Reasonable Doubt: Breaking up may be expensive to do

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      “I’ve grown accustomed to a certain standard of living!”

      These must be the most dreaded words of divorcee’s everywhere. One of the most controversial topics in family law is spousal support. It also tends to be the least straightforward and most confusing concept for most people to grasp. Why must someone keep supporting their former spouse after they’re divorced or broken up? Doesn’t a divorce mean anything? Why can’t I just be free of that awful person once and for all?

      More importantly, what circumstances qualify a person to receive spousal support? How do we figure out how much they get to be paid and for how long?

      Spousal support is supposed to equalize the playing field on the breakdown of a marriage. In a marriage, it’s common to agree to a division of labour; it's not only common, it's often economically advantageous to do so. In order for one spouse to have the high stress, demanding job outside of the home and the beautiful family at home, it truly makes it easier to have this job, when someone else is taking care of the children and taking care of most other tasks that are necessary for everyday life.

      Even though now it’s more common that both partners in a marriage will work, spousal support still plays a critical role for partners with children. Having children takes a lot of time and effort. For the first five years, they’re not in school and when they get sick, the daycares won’t take them. This means figuring out who can stay home with your kid or finding an alternate caregiver. Then when they are in school, their schedule does not match up with a regular workday (let alone a job where a person works extended hours or does shift work). Worst of all, kids under 16 or 17 are not able to drive themselves to and from their various activities. Even if you believe in dolphin parenting over helicopter parenting, kids still need a lot of love, care, and attention.

      So even when both partners work and pitch in with the care of children, one parent tends to take the career hit in order to be there for their children. This is where spousal support comes in when a marriage is at an end. Moving forward after a marriage, it would not be fair if the person that was in the supporting role and cared for the children (and sometimes continues to care for the children) was then expected to live on their much smaller salary, and be deprived of the benefit of the much larger salary of their spouse (especially when they helped that spouse attain qualifications necessary to earn that higher salary).

      At law, spousal support will be ordered only if you’re found to be entitled to it. There are three grounds of entitlement: compensatory, non-compensatory, and contractual. Compensatory spousal support is for scenarios exactly like we’ve been talking about; where one spouse supported the other in their career, had their career put on hold because of children etc., or where one spouse was encouraged to stay home and not work for whatever reason. In wealthier families, simply the standard of living that the stay at home socialite comes to expect is a reason for spousal support.

      Non-compensatory grounds for spousal support is when your spouse has a need for support. This often occurs in situations where one spouse is sick and cannot support themselves. This is a funny ground; this is the government saying that when you entered into a relationship with this person, you agreed that you would support them. Now that your relationship is over, your obligation to support this person continues. It has always seemed to me that it’s a social safety net the government needs to have in place to help them keep the costs of disability down and also ensure that there is not a large number of suddenly indigent people due to divorce.

      Contractual spousal support is exactly as it sounds, when the people entering the relationship have made a marriage contract that stipulates spousal support will be paid on the breakdown of the relationship.

      Once a spouse qualifies for spousal support by meeting the entitlement test, the next question is how much money do they get and for how long? This is where the calculations become fuzzier. The factors that a court will look at are incomes of the parties, budgets of the parties, length of the relationship, whether or not there are children and one spouse is paying child support (if they are, quantum of spousal support decreases), how the rest of your property was divided and the reasons why spousal support is required.

      The first step to determining a potential quantum for spousal support is to determine the range for the length of time you will have to pay and the amount you may have to pay. The easiest way to get this range is to plug your information into a calculator that can run the various calculations according to the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines (SSAGs). The SSAGs are well-accepted guidelines for determining quantums for spousal support by the courts, but they can go outside of the range if they feel it is appropriate. A free online calculator for determining spousal support is “My Support Calculator” (Google it). The calculator will spit out a range of quantums: i.e. $265/month to $601/month for 2-8 years.

      Exactly where you will fall within these ranges will depend a bit more on the reasons you need spousal support, the nature of your relationship during the marriage, and the disposable income of the parties.

      For younger people and short marriages, spousal support is not very often indefinitely payable. It often comes with an end date, a time by which the spouse should have figured out how to get on their feet after the marriage. Similarly, it often comes with the provision that it ends when the person is in a new marriage-like relationship. For longer relationships and later in life divorces, spousal support is very often an indefinite obligation, which doesn’t necessarily mean permanent, just no fixed end date.

      So, whether you like it or not, breaking up is hard to do and you may have to pay for it too. 

      Laurel Dietz practices family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporation in Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at You can send your questions for the column to its writers at A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.


