"Bad Roles" for The Godfather's Legendary Sonny Corleone

Actor James Caan feels he is being forced to take on undesirable roles in order to support the spending of his former spouse, Linda Stokes. Caan and Stokes were married from 1995 to 2009 and they have 2 children (ages 17 and 20) for whom Caan pays child support in the amount of approximately $13,000.00 per month. Caan also pays spousal support to maintain the standard of living the couple enjoyed during their marriage.

The 75-year-old actor has building his career over 50 years, starring in films such as Rollerball (1975), Dick Tracy (1990), For The Boys (1991), Honeymoon In Vegas (1992), Elf (2003), and The Outsider (2014). Now, instead of slowing down and thinking about retirement, Caan has had to continue taking any work that comes his way just to keep up with the bills. Caan has even had to accept roles he believes could damage his reputation simply because Stokes is spending all of Caan's savings. Although Caan is 75 years old and has recently had some minor difficulty with his health, Stokes's pattern of overspending has made clear the fact that she has no plans of allowing him to retire.

Caan is now taking a stand and he has stated that he will not continue to work in movies or shows that may tarnish his reputation. In doing so, he will be voluntarily decreasing his income and thus potentially opening the door for argument that his support obligations should change to reflect his lower income. The legal issue that Caan's decision will undoubtedly raise is the question of whether he is free to make such a change in income or if his support obligations require him to maintain his previous level of income.

Many support payors and recipients in Ontario, Canada, have raised a similar question in the context of voluntary retirement. As income is very important in determining the quantum of child support and spousal support, the amount of support that a support payor must pay may decrease if his or her income is lower. In order to prevent support payors from dodging their support obligations by opting to earn less, Ontario family law requires that support payors not be intentionally underemployed or unemployed.

When a party has chosen to reduce his or her income without a compelling reason for doing same, Ontario courts have held that said party's income may be imputed for the purposes of calculating support obligations. This generally means that if work is available and the party is physically able to work without risk to his or her health, he or she must continue working. This creates a dilemma for support payors like Caan, who have reached retirement age but are still able to work. Although older support payors may wish to transition into retirement or semi-retirement, they may be financially unable to do so unless they can reduce their support obligations as they cannot afford to continue paying the same amount of support once their income is reduced.

Trends in Ontario jurisprudence suggest that the difficulty in obtaining a reduction in support based on retirement increases with the number of years of marriage and decreases over time and as the payor ages. This is because a support payor seeking to reduce support will have to establish that his or her reduced income is a "material change in circumstances" that can warrant a reduction in support. Further, where retirement is deemed voluntary, courts have held same is not a material change that could warrant a reduction in support.

Ontario courts have held retirement to be voluntary and not a material change warranting reduced support obligations in the following circumstances:

  • When the retiree was not obligated to retire and was physically able to earn a
    significant income;
  • When the retiree failed to provide adequate medical or vocational evidence to
    establish inability to work or inability of the employer to provide accommodations
    for health concerns;
  • When a spouse retired or planned to retire for “lifestyle reasons” or due to stress in the workplace; and
  • When a spouse failed to pursue post-retirement income though able to do so.

In the case of Caan, a court may be sympathetic to the fact that he is 75 years old and there may be fewer blockbuster hits readily available to him, however, the desirability of available work is not a consideration. This may justify taking roles that pay less than the old hits he used to star in, however, a court may not be inclined to reduce support on the basis that income is lower due to a choice to refuse work the payor does not want to do. A court may, however, consider potential health implications of continuing to take on the same volume of work.

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