Family Law Agreements
A family law agreementAn agreement between two or more persons about family law issues that have arisen or made arise, dealing with their respective rights and obligations to one another, which the parties expect will be binding on them and be enforceable in court. Typical family law agreements include marriage agreements, cohabitation agreements and separation agreements. — like a cohabitation agreementAn agreement signed by people who are or have begun to live together in a marriage-like relationship that is intended to govern their rights and obligations in the event of the breakdown of their relationship and, sometimes, their rights and obligations during their relationship. See "family law agreement.", a marriage agreementAn agreement signed by people who are planning on marrying or have married that is intended to govern their rights and obligations in the event of the breakdown of their marriage and, sometimes, their rights and obligations during their marriage. See "family law agreement." or a separation agreementA contract intended to resolve all or some of the issues outstanding following the breakdown of a relationship and intended to guide the parties in their dealings with one another thereafter. A typical separation agreement is signed following a settlement reached through negotiations and deals with issues including guardianship, parenting arrangements, contact, support, the division of property and the division of debt. See "family law agreements." — is a contractAn agreement between two or more people that gives them mutual obligations towards each other that can be enforced in court. A valid contract must be offered by one person and accepted by the other, and some form of payment or other thing of value must generally be exchanged between the parties to the contract., just like the contract you might have with an employer or a landlord: each partyIn law, a person named as an applicant, claimant, respondent or third party in a court proceeding; someone asserting a claim in a court proceeding or against whom a claim has been brought. See "action" and "litigant." promises to do something in exchange for something the other party promises to do, and both parties expect that they'll be held responsible for fulfilling their promises. In family law, contracts like these are used to settle the issues that come up when a relationship ends, although cohabitation agreements and marriage agreements are sometimes also used to settle how a relationship will be managed.
This chapter begins with an overview of family law agreements, and discusses the role they play during relationships and when relationships end. It also reviews the typical elements of a family law agreement and discuss some of the things you might wish to keep in mind when negotiating and drafting an agreement yourself.
The other sections of this chapter look at cohabitation agreements, marriage agreements and separation agreements in more detail, and provide additional information about enforcing an agreement and changing an agreement.
People who sign a family law agreement when they marry or plan to marry are entering into a marriage agreement, also called a pre-nuptial agreement. People who sign an agreement when they start living together or plan on living together are entering into a cohabitation agreement, also called a living-together agreement.
The usual point of agreements like these is to say what will happen if the relationship breaks down, although they can also talk about how things will be handled during the relationship. The weird thing about marriage agreements and cohabitation agreements is that although they mostly talk about what will happen when a relationship ends, that may not happen for five years or 20 years, or it may never happen at all. As a result, it can be difficult to make plans based on what the family's circumstances might be like at some unknown point in the future when the relationship ends.
Married spouses, unmarried spouses and other unmarried couples who enter into an agreement after their relationship has broken down are entering into a separation agreement. A separation agreement is a contract that describes how some or all of the legal issues arising from the end of the relationship have been resolved.
All of these different kinds of agreement are legal contracts that describe the parties' rights and obligations towards one another. They can deal with everything from who gets to keep the Kenny G boxed CD set, to where the children will live, to how the parties will deal with their mutual friends, to who gets to keep the Ford Pinto. While these agreements are usually all-inclusive, they don't have to be; some issues can be left aside for the courts to deal with. A couple might sign a propertySomething which can be owned. See "chattels" and "real property." agreement dealing with just property issues, or a parenting agreement dealing with just the care of the children when their relationship has ended.
Despite the intentions of the couple when they signed an agreement, the terms of their agreement may still wind up being reviewed by the court, and possibly changed, if one of the parties later has a problem with the agreement. While the court will pay a great deal of respect to any written agreement, if an agreement was unfairly negotiated, is unfair or becomes unfair the court will generally be willing to look into things and perhaps set aside the agreement and make an orderA mandatory direction of the court, binding and enforceable upon the parties to a court proceeding. An "interim order" is a temporary order made following the hearing of an interim application. A "final order" is a permanent order, made following the trial of the court proceeding or the parties' settlement, following which the only recourse open to a dissatisfied party is to appeal. See "appeal," "consent order," "decision" and "declaration." on different terms.
