Toronto Sun

May 12, 2001

Club dread

Want to earn an ever-increasing amount for life? Get a divorce

By HEATHER BIRD -- Toronto Sun

Oh, to be a member of the lucky ovary club. It's open to women in their mid-40s who have been married between 15 and 20 years. They do not work, perhaps have never worked, and may or may not have children. The one main thing they have in common is that they've recently said sayonara to a well-heeled husband.

Membership, as the saying goes, has its privileges and this club is no different. The prime benefits are a steady paycheque and long-term security.

Should you be one lucky enough to land a spot in this exclusive sorority, "your income stream is there for life," observes family law attorney Laurie Pawlitza. And don't worry about old age, the money will be available long after your former spouse retires and, in most cases, even after he dies.

And if that's not enough, take heart, they've sweetened the pot. Thanks to a couple of recent court rulings, your fortunes will continue to rise along with those of your already successful ex. If he makes more money, then honey, so do you.

The message from the court, according to Pawlitza, is crystal clear. "It's husbands beware."

She was commenting in the wake of a Superior Court ruling by Mr. Justice Victor Paisley who said that even though the divorce between Daniel Anthony Marinangeli and Jennifer Elaine had been final for four years, she was still entitled to an extra piece of his pie. Further, he automatically has to tell her whenever his salary increases to the point that it could be considered "a material change in circumstances." And not just for now, but for all time, which gives new meaning to the phrase " 'til death do us part."

Up until now, Marinangeli was paying his ex $8,000 a month, of which $2,000 was tax-free because it was child support for the couple's daughter who is still in high school.

Paisley upped that amount to just over $16,000 a month, $10,500 for spousal support and almost $6,000 for child support.

To save you the math, that means, after taxes, Jennifer Elaine will be receiving around $150,000 a year.

In some ways, Marinangeli is the author of his own misfortune because he dragged his heels on disclosing his income for child support purposes.

While it's obvious that he has to support his child (and he does), it is less easy to understand why he has to pay his 50-year-old unemployed ex-wife $10,500 per month in perpetuity.

There is no doubt that many women are economically disadvantaged when they stay home for many years and then cannot support themselves after divorce. In this case, Jennifer Elaine was 22 when they married in 1973 and she worked as a secretary to put him through university until 1983. After that, by mutual agreement, she stayed at home to care for their daughter until they separated in 1992, when she was then 41 years old.

In court, her lawyer argued that she had been "robbed of her dignity" because she no longer had the "lifestyle that she enjoyed" during the marriage. Jennifer Elaine felt "it was not fair for (Marinangeli) to make me financially have a life that makes me so unhappy."

At the same time, however, she acknowledged that she hasn't done anything to improve her circumstances or to become more independent. Her response was that "her life" was raising her daughter.

There is a real problem with that logic. You can make a case for a woman in her late 50s or early 60s who finds herself deserted with no means of support. But, according to the evidence, this woman was 41 years old when she separated and, by then, her child was either in school full-time or extremely close to being there.

That meant she had 24 years left before the ordinary retirement age to carve out some sort of career for herself.

"You've got one child only and you're 41 years of age. Unless you've got some medical reason, surely you've got some obligation to make some efforts to become self-sufficient," says Pawlitza.

The Divorce Act actually talks about "promoting the economic self-sufficiency" of former spouses, yet Paisley makes no mention of it in his judgment.

Surely, at some point, we must all be responsible for ourselves. No doubt, she was entitled to some support and the payments could have continued for many years. (By now, she could have earned a PhD.) It seems patently unfair to order a former spouse to help an able-bodied person who shows no intention of helping themselves.

In this case, love doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry. It also means never saying goodbye.

Read Heather Bird Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Her e-mail address is: hbird@sunpub.com

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.