Marriage Agreements

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Revision as of 10:32, 23 February 2017 by Beatrice McCutcheon (talk | contribs) (The possible subjects of a marriage agreement)

Marriage agreements are contracts signed by couples either before they marry or shortly afterwards. Most marriage agreements are drafted and signed well ahead of the date of marriage, and that kind of timing is usually a very good idea. Marriage agreements are usually intended to deal with the legal issues if the marriage breaks down, but they can also deal with how day-to-day things will be handled during the marriage.

This section discusses when and why marriage agreements are usually entered into, the legal requirements of a valid marriage agreement, and the possible subjects of a marriage agreement.

Entering into a marriage agreement[edit]

While a couple might enter into a marriage agreement with the intention of addressing things that could happen during the course of their marriage, more typically these agreements are intended to address the issues that will arise if the marriage breaks down. Marriage agreements are binding on the parties as a legal contract. They may be enforced by the courts if someone tries to escape or change an obligation they have agreed to.

Most couples who marry do not have a marriage agreement. There is no legal requirement that you must enter into such an agreement if you're getting married. You cannot be forced into a marriage agreement.

When a marriage agreement is a good idea[edit]

Marriage agreements are usually appropriate when:

  • one or both of the parties have a substantial amount of property going into the marriage,
  • one of the parties expects to acquire substantial property during the marriage, through, for example, a business, an inheritance, a settlement or court award, or a gift,
  • the parties want to avoid some of the stress and anger that can come after separation by deciding in advance how certain difficult issues, like the division of family property and family debt, will be dealt with,
  • one or both of the parties experienced an ugly court battle leaving a previous relationship,
  • one or both of the parties will be bringing children from a previous relationship into the marriage, or
  • one of the parties is entering the marriage with substantial debt.

In most cases, people generally want to protect the property that they're bringing into the marriage and avoid the scheme for dividing property and debt set out in the provincial Family Law Act; many people are looking for an "I'll keep what's mine, you'll keep what's yours" sort of deal, and that — or any other reasonable kind of arrangement — is precisely what you can get with a marriage agreement.

When a marriage agreement might be a bad idea[edit]

A marriage agreement may not be appropriate when:

  • neither party has significant property,
  • neither party has significant debts,
  • both parties are relatively young and intend the marriage to be permanent, and
  • neither party is bringing any children into the marriage from another relationship.

In circumstances like that, there really isn't much point to having a marriage agreement. There aren't any kids to worry about and neither party has any assets to protect going into the marriage. What purpose would a marriage agreement serve?

As well, the Family Law Act also says that an agreement made before the parties have separated cannot deal with:

  1. parental responsibilities and parenting time, or
  2. child support.

Marriage agreements are odd things anyway as they tend to lend a unpleasant and sometimes petty financial dimension to what ought to be a joyous occasion. If there's no good reason to have a marriage agreement, don't have a marriage agreement.

Negotiating a marriage agreement[edit]

If a marriage agreement is appropriate and desirable, the people involved will negotiate the terms of the agreement and one or both of the parties will draft a written agreement. As with all family law agreements, it is important that both parties make complete financial disclosure and get independent legal advice about what exactly the agreement means, how it affects their present rights and responsibilities towards one another, and how it will impact on those rights and responsibilities if the marriage comes to an end. Getting independent legal advice makes the agreement harder to change later on by preventing one spouse from saying "I didn't know what it meant" or "she had the lawyer, not me."

Remember what s. 93(3) of the Family Law Act says about the test to set aside agreements for the division of property and debt (the same principles apply to agreements about spousal support under s. 164(3)):

(3) On application by a spouse, 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 negotiation 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.

Marriage agreements should be signed well in advance of the marriage ceremony. If an agreement is being negotiated on the brink of the wedding, the court may be concerned about the fairness of the circumstances in which the agreement was negotiated and made. The emotional stress involved in arranging and potentially cancelling the wedding might be found to mean that someone was coerced into signing the agreement.

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with signing a marriage agreement after the ceremony, except that the spouse who wants the agreement loses a fair bit of bargaining power once the wedding is done.

Avoid do-it-yourself marriage agreement kits[edit]

Staples, Chapters, London Drugs and other stores generally carry a wide range of DIY legal products, from doing your own will to getting your own divorce.

In my view most of these do-it-yourself kits are fine for most people most of the time. They are not fine for marriage agreements. Marriage agreements can be terribly complicated, more so than separation agreements, and must be drafted with a good knowledge of family law in general and marriage agreements in particular. Using a do-it-yourself marriage agreement kit is really not a good strategy.

If you figure that you absolutely must have a marriage agreement, it's well worth spending $1,500 to $4,000 to have a lawyer draw it up correctly for you, rather than spending $15,000 to $40,000 on lawyer's fees down the road if the agreement is flawed.