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      Unfair to men

      Aug 16, 2014 at 10:26am

      Can you tell me why my divorced boyfriend's ex-wife continues to get a chunk of his pension every month even though she remarried years ago and currently enjoys her current husband's full pension and her own full pension? She and her current husband are living high off the hog with a THREE-PENSION income, while my divorced boyfriend has just a percentage of the pension HE worked decades to earn for his retirement. Why should he continue to supplement her lifestyle. She is fine financially and he is struggling himself. That's bullshit and sexist.


      Aug 16, 2014 at 7:29pm

      "Non-compensatory" support is clearly a vestige of another era, one that should have been struck from the law decades ago. I've yet to see a juatification for it where the writer didn't seem embarrassed to be given the task.


      Aug 16, 2014 at 7:33pm

      ...and the same applies for the "accustomed to a certain standard of living" cases. What complete entitlement bullsh!t. It's insulting to the dignity of both sexes.

      (But I do accept as valid compensatory w/r to harm to a career path from time off for childcare)


      Aug 17, 2014 at 7:55am

      If you have kids and get divorced then you're both terrible parents. Given how many kids become totally fucked up from a divorce, I view it as a form of child abuse. I know in some cases a divorce is necessary when one of the partners is abusive, but most divorces are due to the selfishness of one or both parents.

      Spousal support just increases the severity of the crime and the only ones who should get support are the kids. Better yet, if you have kids then make that commitment to provide a stable environment and put your own selfish needs out of your mind.


      Aug 17, 2014 at 1:39pm

      Nonsense. Kids don't get fucked up by divorce. Shitty parenting whether divorced or together fucks kids up.


      Aug 17, 2014 at 2:17pm

      Young men or any man should not get married, it is a lose lose proposition and 50% of marriages end in divorce and are started by females 90% of the time.


      Aug 17, 2014 at 5:03pm


      There's no denying that the research says that divorce is solidly a risk factor for kids. Remarriage even more so. It also seems to say that while parent's happiness impacts kids, their having a happy romantic life does not.

      I take the lesson to be that our culture puts a narcissistic over focus on romantic ideals, whereas in the past and in other places they had a more realistic view that romantic love was often associated with tradgedy.


      Aug 17, 2014 at 10:13pm


      It's a myth that 50% of marriages end in divorce; that was only true for the baby boomers in the 80's. It's about 40% now, but that number still includes second and third marriages, which have a much higher failure rate (divorce isn't a learning process, it's a sorting process).

      Second, women initiate about 70% of divorces, not 90%. At least one study says it tends to be lower in regions with more equitable child custody laws.

      Thirdly, averages are just that. For first marriages over 30, where the woman has a degree, the divorce rate is around 20%.


      Aug 18, 2014 at 8:55am

      Is there no correlation to those divorces being a result of knuckleheads that shouldn't have got married in the first place and certainly shouldn't be having kids? Ie.bad parenting material.

      I recognize that divorce is a traumatic event for a kid, but I don't believe staying in a bad relationship is necessarily better for them. It comes down to the quality of parenting in either case IMHO.


      Aug 18, 2014 at 11:15am


      "Approximately one half of the behavioral, academic, and achievement problems of school-age boys were clearly detectable in the 4 years before the parents actually separated..."

      ...and the other half appeared to be a result of the divorce or parental conflict that occurred after separation. So, you're only half right - only half the problems were pre-existing ones that a divorce is just another symptom of.

      Then there's this:

      "An unexpected finding from the study of divorcing families involved low-conflict marriages that ended in divorce. Children of these marriages had more adjustment problems than their counterparts whose parents did not divorce or those in high-conflict marriages that did divorce..."

      The authors suggest this is due to the divorce being a shock to kids, but I doubt it.

      It seems like in the highest-conflict marriages, the kids are better off without the conflict, but have already been harmed by it, or by the parents just being difficult people to start with. But in low-conflict marriages, the kids are harmed by the divorce itself. Most separations now are "low conflict", so this bears thinking about.

      There are dozens, if not hundreds of studies that are in this vein. Divorce itself is bad for kids, and if you do get divorced, remarriage roughly doubles the affects on children again (for example, accidental deaths and abuse rates are lowest with single parents and both biological parents, and much higher with unrelated adults in the home. Second marriages also much less stable).

      Parent's behavior matters a lot, but even without apparent conflict there's a negative impact. When parents choose to divorce, they are making compromise between their happiness and their children's. If you just can't go on, sure, your happiness matters too, and then a good parent will do their best to minimize the impact. But claiming that the kid's are better off if their romantic lives are better is just a modern bullsh!t excuse people make, except in the highest-conflict cases. The general picture is that children don't give a sh!t if their parents have fulfilled romantic lives, in or out of marriage. It's just a source of potential turmoil. What matters to them is stable daily relationships with their parents, and minimal adult conflict and drama.