Brady Williams: Polygamous Marriage and Spousal Support

TMZ reported this week that Brady Williams, a recent reality TV star, has filed for bankruptcy. Brady is the head of the Utahan polygamous family featured on TLC's reality show 'My Five Wives'.

As the apt series name suggests, the man has five wives - Paulie, Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie, and Rhonda - and twenty-four children between them. Brady is legally married to his first wife of twenty years, Paulie. He has been religiously married to each of the others for at least fourteen years. They were all raised and married in a fundamentalist Mormon community, but have since left the withdrawn from their Church. The large family shares two houses that have been divided into five separate living spaces for each wife and her children.

In recent years, reality television following the lives of polygamous lifestyles has captured public attention. While polygamous marriages are prohibited in the United States and Canada, there are still those who engage in these relationships because of their religious beliefs or lifestyle choices.

While there is no reason to think that any of Brady's wives are planning to leave him, it would be an interesting exercise to consider whether their polygamous marriage could preclude them from making a claim for spousal support in Ontario.

Since Paulie is the only one legally married to Brady, the status of her marriage is not an issue. She can make a claim under the Divorce Act or Family Law Act depending on whether she wanted to divorce or simply separate.

Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie and Rhonda, however, cannot claim under the Divorce Act. Their religious marriages to Brady are precluded from being legally recognized under the Criminal Code and Civil Marriage Act because of his legal marriage to Paulie.

They may be able to claim support under the Family Law Act. To do so, each woman would have to establish that they are a 'spouse' of Brady. If they succeed, and can demonstrate the necessary entitlement to support, Brady could be obligated to provide for them to the extent he is capable of in accordance with FLA s. 30.

According to FLA s. 1(1), a spouse is either of two persons who are married to each other. The FLA includes a clause for spouses of polygamous marriages in s. 1(2) where a person can be considered a married spouse under s. 1(1) if the polygamous marriage was 'celebrated in a jurisdiction whose system of law recognized it as valid.' Unfortunately for the Williamses, Utah does not legally recognize plural marriage and their marriages were entirely religious, not civil.

While the four women cannot claim to be spouses through marriage, they could be Brady's common-law spouses within the FLA's definition of cohabiting spouses. Section 29 defines cohabiting spouses as either of two persons who are not married to each other and have cohabited continuously for at least three years, or have a child together in a relationship of some permanence. Since this definition of spouse does not require that the cohabiting relationship must be to the exclusion of others, it can apply to polygamous spouses who meet either requirement.

As each woman has at least one child with Brady and have been 'married' to him for 14 to 18 years, they all meet the definition of cohabiting spouse under s. 29. Even if there were no children, they been living with Brady a period of time that is well over the minimum three year period.

Thus, Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie, and Rhonda could all claim spousal support from Brady as common law spouses. Whether they are entitled to support is another matter, but the fact of their polygamous marriage will not be the factor that defeats entitlement.

The deliberately generic wording of FLA s. 29 is intended to uphold the values of equality and non-discriminatory treatment enshrined in section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It ensures that dependent spouses in polygamous marriages will receive the same benefits and rights as Canadian common law couples in relation to custody, access, child and spousal support.

For those who are curious, the five women would not be able to claim spousal support from each other using s. 29. While some may live under the same roof, each lives a separate life from the other women in their designated part of the two houses. Thus, while Brady has multiple spouses, the women only have one.

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