Aujla v. Singh: Exceptions to the Spousal Support Guidelines
The Spousal Support Guidelines are a non-binding tool used by courts to determine the amount and duration of support, with reference to factors such as the length of the marriage/cohabitation, age, and the income of the respective parties. Aujla v. Singh is a great example of a case where the facts do not lend themselves to a straightforward application of the Guidelines.
The parties were married in India on August 28, 2004, pursuant to an arranged marriage, and separated in June 2009. There were no children of the marriage.
Both parties were in their mid 30s at the time the matter was heard.
The parties did not cohabitate for the full length of their marriage, as the Applicant only arrived in Canada, in May 2006.
The Applicant owned his own incorporated business, in which capacity he earned $34,000.00 in 2008 and then $48,000.00 in 2009 and 2010. He also earned $41,000.00 in 2011 and at the time the matter was heard, expected to earn $20,000.00 for 2012.
The Respondent was gainfully employed until she became disabled in 2006 shortly after the Applicant came to Canada. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which significantly inhibited her mobility. At the time the matter was heard, the Respondent was residing in a nursing home, and was restricted to a wheelchair, and was paying $2,166.58 per month to the nursing home. The Respondent also traveled to India to undergo an experimental medical procedure, and had a corresponding debt of $278.97 per month.
In 2011, the Respondent received $9,161.76 per month in CPP Disability Benefits, and $7,275.74 in long-term disability from Manulife Insurance. Since March 2011, the Respondent was also receiving $600.00 per month in interim spousal support from the Applicant, pursuant to a previous court order.
Sufficient to say, the Respondent had fallen on extremely hard times.
According to the Spousal Support Guidelines, the Applicant was to pay between $156 per month and $208 per month, for a maximum of five years. The Respondent claimed however, that her spousal support entitlement should be $1,000.00 per month for an indefinite period. The Respondent further claimed that anything less than her request, would leave her destitute.
The Applicant, on the other hand, claimed that he could not afford the Respondent's requested amount, and accordingly asserted that he would continue to pay $400.00, for a limited period of time.
The court acknowledged that the purpose of the Guidelines was to provide 'order and predictability' to spousal support calculations. However, the statutory language of the Divorce Act empowers the court with discretion to award a sum, which the court deems to be reasonable.
This reasonable analysis, brings the court to consider factors such as illness and disability, which are relevant considerations in this matter. The court acknowledged that when dealing with a matter where long-term disability is a factor, there are three approaches courts can take, which are exceptions to the standard application of the Guidelines. The three approaches are:
- Lower Amount, Extend Duration: extend duration, even to the 'indefinite' while keeping the amount within the range, at or near the lower end;
- No Exception: fix an amount in the range, often towards the upper end, and use the maximum duration;
- Increase Amount, Extend Duration: increasing the amount and extending duration.
The third approach is the least common approach applied by courts, however it is the very approach the court elected in this matter. The court increased the quantum of support by setting it at $300.00 per month, and extended the duration by making support indefinite.
The only qualifier to the support awarded was that it is subject to change upon a material change in circumstance. This qualifier, however, does not work to the Applicant's advantage in this particular case. The nature of the Respondent's disability is such that she is not likely to regain normal physical function, therefore the likelihood that a material change, being an improvement in the Applicant's condition, such that she becomes self-sufficient is just not likely to happen.
This case provides insight into calculating support where the Spousal Support Guidelines are not easily applicable. It is important for parties to be mindful of the role that disability and illness can play when analysing support obligations and entitlement. As was seen in Aujla, notwithstanding a short marriage and an Applicant's relatively low income, there is still a potential for steep support obligations.
The moral of the story is that the presence of long-term illness and disability can require someone to pay much, much more than they bargained for.