The Family Law Act encourages people to make agreements resolving their disputes rather than going to court. Section 6 of the actIntentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations." says this:
(1) Subject to this Act, 2 or more persons may make an agreement
(a) to resolve a family law dispute, or
(i) a matter that may be the subject of a family law dispute in the future,
(ii) the means of resolving a family law dispute or a matter that may be the subject of a family law dispute in the future, including the type of family dispute resolutionA phrase referring to a family of processes used for resolving legal disputes including negotiation, collaborative settlement processes, mediation, arbitration and litigation. to be used, or
(iii) the implementation of an agreement or order.
(2) A single agreement may be made respecting one or more matters.
(3) Subject to this Act, an agreement respecting a family law dispute is bindingIn law, a requirement or obligation to honour and abide by something, such as a contract or order of the court. A judge's order is "binding" in the sense that it must be obeyed or a certain punishment will be imposed. Also refers to the principle that a higher court's decision on a point of law must be adopted by a lower court. See "contempt of court" and "precedent." on the parties.
Under s. 214 of the act, the court may:
- set aside part of an agreement, without changing the rest of the agreement,
- incorporate all or part of an agreement into an order, or,
- make an order replacing all or part of an agreement.
The test the court must apply in deciding whether to set aside an agreement changes depending on the subject matter of the particular part of the agreement at issue. Some tests, like the test to make a child supportMoney paid by one parent or guardian to another parent or guardian as a contribution to the cost of a child's living expenses. order in place of an agreement on child support, are really easy; others, like the test to set aside an agreement on property division, are really hard. If you're asking the court to set aside an agreement, you must read the parts of the Family Law Act that deal with setting aside agreements.
The role of family law agreements
The fundamental purpose of all family law agreements is to settle an issue that has come up, or one that could come up, and might be the subject of a legal dispute.
It is almost always better to settle a dispute yourself rather than have the courts resolve your problem for you. It is usually cheaper to settle a dispute rather than take it to court, and negotiated settlements usually give you the best possible chance of maintaining a halfway decent relationship with each other in the future. Family law agreements also give you an incredibly flexible way of resolving your dispute. Your agreement can be tailored to suit your particular circumstances and needs, and can be far more creative in resolving a problem than a court order ever could be.
Marriage and cohabitation agreements
Marriage agreements and cohabitation agreements usually talk about what will happen if the parties' relationship breaks down, although they can sometimes talk about how things will be handled during the relationship. These sorts of agreements are normally made well before the parties marry or begin to live together, but can be made at any time during the parties' relationship.
It is important to know that you do not have to enter into a marriage or cohabitation agreement just because your partner wants you to, or just because you're about to marry or start living with someone. While your partner may want you to sign an agreement, you are under no legal obligationA duty, whether contractual, moral or legal in origin, to do or not do something. See "duty." to do so. With or without a family law agreement, remedies are almost always available under the common lawThe legal principle under which courts are bound to follow the principles established by previous courts in similar cases dealing with similar facts. The system of justice used in non-criminal cases in all provinces and territories except Quebec., the Divorce Act, or the Family Law Act if problems crop up later on.
Marriage agreements and cohabitation agreements aren't always appropriate. Most people who enter into these agreements have been married before (once bitten, twice shy!), are coming into the relationship with children, are coming into the relationship with significant assets or significant debts, or expect to receive significant assets during the relationship. A young couple who have no significant assets and no children don't necessarily have any particular need to sign a marriage agreement or a cohabitation agreement.
During the relationship
The sorts of terms people want to apply during their relationships are most often financial. That being said, family law agreements are incredibly flexible and can require the parties to do anything imaginable, from caring for the children during the work week, to having a certain number of holidays each year, to always wearing purple shirts on Thursdays, to sharing the household chores. Typically, however, people want to address issues like these:
- How will a joint bank account be managed? Will the parties contribute a fixed monthly amount to the joint accountA bank account owned by more than one person, normally with an equal entitlement to deposit or withdraw, with or without the consent of the other account holders.?
- How will common household expenses be shared? Will specific bills be paid by a specific party or will they be shared proportionately to the parties' incomes?
- How will unexpected expenses be paid for? Will both parties pay for household repairs?
- How will savings, RESPs, RRSPs and retirement funds be managed? Will each party be required to contribute a fixed monthly amount?
- How will each party's income during the relationship be handled? What will happen if someone gets an unexpected windfall, like a lottery win or an inheritanceReal property or personal property received as a result of the provisions of a will or the ''Estate Administration Act''. Inheritances do not usually qualify as family property subject to division between spouses. See "family property," "real property" and "will."?
