Case law: “Marriage-like” relationships, spousal support and the division of assets

Kneller v Greenwood 2015 BCSC 1410, a British Columbia case, explores what elements must be present for a relationship to be considered “marriage-like” for the purposes of division of family assets and spousal support.

While there are differences between the legislation in B.C. and Ontario, the case is useful to us because of the clear decision written by Justice Weatherill in reaching his conclusion that the couple had been in a marriage-like relationship.

Ms Kneller and Mr. Greenwood had an intimate relationship between July 2003 and November 2012. At the end of the relationship, Ms Kneeler (the claimant) sought spousal support and a division of family assets. Mr. Greenwood (the respondent) took the position that Ms Kneller had been his girlfriend, they had never lived together and did not have a committed relationship.

Justice Weatherill heard a number of witnesses presented by each side.

Ms Kneller testified herself and described her relationship with Mr. Greenwood as married in every way but name. She said that she gave up her own accommodation to live with him in a trailer owned by Mr. Greenwood’s grandfather and later in another trailer Mr. Greenwood bought. She brought her possessions and dogs with her when she moved in. She lived in the trailer even when Mr. Greenwood was working away from home in the oil sands. She took on traditional wife-like responsibilities: gardening, growing and preserving food, preparing meals, doing laundry for both of them, buying groceries using Mr. Greenwood’s debit card and doing other general chores such as housecleaning and keeping the woodstove, the sole source of heat, going during the winter. The two shared a bed and had a sexual relationship.

According to Ms Kneller, the couple split up briefly in 2007, during which time she moved out and stayed with her mother, but when they reconciled she returned to the home she shared with Mr. Greenwood.

She told the court that Mr. Greenwood put her on his workplace benefit plan and named her as beneficiary on his mutual fund account. He supported her financially, as she did not have an income.

They socialized as a couple, spent time with family as a couple, gave and received gifts as a couple, attended weddings and funerals of people in each other’s family. When Ms Kneller became unintentionally pregnant, they made the decision together to terminate the pregnancy.

Ms Kneller also testified that Mr. Greenwood was physically abusive towards her. He insisted on maintaining separate bank accounts, on filing income tax returns as single people and did not let her use their home address as her mailing address.

The witnesses called by Ms Kneller – a neighbour, a woman Ms Kneller carpooled with for a period of time and social acquaintances, as well as Ms Kneller’s younger brother who lived with them for a time and her mother supported her description of the relationship.

Not surprisingly, the respondent told a different story. He characterized his relationship with Ms Kneller as boyfriend-girlfriend and said she lived in Cranbrook and stayed over with him “from time to time.” He denied that she had prepared meals on a regular basis and said she never cleaned or gardened. He did admit that he had put her on his workplace benefits package.

He also denied absolutely any physical abuse.

Mr. Greenwood called some witnesses to support his version of events – his sister and two neighbours.

Justice Wheatherill found Ms Kneller and her witnesses to be credible:

The claimant was one of the most genuine, down-to-earth, credible and engaging witnesses I have ever encountered. Her mother was grounded, insightful and charming and, even though she is the claimant’s mother, gave her evidence in an objective and helpful manner.

I have no hesitation in accepting, in its entirety, the evidence of each of the witnesses called as part of the claimant’s case.

I cannot say the same for the witnesses called by the respondent.

He said the evidence provided by these witnesses was “disingenuous and obviously rehearsed.”

Of Mr. Greenwood, the judge said:

The respondent’s evidence, in particular, was disingenuous and lacking in credibility. It consisted almost entirely of vague, unsubstantiated and unsupported assertions . . . The respondent’s blanket denial that he and the claimant ever lived together was devoid of any element of truth. . . . To put it bluntly, it would be an understatement to say that the respondent was a poor witness. I do not believe or accept anything he had to say that contradicted the evidence of the claimant . . .In my view the respondent would be well served by a recalibration of his moral compass.

Justice Weatherill found that the couple were spouses as defined in the British Columbia Family Law Act and listed the factors that led him to that determination. First, he noted that no single factor on its own determines whether two people are spouses. He also pointed out that the belief by one party that they are not spouses is not determinative.

On his list were the following factors, all of which would be relevant to a case under Ontario’s Family Law Act:

1. Shelter:

  • Did the parties live under the same roof?
  • What were the sleeping arrangements?
  • Did anyone else share the accommodation?

2. Sexual and personal behaviour:

  • Did the parties have a sexual relationship? If not, why not?
  • Did they maintain an attitude of fidelity towards each other?
  • What were their feelings towards one another?
  • Did they communicate on a personal level?
  • Did they eat their meals together?
  • What, if anything, did they do to assist each other with problems or during illness?
  • Did they buy gifts for one another on special occasions?

3. Services:

  • What was the conduct and habit of the parties in relation to:
  • Preparation of meals
  • Washing and mending clothes
  • Shopping
  • Household maintenance
  • Other domestic services

4. Social:

  • Did they participate together or separately in neighbourhood and community activities?
  • What was the relationship and conduct of each of them toward members of their respective families and how did such families behave towards the parties?

5. Societal:

  • What was the attitude and conduct of the community toward each of them and as a couple?

6. Support (economic):

  • What were the financial arrangements between the parties with respect to the provision of or contribution to food, clothing, shelter, recreation etc.?
  • What were the arrangements about purchasing and owning property?
  • Was there any special financial arrangement between them that they both agreed would be determinative of their overall relationship?

Justice Weatherill then finds that the evidence:

Is overwhelming that the relationship between the claimant and the respondent during the period between July 2003 and November 2012 was that of spouses sharing their lives. They lived, ate, slept and had sexual relationship together while maintaining an attitude of fidelity to each other. No one else shared the accommodation. The vast majority of their personal possessions were commingled in the same residence. The claimant provided domestic services to the household, performing most of the day-to-day household chores while the respondent worked. She did the cooking and cleaning, housework and gardening. They carried on socially and with family as a married couple. They gave and received Christmas gifts as a couple. The respondent designated the claimant as a beneficiary of his mutual fund investments, as well as of the medical and dental benefits provided by his employer.

He also noted that Ms Kneller gave up her financial independence by moving in with the respondent, which was a mutual decision. In his words: “There was both dependency and permanency in the relationship.”

As a result of this finding, Mr. Greenwood had to pay Ms Kneller $117,500 for her share of the equity in the family property, retroactive spousal support in the amount of $23,902 and ongoing spousal support until July 31, 2022 at a rate of $510 per month. Justice Weatherill also awarded costs to Ms Kneller.

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