said Bukoba was not profitable and was doing poorly because of intense competition. "It just was not a profitable company. We never did live off that."

In 1997, a divorce judge awarded Ms. Westworth custody of the two young children, the assets of Bukoba and the family home, which the court valued at $241,000 despite the renovations. She is also responsible for about $78,000 worth of bills still outstanding for the home repairs. Mr. Westworth was given the cottage, the environmental company and $201,787 worth of RRSPs. He was also ordered to pay $54,000 to Ms. Westworth, to equalize the division of assets. And, he was told to pay $1,150 in monthly child support. No spousal support was ordered because the court said Ms. Westworth "had failed to look for a job and was unwilling to admit that she would seek employment."

Ms. Westworth was also ordered to "not raise the subject of the father or his conduct [with] Sharilyn Johnston or of Sharilyn Johnston in the home nor discuss with him the effect of the separation on her or the family at any time in the future."

Ms. Westworth appealed the ruling, but this week the Court of Appeal upheld most of the decision. It awarded her an extra $8,000 to equalize the division of assets.

Ms. Westworth said she hasn't decided what to do next. She said the appeal decision was disappointing but vowed to press on with her life.

"Basically, my life has been in limbo for five years," she said. "I'm just trying to tie up a few loose ends before going on. I'm tired of fighting."

Copyright Southam Inc.