Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines – Not only for use at Trial!
In a recent Court of Queen’s Bench decision ( Hunter v. Hunter 2017 CarswellAlta 1233, 2017 ABCB 445), Madam Justice Veit addressed the issue of whether the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines (SSAGs) can and should be used to set monthly spousal support awards on an interim basis.
The Hunters were together for 24 years prior to separating. Mr. Hunter worked in the oil patch earning approximately $215,000 per year. Ms. Hunter worked primarily in an administrative role particularly in the last years of the relationship. She had an annual income of approximately $28,000.00. Although the parties initially attempted to resolve matters through the collaborative process, Ms. Hunter withdrew from the process. After each party retained new lawyers, and limited settlement discussions occurred, the parties participated in some discovery questioning (and exchanging of undertakings). The trajectory toward trial was interrupted when, in March of 2017, Ms. Hunter was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident – her injuries included a shattered foot and broken femur, seriously restricting her mobility and requiring her to be on heavy doses of medication. At the time of the chambers appearance, there was no medical evidence available pertaining to Ms. Hunter’s condition or her prognosis nor her future ability to maintain employment. Turning to the matter of interim spousal support for Ms. Hunter, the Court noted that the approach to be taken on interim applications is one of analysis of needs and means (looking at budgets, current and proposed expenses and incomes). The Court, recognizing that the SSAGs are a tool and not law went on to observe that unless there are factual circumstances to dictate otherwise (such as lack of disclosure):
- Using the SSAGs can help alleviate the strain on judicial system noting that delays for hearing domestic matters in court have reached almost “unconscionable” levels;
- Using the SSAGs can speed up decisions relating to spousal support and can make the process more predictable and less expensive;
- Once entitlement to spousal support is established, the SSAGs can “greatly” simplify the process of determining appropriate levels of support even on in interim applications;
- Use of the SSAGs can mean that a strict need and means analysis can be avoided;
- The SSAGs can be an appropriate tool to quantify the amount of spousal support unless there are exceptional circumstances to suggest otherwise.
Madam Justice Veit found that the SSAGs were an appropriate tool for determining spousal support for Ms. Hunter on an interim basis since Ms. Hunter was able to establish entitlement to compensatory spousal support: the parties had a long relationship, Ms. Hunter supported Mr. Hunter’s career over the years, parenting was Ms. Hunter’s primary responsibility when the children were young and she also took on responsibilities for some family businesses. Accordingly, the Court ordered interim spousal support for Ms. Hunter at the mid-range of the SSAGs (in an amount of $5,500.00 per month).The Court also noted that Ms. Hunter had some property in her own name and, as such, if it was concluded in trial that Ms. Hunter had been overpaid she had the means to make repayment to Mr. Hunter.
Whether the SSAGs can be relied upon in an interim application remains very fact specific. It is clear, though, that the Courts are looking for tools to assist them in making decisions which help move matters forward more expeditiously and the SSAGs are being used exactly in that way.