February 27, 2021
Vancouver & North Vancouver family lawyer discusses the unequal division of family property
Can unequal contribution and bad behaviour lead to unequal division of family property? It just might.
As I have discussed in my previous blog post found here, family property is generally shared by spouses equally if they separate. Family property is all property earned or acquired by one of the spouses during the “spousal relationship.” I discuss the defining features of spousal relationships here.
Family property can only be unequally divided if it is “significantly unfair” to divide it equally. To clear the high hurdle of significant unfairness, there must marked, prolonged, and intentional or unexplained disparities in contribution to family burdens. Unequal division requires something objectively unjust, unreasonable, or unfair in some important or substantial sense.
Under the Family Law Act there are nine listed circumstances in which family property can be unequally divided. Although this list of factors was supposed to introduce certainty into our family property law, there is a catchall provision that allows courts quite a bit of discretion when deciding if they want to unequally divide property. In the recent case Vancouver BC Supreme Court case of Chang v. Chang 2020 BCSC 1783, the “other factor” warranting unequal division was the lack of contribution of one spouse and most surprisingly, his bad behaviour.
In this case, Ms. Chang and Mr. Chang were married for 27 years prior to separating in 2017. Over the course of their relationship, Ms. Chang undertook the majority of the childcare, household and financial responsibilities for the family. Further, Mr. Chang displayed concerning behaviour throughout the relationship.
- On the date of the parties’ separation Mr. Chang, Ms. Chang and one of their sons got into an altercation. As a result of that altercation, Mr. Chang entered into a recognizance that included a provision that he have no contact with Ms. Chang or the parties’ sons.
- For the 10 years leading up to the parties’ separation, Mr. Chang reported low total annual incomes. He was unemployed during significant periods during the marriage and he was not always motivated to search for work. He often left jobs voluntarily.
- Mr. Chang was always the primary caregiver to the parties’ sons and was responsible for most of the housekeeping duties.
- Mr. Chang testified that she feared leaving their sons solely in Mr. Chang’s care as he lacked patience and he angered easily. When angry, he would yell and call their sons names. Mr. Chang would also raise his hand threateningly as if to hit them. Ms. Chang gave many examples of Mr. Chang’s questionable behaviour and angry outbursts towards their sons.
- Mr. Chang’s history of inappropriate behaviour also extended to his relationship with Ms. Chang. He taunted and belittled her, especially about her work. Mr. Chang told her that City workers were lazy.
- Mr. Chang mistreated the family dog.
- Mr. Chang was a hoarder. He filled all of the main rooms, hallways, garage and exterior storage sheds at the Family Home with his purchases, collections and possessions. Many areas inside the family home appeared virtually impassable due to massive piles of Mr. Chang’s possessions. For example, in the basement recreation room, there were stacks of boxes and possessions nearly filling the room, except for a narrow pathway. As a result Ms. Change was too embarrassed to invite friends over.
- Mr. Chang undertook a renovation of the downstairs bathroom. He demolished the shower stall but never replaced it. Mr. Chang’s bathroom renovation effectively reduced the total working showers from two to one.
The court’s decisions was based on: (1) Mr. Chang’s lack of contribution vis-a-vis Ms. Change; and (2) the bad behaviour of Mr. Chang.
Lack of contribution
The court found that there was evidence of significant disparities in contribution to family burdens, such as childrearing and household duties, which were intentional and unexplained. Mr. Chang’s renovations were detrimental to the family home. He also spent his limited earnings on his own personal, discretionary expenses for items such as memorabilia and spare tools, before he contributed anything to family expenses. He deliberately prioritized his own spending needs above the financial needs of his family. Mr. Chang spent prolonged periods underemployed or unemployed. He provided no reasonable explanation for his lack of employment, his lack of motivation to work, or his failure to make a greater financial contribution to the marriage.
In addition to Mr. Chang’s deliberate pattern of lesser contribution to financial, childrearing and household duties, the court held that that the bad behavior of Mr. Chang also warranted unequal division, namely:
- Mr. Chang’s history of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying, threatening and denigrating talk directed at Ms. Chang and the parties’ sons, which made Ms. Chang fearful of ending their relationship earlier; and
- Mr. Chang’s long use of the Family Home as a place to hoard massive quantities of his possessions, which deprived his family of the full use and enjoyment of the Family Home.
What’s the takeaway?
If one spouse has contributed significantly more to the relationship in terms of finances, child-rearing and household duties, a court may decide to unequally divide family property. Further, if one spouse engages in a repeated pattern of inappropriate, self-focused and bullying behaviour, they just might be punished for it by having family property unequally divided, to their detriment.
The likelihood of this occurring can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis and thus it is very important to consult a Vancouver family property law lawyer to discuss the likelihood of an unequal division occurring in your case. You can contact me here to book a free consultation to discuss your unique situation.
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