Some agreements do not deal with these issues, and some paint only a vague picture of the parties' respective financial responsibilities. Other agreements are mind-bogglingly detailed and cover even the tiniest details. In my view, unless someone is spectacularly anal retentive, the less said in a marriage agreement or cohabitation agreement about how a relationship will be managed, the better. You wouldn't want every aspect of your relationship governed by a legal contract ― that's exactly the sort of thing that encourages relationship breakdown.
After the relationship
The most common reason why people enter into a marriage agreement or a cohabitation agreement is to specify how property will be dealt with if the relationship comes to an end, although agreements like these can also deal with the payment or waiver of spousal supportMoney paid by one spouse to another spouse either as a contribution toward the spouse's living expenses or to compensate the spouse for the economic consequences of decisions made by the spouses during their relationship.. Typically, however, these sorts of agreements just try to preserve a party's interest in an asset after the relationship has ended.
Agreements about the care of children or the payment of child support are only binding if they are made after separation or when the parties are about to separate.
Separation agreements are entered into after a relationship has broken down. There is no need for the parties to have moved out or gotten a divorceThe legal termination of a valid marriage by an order of a judge; the ending of a marital relationship and the conjugal obligations of each spouse to the other. See "conjugal rights," "marriage," and "marriage, validity of." when the agreement is made; in fact, when a couple is married it's usually best to deal with the separation agreement before you apply for a divorce, just in case you can't reach an agreement.
Separation agreements are always the product of negotiations between the parties and, hopefully, their lawyers. The goal of a separation agreement is to deal with all or some of the issues related to the separation in a way that both parties are as happy with as possible. Separation agreements usually deal with the following issues:
- How will the children be cared for? How will important parenting decisions about the children be made?
- If the children will be living mostly with one parentIn family law, the natural or adoptive father or mother of a child; may also include stepparents, depending on the circumstances and the applicable legislation; may include the donors of eggs or sperm and surrogate mothers, depending on the circumstances and the terms of any assisted reproduction agreement. See "adoptive parent," "natural parent" and "stepparent.", how much time with the children will the other parent have?
- How much child support be paid, and which of the children's expenses will be shared between the parents?
- Should a party receive spousal support? If so, how much support should be paid and for how long?
- How will the family propertyA term under the ''Family Law Act'' referring to property acquired by either or both spouses during their relationship and after separation, if bought with family property. Both spouses are presumed to be equally entitled to share in family property. See "excluded property." be divided? Should the parties' excluded propertyA term under the ''Family Law Act'' referring to property acquired by a spouse prior to the commencement of the spouses' relationship and certain property acquired by a spouse during the relationship, including gifts, inheritances, court awards and insurance proceedings. A spouse is presumed to be entitled to keep his or her excluded property without having to share it with the other spouse. See "family property," "gift," and "inheritance." be divided?
- How will the family debtA term under the ''Family Law Act'' referring to debt owed by either or both spouses that accumulated during the spouses' relationship and after separation, if used to maintain family property. Both spouses are presumed to be equally liable for family debt. be divided?
Separation agreements can cover everything that is a problem for a couple, even things that the court would not ordinarily deal with or be able to deal with.
Separation agreements are binding from the moment they are signed by both parties, unless the agreement says something different. They operate from the time they are made and, where children, child support, or spousal support are issues, they often continue to operate indefinitely into the future. Theoretically, a separation agreement will be binding on the parties until they die. In practice, however, most people stop relying on the agreement once the children have grown up, left home and become independent, even though their agreement continues to be legally binding on them.
The elements of a family law agreement
The point of a family law agreement is to make a legal contract that both parties intend to be bound by and that the court can and will enforce if a party doesn't live up to his or her obligations. In order to be legally binding and enforceable, agreements must be negotiated, drafted and signed in a certain way and include certain terms.
Negotiating the terms of an agreement
Family law agreements are about really important things like where the children will live, who will pay support to whom and how the parties will divide their property. As a result, the terms of the agreement are almost always the result of lots of talking and negotiating. It is critical that:
- each person has all of the information that is necessary, to figure out what's a good deal and what's a bad deal,
- each person understands his or her legal rights and obligations, to know what's a good deal and what's a bad deal,
- each person is able to express his or her views and contribute to negotiating the agreement, and
- there is no pressure to reach an agreement on either party, beyond the importance of reaching a reasonable agreement and saving money on legal fees and court costs.
