Carrigan v Carrigan Estate is a recent Ontario Court of Appeal case grabbing headlines. For family lawyers, the case underscores the importance of the domestic contracts, particularly the Separation Agreements, over whose drafting we toil. For the general public, the Courts’ recognition that a person could, in certain circumstances, have more than one spouse is what is of interest. Let’s have a look at both.
The case pitted the late Ronald Carrigan’s legal spouse against his live-in common spouse over receipt of the pension benefits which would accrue to Ronald’s SPOUSE upon his death. Ronald and his spouse Mary separated in 2000 but they never divorced, nor did they enter into a Separation Agreement to formalize arrangements between them. Ronald started a relationship with Jennifer Quinn and he and Jennifer were living together in a common law relationship when Ronald died in 2008. Up until his death, Ronald was still paying Mary’s expenses and some of the costs of their two daughters.
In 2002, after separating from Mary and while already living with Jennifer (see where this is going?), Ronald designated Mary and their two daughters as the beneficiaries of his pension. When Ronald died, both Mary -the woman he married – and Jennifer – his common law spouse – claimed to be entitled to the survivor pension benefits.
Jennifer’s case succeeded at trial. The Court held that both Mary and Jennifer qualified as Ronald’s “spouses” under the Pension Benefits Act of Ontario but Jennifer, who was living with Ronald at the time of his death, was entitled to the benefits. The fact of Jennifer and Ronald living together trumped Mary’s claim as a separated spouse.
Mary appealed the decision and won. A three member panel of the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge. Mary and her daughters were granted the survivor pension benefits. The majority in the Court of Appeal accepted the trial judge’s finding that Ronald had two spouses when he died. However, through rather convoluted analysis, the Court held that entitlement to the pension benefits was not determined on the basis of who was Ronald’s spouse on the date of his death. Rather, the Court held that it was the 2002 beneficiary designation, which Ronald made in 2002 well after his separation from Mary, which represented his true intentions.
This decision provides a warning to those who fail to change their beneficiary designations after entering into new relationships since Mary’s beneficiary designation ultimately trumped Jennifer’s common law status The case also stresses the importance of having a detailed, written, and signed Separation Agreement that sets out all of the separated spouses’ present and future entitlements, as well as the need for a properly drafted Will. Hopefully, the case will serve as a wake-up call to the many individuals who entered into a new relationship without officially ending the old one, as is quite frequent in this modern age of serial monogamy. Formalize the end of the first relationship in a Separation Agreement. Structure the second with a domestic contact. Your intentions will be respected upon death and litigation like that in the Carrigan case will be avoided.