Marriage-like relationships hard to prove in court, B.C. case shows

The courts can be a real heartache when it comes to complex relationships and claimants hoping to establish their rights as a spouse.

They shared pet names, dogs and the cooking.

But when Penny Neufeld lost the man who used to call her his “wife without a wedding,” what proof did she have that their relationship was actually spousal?

Norman Dafoe’s children claimed Neufeld was just someone their dad “took in at a difficult period in her life.”

They tried to pin him down on the exact nature of the relationship many times before he died, but doubted it was “intimate.”

And so, in what lawyers say is an increasingly common occurrence, it was left to a judge to sift through the details to determine if the two lives were — in fact — one.

“The only document in evidence that actually suggests that they had any kind of joint enterprise is a receipt from a veterinarian,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark McEwan noted in his decision.

‘No end’ of disputes

No paper perhaps, but there were witnesses who saw the couple together: a storekeeper and a friend.

Neufeld recalled Dafoe’s smoking habits and how often the house they shared had been painted.

And then, McEwan said, there was her nickname: “‘D-Rod,’ apparently a reference to her hairstyle looking like that of Rod Stewart, the entertainer.”

Kimberly Whaley

Toronto-based estate lawyer Kimberly Whaley says the courts have seen an increase in cases involving complex family arrangements. (Kimberly Whaley)

“There’s no end of the types of disputes, but it is interesting to see how our courts are treating these relationships,” says Kimberly Whaley, a Toronto-based estate lawyer.

“Part of it probably has to do with sheer demographics in an aging population. People living longer, being healthier in later years, having later life partnerships. And then these unions cause rights and obligations.”

Whaley wrote a paper last year showing trends that “demonstrate an increase in competing family interests.” The number of Canadian common law couples rose 13.9 per cent between 2006 and 2011; more than 12 per cent of couples with children are step-families; and nearly half of those involve complex permutations and combinations of kids.

People lie about relationships at the best of times. They become downright secretive when religion, culture, children or Revenue Canada is involved.

Which means lawyers call on everything from Christmas cards to prescriptions for Viagra to establish a “marriage-like” relationship.

If it looks like a marriage …

As part of his reasoning, McEwan referred to a list of “indicia of ‘cohabitation or ‘consortium'” which comes up time and again in spousal support cases. It covers everything from sleeping arrangements to conduct in public.

Did the parties have sex? If not, why not? Did they buy gifts for each other on special occasions? Who did the shopping and cooking? How did the community and their children view them both alone and as a couple?

Even so, making a call can be tough.

Ontario Superior Court Judge Duncan Grace admitted his frustration last summer after Helen Havaris spent months trying to convince him she was entitled to part of John Prelorentzos’s estate.

The 71-year-old was still married to another woman when he died, though they had been separated for years.

But Havaris claimed she lived with him, travelled with him and attended his family’s Christmas, Easter and birthday celebrations.

His children said they saw no signs of affection. Indeed, they claimed their father used to joke about the fact Havaris “had placed a chain on the inside of her bedroom door.”

The judge said he found Havaris’s testimony “wooden.” Not one of her witnesses “mentioned a single word or gesture that demonstrated affection.”

“Despite the length of the trial the evidence on this issue left me asking: is this really all there is?” Grace wrote.

But in the end, after poring through documents including the pair’s rentals of one-bedroom hotel rooms, Grace decided “by a very thin margin” that Havaris qualified as Prelorentzos’s spouse.

Kids are always the last to know

In both that case and Neufeld’s challenge, the judges had to consider the attitude of the deceased’s children toward a woman who was not their mother.

When Dafoe was close to death, “a nurse who mistook the plaintiff for the deceased’s ‘wife’ appears to have created anxiety in the deceased’s family,” McEwan wrote.

Georgialee Lang

Family law expert Georgialee Lang says children are often the hardest to convince in spousal estate battles. (Georgialee Lang)

There were competing stories about deathbed statements and cash boxes. His family changed the locks on the doors. Neufeld “announced she would not be staying.”

B.C. family law expert Georgialee Lang says she has represented many women seeking to prove their place in a man’s life. Inevitably, the offspring are the hardest to convince.

“That’s part of the dynamic. He doesn’t want to disappoint his children. Sometimes a relationship has happened very quickly after a spouse died and it’s seen as unsavoury,” she says.

“It’s all those kind of personal, emotional and moral dynamics that come into play.”

In the end, McEwan decided the proof of Neufeld and Dafoe’s relationship lay as much in how others saw them as in how they saw themselves.

She was a caregiver during his illness. He bought her two cars. They appear to have been faithful to each other. 

And McEwan said the very fact his children had been asking what was going on for years “implicitly affirms a relationship that appears to be spousal or becoming spousal.”

The judge awarded Neufeld $60,000 out of a gross estate worth $160,000.

It’s a battle you can avoid with two simple weapons: a piece of paper and a pen.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said Dafoe was awarded $60,000 by the judge. In fact Neufeld was awarded $60,000.
    Nov 02, 2015 6:49 AM PT

Source: Jason Proctor, CBC News Posted: Nov 01, 2015 2:00 AM PT

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