Properly negotiating and entering into a family law agreement isn't simply a matter of putting the important parts on paper and signing the document. There must be fairness in the way an agreement is negotiated, fairness in the way it is drafted, and fairness in the way it is signed. The people who are negotiating the agreement must be able to understand the agreement, be capable of agreeing to it, and agree to it voluntarily. This is what s. 93(3) of the Family Law Act says about agreements for the division of property and debtA sum of money or an obligation owed by one person to another. A "debtor" is a person responsible for paying a debt; a "creditor" is the person to whom the debt is owed.:
(3) On application by a spouseUnder the ''Divorce Act'', either of two people who are married to one another, whether of the same or opposite genders. Under the ''Family Law Act'', married spouses, unmarried parties who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, and, for all purposes of the act other than the division of property or debt, unmarried parties who have lived together for less than two years but have had a child together. See "marriage" and "marriage-like relationship.", the Supreme Court may set aside or replace with an order made under this Part all or part of an agreement ... only if satisfied that one or more of the following circumstances existed when the parties entered into the agreement:
(a) a spouse failed to disclose significant property or debts, or other information relevant to the negotiationIn family law, the process by which an agreement is formed between the parties to a legal dispute, usually consisting of mutual compromise from the parties' original positions to the extent tolerable by each party. See "alternative dispute resolution" and "family law agreements." of the agreement;
(b) a spouse took improper advantage of the other spouse's vulnerability, including the other spouse's ignorance, need or distress;
(c) a spouse did not understand the nature or consequences of the agreement;
(d) other circumstances that would, under the common law, cause all or part of a contract to be voidable.
This is fairly straightforward:
- you have to make full disclosureA step in a court proceeding in which each party advises the other of the documents in his or her possession which relate to the issues in the court proceeding and produces copies of any requested documents before trial. This process is regulated by the rules of court, which put each party under an ongoing obligation to continue to advise the other of new documents coming into their possession or control. The purpose of this step is to encourage the settlement of court proceedings and to prevent a party from springing new evidence on the other party at trial. of your income, your expenses, your assets and your debts, and any other information that is important to the agreement,
- you can't exploit the other party's weaknesses to get a good deal for yourself,
- you have to make sure that the other party understands exactly what the agreement means and how it will affect his or her life, both now and in the future, and,
- you can't force or pressure someone to sign the agreement, you can't cheat someone into signing the agreement, and the agreement must be reasonable.
Although s. 93 is about property, s. 164(3) says the same thing about agreements for spousal support, and I think that this is a pretty reasonable standard to set for all other family law agreements. If you don't want the court to throw out your agreement, you've got to take the time to do it right, and you've got to be fair and not take advantage of the other party.
The legal formalities common to all family law agreements are these:
- The parties to the agreement must provide full financial disclosure to each other and must be completely honest in describing their circumstances.
- The agreement must be in writing. (While oral agreements have been upheld by the courts, it can be very difficult to establish the terms of the agreement, and oral agreements cannot be enforced until a court has determined what the terms of the agreement are.)
- The parties can't be under any sort of legal disabilityIn law, a legal incapacity to do certain things, like enter into a contract or start a court proceeding. Legal disabilities include insanity and being under the age of majority. See "age of majority." such as insanity.
- The parties must both sign the agreement of their own free will, without unfair pressure by the other party.
- The agreement must be properly executed, which means being signed by the parties in the presence of at least one witnessA person with person knowledge of things; a person giving oral evidence in court on oath or affirmation as to the truth of the evidence given. See "affirm," "evidence," "oath" and "opinion evidence.".
As a general rule, each person who enters into a family law agreement should get independent legal advice, advice from his or her own lawyerA person licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. See "barrister and solicitor.", before the agreement is signed about:
- what the agreement means,
- what rights and obligations the agreement gives to each party,
- how the agreement does or doesn't limit the other legal remedies that might be available,
- how the agreement may affect each person over the short- and long-term, and,
- the options and remedies that would have been available if everyone had decided to go to court instead of settling things with an agreement.
Independent legal advice is important for two reasons: it ensures that the parties to the agreement know exactly what their rights and obligations are; and, it makes the agreement stronger by preventing a party from claiming later on that he or she didn't fully understand what the agreement meant or how it would impact him or her. If you really want to make sure that your agreement will stand the test of time, you've got to make sure that you and the other party have both seen a lawyer about the agreement!
Drafting an agreement
Lawyers often write family law agreements in a standard format using standard terms, tailored, of course, to the specific needs and circumstances of the parties. Just because family law agreements are often written using standard terms and standard language doesn't mean that an agreement using different wording will be set aside because it expresses things in a different way. As long as it is clear what the intentions of the parties are and as long as the agreement is fair and continues to be fair, the courts will usually uphold the agreement.