Legal and formal requirements of a marriage agreement[edit]

The point of entering into a marriage agreement is so that, at some later time, the contract will be enforceable in court if the parties fail to live up to it. As such, a marriage agreement, just like any other family law agreement, must conform to certain basic rules, including the following:

  • A marriage agreement must be in writing.
  • The agreement must be signed by each party, and should be signed in the presence of a witness. Although an agreement made without a witness can still be valid and binding, it is a very good idea to have a witness (or witnesses) because she (or they) can confirm that the parties signed the agreement. In addition, sections 94 and 165 of the Family Law Act provide that a court cannot make an order about division of property and debt or spousal support that has been dealt with in a written, witnessed agreement between the parties unless the court has set aside the agreement.
  • Neither party should be under a legal disability when they sign the agreement, however children who are parents or spouses may enter into a binding agreement.
  • The agreement must clearly identify the parties and the nature of their rights and obligations to one another.

In addition to these simple formalities of a proper family law agreement, you might want to think about certain other principles of contract law such as these:

  • The parties must each enter into the agreement of their own free will, without any coercion or duress by the other party, or by anyone else for that matter.
  • Both parties must make full and complete disclosure of their circumstances going into the agreement. This disclosure should include complete information about the parties' assets and debts, as well as information about the values of the assets and amounts owing on the debts.
  • The parties cannot make an illegal bargain, that is, they can't make an agreement that obliges them to do something against the law.
  • Where an agreement is prepared by one party's lawyer and the other party doesn't have a lawyer, any portions of the agreement that are vague may be interpreted in favour of the party who didn't have the lawyer.
  • The court will attempt to give effect to a contract wherever possible, that is, they will attempt to give meaning to the terms of a contract rather than declare it void.
  • If a term of a marriage agreement is found to be invalid, only the invalid part of the agreement will stop being in effect. The remainder of the agreement will continue to be valid and binding on the parties.

Aside from these considerations, it is also important to remember that marriage agreements are usually only meant to be used at some unknown time in the future. While separation agreements are intended to work immediately from the moment they are signed, marriage agreements usually aren't intended to work until some later time, usually upon the spouses' separation. As a result, it can be difficult to guess what each party's situation will be like when the agreement begins to operate and guess whether it will still be appropriate and fair. Because of these problems, hiring the services of a lawyer to prepare a marriage agreement is highly recommended.

The possible subjects of a marriage agreement[edit]

A marriage agreement can address any number of subjects, and deal with anything that's a concern to one or both spouses. Typical subjects include the following:

  • How will the spouses own property during the marriage, separately or jointly?
  • How will the spouses divide their property and debts after the marriage? Will there be any division of property at all?
  • Will the spouses share in the value or cost of property bought during the marriage, like a car or a house?
  • Will the parties have a share in any excluded property brought into the marriage by one of the spouses?
  • How will unexpected windfalls like inheritances and lottery wins be dealt with? Will they be shared or kept separate?
  • How will the spouses deal with their residence and/or jointly owned property if one of the spouses dies during the relationship?
  • How will household chores be shared during the marriage?
  • How will household expenses be paid for during the marriage? Will both spouses contribute to the bills? Will the bills be divided between them?
  • How will the spouses manage retirement savings during the marriage?
  • How will the children brought into the marriage from another relationship be dealt with during the marriage? Will any responsibilities survive separation?
  • How will children born during the marriage be cared for after separation?

Except for the restrictions on agreements about parental responsibilities, parenting time, and child support, the possible subjects of a marriage agreement are limited only by your imagination, common sense, and the law of contracts. I've seen some fairly unique marriage agreements over the years, including agreements, likely unenforceable, that talk about the frequency of sex and who will take out the garbage.

However, as a general rule of thumb, it's best to deal with the concrete things that exist at the time of the marriage (such as children from a previous relationship, existing debts, and existing property) and things that the couple can reasonably expect to happen during the marriage in the short term (such as receiving an inheritance or a court award). Dealing with things that might happen (like new children, a move to a new town, or lottery winnings) is really speculative, and it's almost impossible to know how they should be dealt with if, at some unknown point in the future, the marriage comes to an end.

Resources and links[edit]



This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Barbara Nelson and Beatrice McCutcheon, September 17, 2014.

Creativecommonssmall.png 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.

Normally referred to as the "Supreme Court of British Columbia," this court hears most of the trials in this province. The Supreme Court is a court of inherent jurisdiction and has no limits on the sorts of claims it can hear or on the sorts of orders it can make. Decisions of the Provincial Court are appealed to the Supreme Court; decisions of the Supreme Court are appealed to the Court of Appeal. See "Court of Appeal," "jurisdiction," "Provincial Court" and "Supreme Court of Canada."

