What Do Family Lawyers Do Anyway? A Toronto Family Lawyer’s Thoughts on Our Unique Role in Marriages, Upon Separation and Divorce

Ivan Steele, Toronto family and immigration lawyer

Ivan Steele, Toronto family and immigration lawyer

Family lawyers have received a colorful and varied treatment in the media. From blockbuster Hollywood movies (think Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney in “Intolerable Cruelty” to lawyer dramas and sensational news articles, we are frequently led to believe that family and divorce lawyers invariably fall into one of two categories, neatly pre-packaged for late night television enjoyment.

If you are a family lawyer, you must be either a high flying, insufferable, impeccably dressed shark, with Ben Franklins bursting out of your leather Prada briefcase (that incidentally costs more than an average car). Alternatively, you are a kind hearted, dedicated, legal aid, politically correct, save the children (and the whole word while you are at it) type. Production variety demands minor character twists and idiosyncrasies, but for most part, these archetypes prevail.

I am a family lawyer in Toronto, Canada, formerly trained as a psychotherapist. In a few years that I have practiced family law, I have encountered several walking caricatures and self-proclaimed legal celebrities (you know who you are) roaming the hallowed hallways of Her Majesty’s courts, with egos and wallets too inflated for everyone’s comfort. And yes, the crunchy, earthy, granola types also abound. These fringe types notwithstanding, a majority of family lawyers in Toronto are kind, industrious and balanced individuals, dedicated to their craft, their clients and their families (you have to learn something from seeing broken families day in and day out).

So what do most of us do that is so darn important and that justifies our (greatly variable) hourly rates? While no profession is immune to greed and bad judgment, despite the prevailing stereotypes, family lawyers are a caring bunch. We do run our businesses and need money to support our families, but we earnestly try to help our clients to live their lives on their terms, within practical and legal constraints.

Marriages are great – until they are not. If we do our jobs right, we are the best prevention and the best remedy for all parties in failing marriages. We take on your worries, cope ԝіtһ the legal, emotional and practical headaches that plague once happy unions, and we try to find the best solutions for your children. Because divorce is emotionally volatile, we are here to provide objectivity and guidance. What family lawyers do not do is make decisions about your lives. That is your responsibility and we are here to try and bring your plans to life, whenever possible.

Along with psychologists and psychiatrist, we are the confessors of the modern times. We actively listen to your stories and then we think, plan and strategize about issues involving children, visitation rights, property division, spousal abuse, spousal support, divorce etc.

The bеѕt time tо hire one of us іѕ bеfоrе you get married. I will get angry letters for this – I just know it. Sounds cynical? “Where is the trust?” you may be asking? While creating а prenuptial agreement (marriage contract) mау ѕееm like a cold and calculated decision rooted in mistrust, this piece of paper may be the kindest thing that both spouses can gift to one another – ever. If you are married for life, you will never look at this document again. If your marriage breaks up, however, a marriage contract will set оut precisely һоԝ your property will be divided and how much, if anything, you need to pay to your spouse as support. While prenups have limitations (i.e. cannot agree on a custody of a child), they are true money and sanity savers. Divorce proceedings and protracted, contentious negotiations leading up to a Separation Agreement саn wipe оut аn average savings and eat significantly into your retirement funds.

If you separate without a domestic contract in place, do not despair. We are here to make your separation as efficient and cost-effective as possible. The billing horror stories that fill the family lawyer lore are true, but not as prevalent as the rumors would lead us to believe. While paying a family lawyer is not cheap, being reasonable and following sound legal advice will save you a great deal of money in the long run.

When selecting a divorce lawyer in Toronto or elsewhere, be picky (but not unreasonable. Unfortunately for everyone involved, we are not wizards. If we were, would we still be working?) Legal expertise is important but insufficient by itself. Honesty and transparency are essential. Make sure that a family lawyer that you retain is someone that you like and that can relate tо уоur life and your circumstances. Judgment and bias have no place in our line of work. Consult ԝіtһ friends who went through a similar process, but do not expect your case to mirror theirs. Your life is unique and your family matter will be as well. Read reviews іf any are available. In the end, with some research and a bit of good luck, you will find a family lawyer that is just right for you.