A British Columbia company called Self-Counsel Press publishes a variety of do-it-yourself agreement kits along with instructions for completing and executing them, or you might try LawDepot.com, an American company which says that it has family law agreement kits suitable for British Columbia.
There are still other resources available for free that might help, and your library might have a copy of the Self-Counsel Press materials available for loan. Guides to drafting family law agreements are also available at a branch of Courthouse Libraries BC; one of the very best is the Family Law Agreements Manual published by the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia.
What follows are examples of the typical elements of a family agreement, using the example of John Doe and Jane Doe, a married couple who are entering into a separation agreement. These examples are not complete and are provided only to illustrate a point; they should not be used to draftA preliminary version of a document; an order prepared following judgment submitted to the court for its approval; to prepare, or ''draw,'' a legal document. your own agreement!
The introduction to an agreement, also known as the exordium (isn't that a great word?), is the portion of an agreement that identifies the parties to the agreement, provides a titleIn law, a document demonstrating ownership of a thing. See "ownership." for the agreement, and sets out the date on which the agreement is made. This section typically looks like this:
THIS SEPARATION AGREEMENT is made on this the 1st day of March, 2013.
of 123 King Street, Anytown, British Columbia
of 456 Queen Street, Anytown, British Columbia
The recitals describe the parties' circumstances when the agreement is made in a summary sort of way. They include the basic facts of their relationship, give the names and birth dates of any children, describe the property and debts that the agreement deals with, and describe the parties' incomes, among other things.
The recitals are the foundation on which the agreement is built. They should be sufficient to tell a complete stranger why the parties entered not just into any agreement but this particular agreement. It is important that the recitals be as complete as possible because if anyone tries to challenge the agreement in the future, the recitals will set out the facts that were important to the parties at the time the agreement was made.
In the case of a separation agreement, the recitals often look something like this:
A. Jane and John were married on August 1st, 1996 at Anytown, British Columbia.
B. There are two children of the marriageA legal relationship between two persons, whether of the same or opposite genders, that is solemnized by a marriage commissioner or licenced religious official and gives rise to certain mutual rights, benefits and obligations. See also "conjugal rights," "consortium" and "marriage, validity of.":
i) Buckminster Elliot Doe, born on March 5th, 1998, and
ii) Randall Eustace Doe, born on April 11th, 2000
(together, "the Children").
C. Jane is presently employed part-time as a mason by ABC Construction Ltd. and has an annual income of approximately $34,000.
D. John is presently employed full-time as a chef by DEF Resorts Inc. and has an annual income of approximately $45,000.
E. Jane and John have lived separately and apart since December 25th, 2012 (the "Date of Separation"), when Jane left the family homeIn family law, the dwelling occupied by a family as their primary residence. See "family property" and "real property.".
F. Since the Date of Separation, the Children have remained living with John in the family home, and Jane has had parenting timeA term under the ''Family Law Act'' which describes the time a guardian has with a child and during which is responsible for the day to day care of the child. See "guardian." with the Children every other weekend from Friday after school until Sunday at 7:00pm.
The rest of the recitals will continue in the same way. Other recitals might describe the make, model and value of each party's car, the address and value of the family home, the credits cards owned by the parties and the amounts owing on them, and so on. Essentially, every fact that is relevant to the agreement should be put into the recitals to the agreement.
By the way, the parts where you see a capitalized word in brackets, like (the "Date of Separation"), are called defined terms. These are very helpful because you can use a defined term to refer to the same thing throughout an agreement. Instead of saying the house owned by Jane and John at 123 Main Street in Anytown, British Columbia every time you need to talk about that property, you could say the house owned by Jane and John at 123 Main Street in Anytown, British Columbia (the "Family Home") once, and whenever you need to mention the property after that you can just say the Family Home.
