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


Surrogacy is the Way to Go

Surrogacy, the Clever Way

Despite what you might have heard from coworkers, aunts and taxi drivers, surrogacy is NOT illegal in Canada. In contrast to some of the more progressive jurisdictions, in Ontario you cannot pay someone to conceive and/or carry a child for you, but you can reimburse that person for her out of pocket expenses. As long as you keep the right attitude and proceed in a clever way, surrogacy can be fun for the whole family!
Although immensely rewarding in the end, planning a family through assisted human reproduction can be an undertaking of epic proportions that will test your resolve and challenge you emotionally and financially. In order to avoid additional frustrations by the hands of our well meaning but overwhelmingly caring government officials, get to know the basics of the surrogacy law, and when in doubt, check with a lawyer.
The Assisted Human Reproduction Act, proclaimed, in part, in April 2004, is a young piece of legislation that has not yet been adequately tested in courts. Nevertheless, just because we have not yet seen prosecutions or many challenges to this law, it does not mean that it does not have teeth. If you plan carefully and abide by the rules set out in the Act, you surrogacy should not land you in hot water. Although Canadians are free to give and to receive eggs and sperm and to reimburse a surrogate for some of the expenses associated with the process, please leave your checkbook at home. You should also not try to use gifts and payments of the expenses of the kind person who is carrying your child as a way to mask what are in reality payments for the surrogacy services. We are still waiting for further clarifications on what, in the government’s opinion, falls into the category of acceptable expenses.
Sperm and egg donations are not illegal in Canada, but do not reach out for cups and turkey basters quite yet. The exchange of reproductive genetic materials is strictly regulated, and before you go window-shopping through the genetic bazaar, consult with a legal professional, as you may face draconian penalties if you run afoul of the rules. The law does not prevent someone from donating his or her genetic material for altruistic purposes. Reimbursement of expenses incurred in the course of the donation is also permitted, but section 7 of the Act prohibits the selling or buying of gametes from a sperm donor or an ovum donor or an embryo donor. So, next year, when your best friend asks you what you would like for Christmas, you will be ready to tell him or her, and hope that they are really in the spirit of giving.
You have looked everywhere and you have finally found a perfect surrogate. Now you have a choice to make. There are two difference kinds of surrogacy arrangements – gestational surrogacy or traditional surrogacy?
A gestational surrogate carries a child to whom she is genetically unrelated. In some situations, only one of the intended parents may be genetically related to the child. Picture it: You have used your own egg and you know that the child will have half of your chromosomes. The other half will come from a sperm donor, who you may or may not know. Through the magic of family law in Ontario, you and your partner, rather than the surrogate and the sperm donor will be recognized as the child’s parents, and both of your names will appear on the birth certificate. This is called declaration of parentage.
A traditional surrogate is the child’s genetic mother and birth mother, and enters into pregnancy with the intention of relinquishing custody once the baby is born. In any surrogacy arrangement, you need to enter into a contract and go through the declaration of parentage process once the child is born. Although not extensively tested for enforceability in Canadian jurisdictions, contracts setting out everyone’s legal rights and obligations are an essential step. At the very least, surrogacy contract is proof of intent, and as such, the agreement needs to be executed by all parties before an embryo is transferred to the surrogate. Furthermore, make sure that the egg donor receives independent legal advice, even if she says that “it is OK” and that she knows what she is doing. Without independent legal advice, your agreement may be vulnerable in the future on the basis that a surrogate gave up her rights without knowing what she was giving up.
I know that this sounds complicated, there is no need to fear. Really. As long as you are stable, capable and loving prospective parents, an Ontario court should have no problem granting your request and making you the only parents that the child will ever know. If you use a surrogate in Ontario, you will most likely not need to adopt the child. Ontario jurisprudence presumes that the woman that gives birth to the child is the mother. The Family Law Rules and Child and Family Services Act outline a process by which, with help of DNA evidence and sworn affidavits from all parties, an Ontario solicitor can ask a court that the intended parents be declared as the baby’s real parents. Once again, surrogate needs to have independent legal advice in order to fully understand what she is signing or swearing to. This requirement drives up the cost of the process, but is absolutely vital, considering that a single lawyer is conflicted out of representing both sides with opposing interests in the matter.
In December 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Quebec’s challenge to this legislation by giving to the provinces the power to regulate fertility clinics. While the immediate effects of this decision remain unclear, its impact on the issue of commercial surrogacy is limited, as this ruling does not seem to interfere with Ottawa’s jurisdiction to ban the paying of fees for egg or sperm donation or surrogacy services.
Ivan Steele, B.A., M.A., LL.B.
Ivan Steele Law Office