Three's Not Always a Charm

Academy Award nominated American actor, Terrence Howard and wife Michelle Ghent, a commercial production employee, are going their separate ways only a year after getting married.

According to tabloids, Ghent filed for divorce citing "irreconcilable differences." She is seeking spousal support and asking for the actor to pay her legal fees. Ghent's paperwork for the divorce proceedings states the couple married on January 20, 2010 and separated on January 27, 2011.

Just six days before Ghent filed for divorce, the couple attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah together.

This marks the third divorce for the actor, but only his second wife. He was previously married twice to Lori McCommas, with whom he has three children.

Ghent's Claim for Spousal Support

In Ontario, spousal support is governed by Section 15 of the Divorce Act (federal legislation) and Sections 30 and 33 of the Family Law Act (provincial legislation). The issue of spousal support post marriage is dealt with in accordance to the Divorce Act, whereas spousal support for couples who cohabited outside of marriage (and meet the legal definition of having cohabited continuously for a period of not less than three years or who have cohabited in a relationship of some permanence and are the natural or adoptive parents of a child) must use the Family Law Act.

In determining the quantum of spousal support, the following factors are often considered by the courts:

  • The current assets and means of both parties,
  • The likely future assets and means of both parties,
  • A dependant’s capacity to contribute to his or her own support,
  • The payor spouses' capacity to provide support,
  • The age and physical and mental health of both parties,
  • The dependant’s needs with respect to accustomed standard of living during cohabitation,
  • The length of time and cost involved, as well as means available to assist dependant in becoming self-supporting,
  • Any contribution by the dependant to the respondent’s career potential during the time of cohabitation,
  • The requirement for either party to stay at home to care for a child and the history of child care responsibilities during the time of cohabitation,
  • The length of cohabitation and the effect on the dependant’s earning capacity because of responsibilities, including housekeeping and other domestic services, assumed during cohabitation. Essentially, the economic hardship suffered by either spouse as a result of the marriage.

Further, the federal Department of Justice has released Spousal Support Guidelines. They include tables laying out expected ranges of support that take into account such factors as:

  • length of the marriage,
  • income levels,
  • work history of each spouse, and
  • number of offspring.

However, it is important to note that unlike the federal guidelines for child support, these guidelines are only recommendations from the federal government and are not legislated. Therefore, the courts are not obliged to follow them in deciding the issue of spousal support.

In this case, in view of the short duration of the party's marriage and assuming that there was not a substantial disparity between their respective incomes it is likely that if support is ordered for Ghent, it will be time limited or in a lump sum and intended only to assist her with the transition back to living separate and apart. The current state of the law suggests that a minor difference between the spouses’ standards of living following the breakdown of a shorter modern marriage should not be considered as sufficient hardship to prompt support entitlement under the Divorce Act. However, a gross disparity in lifestyles would warrant support entitlement. In such a case, support is awarded to ease a dependant’s progress to economic independence and may be of limited duration. A court should try to ensure that the form, duration, and amount of support promote, not discourage, a payee’s self-sufficiency, insofar as realistic in the circumstances. As such, in this case, unless there was significant economic hardship to Ghent as a result of the marriage, her entitlement to support, if any, is likely to be short lived.

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