The operative clauses
The operative clauses of an agreement are the nuts and bolts of the settlementA resolution of one or more matters at issue in a court proceeding or legal dispute with the agreement of the parties to the proceeding or dispute, usually recorded in a written agreement or in an order that all parties agree the court should make. A court proceeding can be settled at any time before the trial. See "action," "consent order," "family law agreements" and "offer.". They are the essential terms of the agreement and describe what each party's rights and obligations are. In the case of a separation agreement, the operative clauses might look like this:
IN CONSIDERATION OF THE MUTUAL PROMISES CONTAINED IN THIS AGREEMENT, THE PARTIES AGREE THAT:
1. Jane and John will live separate from each other.
2. Neither party will molest, annoy or harass the other or his or her friends, relatives and associates.
3. Except as is specifically provided in this Agreement, Jane and John will each keep all property presently in their possessionIn law, the right to have the control and use of a thing. One can have a right to the possession of a thing without owning it, as in the case of a car lease, or ownership without possession, as in the case of a landlord who rents an apartment suite. See "ownership." and control as their own, free and clear of any and all claimThe assertion of a legal right to an order or to a thing; the remedy or relief sought by a party to a court proceeding. by the other.
4. Jane and John are the guardians of the Children, and John will have the Children's primary residenceThe geographic place where a person permanently lives. This is different from a person's "domicile" in that a person's residence is more fixed and less changeable in nature. A person's residence can also have an impact on a court's authority to hear and decide a legal action. See "domicile" and "jurisdiction.".
5. Jane and John will exercise all parental responsibilitiesA term under the ''Family Law Act'' which describes the various responsibilities exercised by guardians in the care, upbringing and management of the children in their care, including determining the child's education, diet, religious instruction or lack thereof, medical care, linguistic and cultural instruction, and so forth. See "guardian." with respect to the Children in consultation with each other. Jane and John will make every effort to agree on decisions that need to be made concerning the Children, and will make their decisions in the best interests of the Children. However, in the event that Jane and John cannot agree on a particular decisionIn law, a judge's conclusions after hearing argument and considering the evidence presented at a trial or an application; a judgment; the judge's reasons. A judge's written or oral decision will include the judge's conclusions about the relief or remedies claimed as well as his or her findings of fact and conclusions of law. A written decision is called the judge’s "reasons for judgment." See "common law," "conclusions of law," and "findings of fact.", John will have the right to make that decision.
6. Jane will have parenting time with the Children every Wednesday night, from the end of school or 4:00pm until 8:00pm, and on every other weekend from the end of school or 4:00pm on Friday until the following Sunday at 8:00pm.
7. Jane will have additional parenting time with the Children for one-half of the Children's winter school holiday, the whole of the Children's spring school holiday, and for two two-week periods during the Children's summer school holiday.
8. Jane will pay child support to John in the amount of $525 on the first day of each and every month, continuing for so long as the Children remain "children" as defined by the Family Law Act.
The rest of the operative clauses will continue in the same way. Other paragraphs might deal with specific property such as a car or the family home, the payment of debts, and the sharing of the children's expenses. The operative claims might also say who will pay what bills, whether and for how long spousal support will be paid, who will pay for the divorce if the couple are married, which laws will govern the interpretation of the agreement, and so on.
The last part of a family law agreement is where each of the parties will sign their names in the presence of a witness. The parties can sign the agreement at the same time or separately, at different times and in different locations. Either way, each party's signature must be witnessed, and the witness, after seeing the party sign the agreement, must sign his or her name to the agreement. The witness usually provides some other information, typically his or her full name, address, and occupation. The page with the parties' signatures should include at least one operative paragraph of the agreement.
SIGNED by Jane )
on March 20, 2013, )
at Anytown, BC, )
in the presence of: )
___________________ ) ___________________
Signature ) JANE DOE
This would be repeated for John's signature and that of John's witness.
The witnesses to the parties' signatures do not become parties to the agreement and the agreement cannot be enforced against them. The signature of the witness simply says that he or she saw the particular party sign the agreement, in case someone ever denies signing the agreement.
It is also a good idea for each of the parties and the witnesses to initial each page of the agreement, other than the page with the parties' signatures.
For a quick summary of how to executeIn contract law, to complete or accomplish; to complete the legal formalities necessary to give a document effect. One "executes" a separation agreement, for example, by signing it in the presence of a witness. a family law agreement, see the How Do I? part of this resource for How Do I Execute a Family Law Agreement? Look under Family Law Agreements.
For many couples, negotiations begin and end over a cup of coffee at the local Tim Hortons. This is fine, providing that everyone is relatively friendly and the parties are approaching their negotiations from a relatively level footing. The court will respect the agreements that negotiations like these produce, on the basis that people are free to make their own bargains and to contract to whatever they like.