Ivan Steele, M.A., J.D.  – Ivan Steele Law Office

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Toronto Loves Separation Agreements

Who do you think is in a better position to decide what is better for you as a separating couple, and for your children – the two of you or a robed stranger, seeing bits and pieces of your lives. Take it form a family and divorce lawyer –  In most cases that do not involve abuse and high conflict, the answer is clear – your lives, your separation, your terms. As an added benefit, separation agreements may reduce the tension and prevent further deterioration of a relationship by importing financial certainty into your respective lives, without having to involve the Court.

Separation agreements are domestic contracts and, therefore, legally binding document, which can be filed with the Court and enforced. Two persons who are married or who have cohabited and are now living separate and apart may enter into a separation agreement, which can address almost all matters in the settlement of their affairs. A separation agreement is your chance to be the creators of your own destiny, since you are allowed to spell out your respective rights and obligations regarding ownership in or division of property, spousal and child support obligations, and custody of and access to children.
While separation agreements provide a great deal of flexibility in arranging financial and familial affairs and are usually a much less costly alternative to protracted court applications, these contracts are always subject to best interests of a child test. Specifically, the Court retains the final authority to decide the matters concerning the education, moral training or custody of a child. Separation agreements do not allow parents to get out of their child support obligations with impunity. An agreement must substantially comply with Child Support Guideline and the Court is free to set aside any provision that is unreasonable having regard to the Guidelines.
Separation agreements have a significant and long-lasting impact on many areas of your life, long after signing. They may have significant tax consequences and can also influence your estate planning, immigration and financial future for years to come. It is not only a good idea, but indeed essential to have a separation agreement prepared and reviewed by lawyers.
If not prepared properly, a separation agreement may not have a desired effect. When entering into a separation agreement, as with any other domestic contract, it is crucial that both parties receive separate and independent legal advice. If, following repeated insistence, and after having been given sufficient opportunity to seek independent legal advice, one of the parties still refuses to do so, but wishes to execute the agreement, all efforts should be made to address this refusal in the contract itself.
For a separation agreement to be a useful alternative to a court process, both parties need to be committed to its provisions. If you have a solid Separation agreement, your divorce pleadings will also be simpler, as you will make it easier for the court to grant you an uncontested divorce.
Three parting tips to remember when working with your lawyer on negotiating a separation agreement: be reasonable, don’t be accusatory or defensive and always be honest with your lawyer. While separation is a trying time, you will not help yourself by using the negotiating table as an area of choice to play out relationship frustrations, resentments and recriminations.
If you and your spouse believe that you will be able to muster enough goodwill to agree to terms of a separation agreement, you should strike while iron is hot. Waiting to settle your family matters in order to save a couple of thousand dollars now will put you at risk of losing far more in the long run. The chances are that, as time passes, either yours or your spouse’s priorities will shift, and one of you will likely change his or her mind about a material point of agreement.
Variation of a Separation agreement.\
It is possible to apply to the court to vary a term or terms separation agreement, a Court will only change the terms of a separation agreement when there is a compelling reason to do so.  For example, if the agreement is unfair and one sided. Although it provides significant safeguards, a separation agreement is rarely an airtight guarantee of the outcome of your separation. The courts, nevertheless, show great deference to separating spouse’s contracting autonomy. Applications for variation of a separation agreement in Ontario are considered in light of numerous factors, such as how the agreement came into existence, the conduct of both parties at the time of negotiation, full and frank financial disclosure and other common law and statutory considerations found in the Family Law Act.
Ivan J. Steele, M.A., J.D.
Barrister and Solicitor
Ivan Steele Law Office