A court established and staffed by the provincial government, which includes Small Claims Court, Youth Court, and Family Court. The Provincial Court is the lowest level of court in British Columbia and is restricted in the sorts of matters it can deal with. It is, however, the most accessible of the two trial courts and no fees are charged to begin or defend a family law proceeding. The Family Court of the Provincial Court cannot deal with the division of family property or any claims under the Divorce Act. See "Divorce Act," "judge" and "jurisdiction."

A 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."

An agreement signed by people who are planning on marrying or who 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."

(1) In 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. (2) The principle that a higher court's decision on a point of law must be followed by a lower court. See "contempt of court" and "precedent."

An agreement between two or more people, giving them 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.

A duty, whether contractual, moral, or legal in origin, to do or not do something. See "duty."

Something which can be owned. See "chattels" and "real property."

Real property or personal property received as a result of the provisions of a will or under the Wills, Estates and Succession Act. Inheritances do not usually qualify as family property subject to division between spouses. See "family property," "real property" and "will."

A resolution of one or more issues 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 conclusion of trial. See "action," "consent order," "family law agreements" and "offer."

A mandatory direction of an arbitrator, binding and enforceable upon the parties to an arbitration proceeding, made following the hearing of the arbitration trial proceeding or the parties' settlement, following which the only recourse open to a dissatisfied party is to challenge or appeal the award in court. See "appeal," "arbitration," and "family law arbitrator."

A voluntary transfer of property from one person to another, without expectation of payment or reward. Gifts to one spouse do not usually qualify as family property, and are excluded from the pool of property to be divided. See "donee," "donor," "excluded property" and "family property."

A term under the Family Law Act referring to property acquired by either or both spouses during their relationship, as well as after separation if bought with family property. Both spouses are presumed to be entitled to share equally in any family property. See "excluded property."

A term under the Family Law Act referring to debt owed by either or both spouses that accumulated during the spouses' relationship, as well as after separation if used to maintain family property. Both spouses are presumed to be equally liable for family debt.

A 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.

In 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."

A term under the Family Law Act which describes the various rights, duties, and 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."

A 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."

Money paid by one parent or guardian to another parent or guardian as a contribution toward the cost of a child's living and other expenses.

(1) A preliminary version of a document, (2) an order prepared following judgment and submitted to the court for its approval, or (3) to prepare, or draw, a legal document.

A step in a court proceeding in which each party advises the other of the documents in their possession which relate to the issues in the court proceeding and produces copies of any documents the other side requests 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.

Under 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, spouse includes 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 and have had a child together. See "marriage" and "marriage-like relationship."

A person licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction by that jurisdiction's law society. See "barrister and solicitor."

A payment made by one spouse to the other spouse to help with the recipient's day-to-day living expenses or to compensate the recipient for the financial choices the spouses made during the relationship.

A mandatory direction of the court that is 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. Failing to abide by the terms of an order may constitute contempt of court. See "appeal," "consent order," "contempt of court," "decision" and "declaration."

In family law, the process by which an agreement is formed between the parties to a legal dispute resolving that dispute, usually requiring mutual compromise from the parties' original positions to the extent tolerable by each party. See "alternative dispute resolution" and "family law agreements."

(1) The legal principle under which courts are bound to follow the principles established by previous courts in similar cases dealing with similar facts, or (2) the system of justice used in non-criminal cases in all provinces and territories except Quebec.

In family law, this usually refers to one party obtaining a part of any property at issue before the property has been finally divided by court order or the parties' agreement, usually in order to help pay for that person's legal fees.

The 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."

The money charged by a lawyer to their client for the lawyer's services, usually pursuant to the terms of the lawyer's retainer agreement. Most family law lawyers bill by the hour with a premium for success or the difficulty or novelty of the case. A lawyer's bill may include "disbursements," costs incurred by the lawyer for such things as courier fees, court fees, or photocopying expenses. See "account" and "certificate of fees."

An agreement between two or more persons about family law issues that have arisen or may 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.

A person with direct, personal knowledge of facts and events relevant to the issues before the court; 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."

In 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."

The branch of law dealing with the interpretation and enforcement of contracts. The principles of contract law are usually, but not always, applicable to family law agreements.

The use of force or intimidation, whether emotional or physical, to compel another person to do something; interference with another person's freedom of choice to obtain an outcome, action, or behaviour.

Forcing someone to do something through psychological or emotional pressure; a defence to the enforcement of a contract. If, for example, a separation agreement was entered into under duress, that may be a ground to dispute or apply to set aside that agreement.

In family law, the decision of one or both parties to terminate a married or unmarried relationship; the act of one person leaving the family home to live somewhere else with the intention of terminating the relationship. There is no such thing as a "legal separation." In general, one separates by simply moving out, however, it is possible to be separated but still live under the same roof. See "divorce, grounds of."

A 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 payments. A spouse is presumed to be entitled to keep their excluded property without having to share it with the other spouse. See "family property," "gift" and "inheritance."

The 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."

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