The views of the court
Problems can arise when negotiations aren't completely fair. In a 2003 case from the Supreme Court of CanadaThe highest level of court in Canada. This court hears appeals from the decisions of the Federal Court of Appeal and the provincial courts of appeal, including the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. There is no court to appeal to beyond this court. See "Court of Appeal" and "Supreme Court.", Miglin v. Miglin,  1 SCR 303, the court held that family law agreements should not be considered under exactly the same standards that are applied to ordinary commercial contracts because family law agreements are usually negotiated at "a time of intense personal and emotional turmoil, in which one of both of the parties may be particularly vulnerable." Some of these vulnerabilities were described in a 2000 case from Ontario, Leopold v. Leopold, 2000 CanLII 22708 (ON SC):
"One party may have power and dominance financially, or may possess power through influence over children ... often both contracting parties are vulnerable emotionally, with their judgmentA judge's conclusions after hearing argument and considering the evidence presented at a trial or an application; a decision, the judge's reasons. A judge's written or oral decision will include the judge's conclusions about the relief or remedies claimed as well as his or her findings of fact and conclusions of law. A written decision is called the judge’s "reasons for judgment." See "common law," "conclusions of law," "findings of fact," and "final judgment." and ability to plan diminished, without the other spouse preying upon or influencing the other. The complex marital relationship is full of potential power imbalance."
In a 2009 caseIn law, a court proceeding; a lawsuit; an action; a cause of action; a claim. Also the historic decisions of the court. See "action," "case law, " "court proceeding," and "precedent.", Rick v. Brandsema, 1 SCR 295 the Supreme Court of Canada added another factor to this list, incomplete or misleading financial disclosure.
Potential unfairness, then, can come from:
- exploiting a party's emotional or psychological vulnerability,
- influence over a party through dominance and oppression,
- control over the family finances,
- influence over the children's allegiances, or
- access to or control over the release of financial information.
Where unfairness is found, the court will be more likely to set aside an agreement or to make an order on terms different than those set out in an agreement. As a result, people negotiating family law agreements must take special care to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field and are negotiating from positions of relative equality. Here are some things that can help:
- Independent legal advice: Make sure everyone has legal advice about the meaning and consequences of the agreement from their own lawyers. Have the lawyers who provided the independent legal advice witness the parties' signatures on the agreement, and sign certificates of independent legal advice.
- Respect vulnerabilities: Stop negotiations when someone is too upset to continue or appears to be compromised in any way. If there is any doubt that a party is not in his or her right mind, down tools and come back to the table later. Consider the need for counselling or therapy before continuing.
- Make full disclosure: Always make full disclosure of all financial facts, whether disclosure has been requested or not. Have documentation available of current income, past income, bank and investment account balances, outstanding debts, property values, values of shares and options, art and jewelry appraisals, and so on.
- Never lie: Intentionally misleading someone about the value of something, the amount of a debt, past income and future income expectations, or any other relevant fact will always undermine the strength of an agreement. Be scrupulously honest and transparent at all times.
- Know the law: The Divorce Act and the Family Law Act say when and why spousal support and child support should be paid. The Divorce Act talks about how much time children should have with their parents. For married spouses and unmarried spouses, the Family Law Act talks about how property and debt should be divided. Know how the law treats these different subjects and ensure the agreement roughly reflects the law.
The tests under the Family Law Act
Unfairness is a key element of the tests under the Family Law Act to set aside the parts of agreements about the division of property and debt and about spousal support, as we saw under s. 93(3), reproduced above.
Under s. 44(4) of the act, the court can set aside the parts of agreements about parenting arrangementsA term under the ''Family Law Act'' which describes the arrangements for parental responsibilities and parenting time among guardians, made in an order or agreement. "Parenting arrangements" does not include contact. See "contact," "guardian," "parental responsibilities" and "parenting time." if the parenting arrangements are not in the best interests of the childA person who is younger than the legal age of majority, 19 in British Columbia. See "age of majority.":
On application by a party, the court must set aside or replace with an order made under this Division all or part of an agreement respecting parenting arrangements if satisfied that the agreement is not in the best interests of the child.
The same test is used to set aside the parts of agreements about contactA term under the ''Family Law Act'' that describes the visitation rights of a person who is not a guardian with a child. Contact may be provided by court order or by the agreement among the child's guardians who have parental responsibility for determining contact. See "guardian" and "parental responsibilities.". Under s. 148(3), the court can set aside the parts of agreements about child support if it would make a different order:
On application by a party, the court may set aside or replace with an order made under this Division all or part of an agreement respecting child support if the court would make a different order on consideration of the matters set out in section 150.
Section 150 is the part of the Family Law Act dealing with how child support is calculated.
First of all, it is always best to have a lawyer prepare any sort of contract, including family law agreements. While the Self-Counsel Press forms will likely be considered to be legally binding, a family law lawyer will be best able to advise you of the duties and obligations involved in the contract, the rights you will be giving up by entering into the contract, and other unexpected but critical issues the agreement might involve, such as:
- income tax consequences,
- the transferIn law, the act of an owner of a thing giving ownership of that thing to another person, in exchange for money or other property in the case of a sale or in exchange for other rights in the case of a family law agreement. See "family law agreements," "ownership" and "sale." of property,
- dividing property located outside of British Columbia, or,
- liabilities to third parties and creditors.
If you can't or don't want to hire a lawyer, here are a few things you will want to keep in mind.
Don't use "legalese"
Some people are tempted to use words that sound particularly legal, like using the word "issue" to refer to children. Avoid this at all costs, and try to use plain language to express the content of your agreement. Words like "issue" can have a particular legal meaning ― in this case first-generation, directly-descended heirsIn wills and estates law, the people intended or expected to receive property or other benefits under a will; a person's direct lineal descendants. See "executor" and "will." ― that are often at odds with what people think the term means. As a result, if you use legalese there is a risk that your contract won't wind up meaning quite what you think it means.
Be as clear as possible
Ask yourself these questions:
- What would a complete stranger think of your agreement?
- Would the stranger be able to understand what you mean?
- Are any parts of the agreement vague or capable of more than one meaning?
- Do you understand what the agreement means?
If a term of your agreement has more than one possible interpretation, it may lead to future conflict between yourself and the other party. If there are two cars, make sure each car is identified separately and distinctly, using defined terms like "Jerry's Ford Pinto" and "Mary's Pontiac Sunfire," and always refer to those cars in that way, and never just as "the car." If a term might mean more than one thing, change it to be more precise and more specific!
Also, remember that while you and your partner may know exactly what "the old spoons" might mean, a court may not, especially if there are a lot of different sets of spoons involved. It's best to be specific, like "the Teaspoons of the World silver spoon collection Jerry inherited from his grandmother Mabel."
Avoid agreeing to agree
An agreement that requires a further, future agreement — "the household furniture will be divided as Mary and Jerry will agree" — is open to further, future conflict. Whenever possible, try to limit an agreement to all that can be agreed upon at the moment and try to agree on as much as possible.
Remember the loose ends
It is always best to tie up any loose ends. This may require some thought as it isn't always obvious what else needs to be included. If a house has to be sold, for example, who will list it and hire the realtor? Who will live in it until the saleAn agreement to transfer the ownership of property from one person to another in exchange for the reciprocal transfer of something else, usually money. See "agreement."? How will the list price be chosen? Under what conditions will the list price be reduced? Are there any repairs or improvements that need to be made, and if so who will do them and how will they be paid for? How will the sale proceeds be dealt with? What debts will be paid from the sale proceeds? These things should all be specified, where at all possible.
You've got to live with the agreement; make sure it is something you can live with, not just now but in three or five years. Make sure that the obligations you must fulfill under the agreement are obligations that you can reasonably fulfill. Promising to pay off a credit card within a year, for example, isn't always the easiest thing to do and it isn't always practical.
Sometimes people who have separated are desperate to have done with it, to have a deal signed and finished. If you feel rushed into an agreement, step back and take two (or twenty-two) deep breaths. The world will not end if you take a moment or a week to think about something. It is critical that whatever you wind up agreeing to is something that you will still be okay with next month, next year, and in 10 more years. It can be very difficult to change an agreement in the future, especially one about division of property or debts, if only one of the parties wants the agreement to be changed. Be patient and take your time.
Use sample clauses with caution
Before copying a term from someone else's agreement into your own agreement, make sure you fully understand what that term means. A clause that suits one couple in one situation may be entirely inappropriate for another couple. It is all too easy to adopt a term that sounds good or appropriate, without fully considering what that term means. Be cautious, be prudent, be careful.
- Legal Services Society's Family Law Website: Fact sheet on making an agreement after separation
- Legal Services Society's Family Law Website: Who can help you reach an agreement?
- Legal Services Society's ‘’Living Together or Living Apart’’, chapter 2, Making Agreements
- Canadian Bar Association BC Branch: Script on marriage agreements and cohabitation agreements
- West Coast LEAF: Booklet on Separation agreements and right to fairness
|The above was last reviewed for legal accuracy by Barbara Nelson and Beatrice McCutcheon, September 17, 2013.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|