Ottawa Citizen
Sunday April 9, 2000

Second wives 'ignored' by courts

People who remarry get short shrift, group complains

Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen

Roseanne Fowlie loves her husband and calls him a terrific guy but if she knew then what she knows now, she would not have married him.

"I've told him that," says the 50-year-old Toronto woman.

Darlene Ceci-Laws echoes a similar sentiment.

"People who have been married should never be allowed to marry people who have never been married," says the 40-year-old Brights Grove, Ont., with a laugh. "They should put that in the law."

Ms. Fowlie, Ms. Ceci-Laws and many other Canadian women are part of what is known as The Second Wives Club -- victimized, they say, by a family court system that refuses to consider the needs of a divorced person's second family.

Their stories are strikingly similar but boil down to financial hardship, sometimes bankruptcy, because changeable, excessive family court orders in favour of first wives leave their husband's broke -- often psychologically as well as financially. Courts, they say, rarely take into account the financial circumstances of the former spouse receiving the support.

Nor are they particularly concerned when access orders are ignored by the custodial parent.

There 430,000 step-families in Canada but no specific studies about second wives.

University of Toronto sociologist Jack Wayne, a specialist in family relationships, says second wives represent a significant voice in Canada but family courts are lagging behind the times.

"A sea change of sentiment is happening in this country," he says. "Courts treat the first marriage as the main marriage and any subsequent relationships as secondary.

"Obviously, people value their children from a second marriage as much as they value those from the first. For the first marriage to be in total emotional and financial command is an anachronism."

The Second Wives Club has become increasingly vocal, rallying around the death of 34-year-old Darrin White, a Prince George father of four who committed suicide after apparently becoming distraught over alimony and support payments that exceeded his monthly income.

Second wives complain that family courts allow first wives to manipulate the system in a manner that makes it impossible for a man's second family to become financially or emotionally stable.

In some cases, first wives have had amicable financial and access agreements with their former spouses but return to court for more money when the former husband starts another relationship.

Second wives often find themselves totally supporting their husband and children because most of the man's salary is committed to his first wife and children.

Changes to the Divorce Act three years ago have added to the burden, they say. Support-paying spouses -- mostly men -- can no longer claim support as a tax deduction.

Courts are also ordering support payments be made to adult children to further their education without seeking proof that all the money is getting to the child, or whether the child is even going to college or university.

Unlike parents still married, a support-paying spouse is allowed little, if any, say in their college-age child's education.

"Courts allow themselves to be manipulated and used as weapons to squeeze more money out of people," says Ms. Ceci-Laws.

"And they give absolutely no consideration to the needs of second families. The education fund for our children (seven and nine years old) has gone in lawyers' fees. Something needs to be done."

Ms. Ceci-Laws said when she and her husband nearly lost their modest home, they seriously considered strategic divorce as an option.

"Divorce is the only way to get children of a second marriage recognized by the law," she said.

Sharon Smith, 51, of St. John's, Nfld, said a combination of circumstances related to her husband's court-imposed obligations to his first family have left them and their four-year-old daughter relying on food banks and the generosity of relatives.

"Judges and lawyers are making people poor who shouldn't be poor," she said, "and it just isn't right. We don't know whether we're coming or going."

Marina Forbister, a 38-year-old second wife living in Calgary, is co-founder of a group in the city called Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society which has 1,800 members across the province.

There are "some good judges and some bad judges," she says. "Unfortunately, the bad ones outnumber the good ones. I have friends in the same situation and they would agree that the courts are incredibly biased towards mothers. If the mother wants to abuse that, they are allowed to do so. There is no way that is in the best interests of the children."

Forbister, who has a son from a previous marriage, says she and her former husband have an amicable arrangement they worked out between themselves outside the court system.

"We have absolutely no problem," she said. "He pays child support and I know if I went to court I could get three times as much. But I don't feel the need to."

Family court judges are not doing simple math, says Roseanne Fowlie.

"The system is wrong," she said. "It isn't just failing me, it's failing everybody."

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen