Savvy Couple’s Guide to Marriage Contracts in Ontario

Life is filled with surprises, but your financial future should not be one of them.

Marriage contracts exist to limit your financial exposure in the event that your marriage does not work out. Full financial disclosure is crucial in negotiating a marriage contract, as this requirement of financial transparency is designed to bring forward any issues that could lead to potentially dangerous surprises down the matrimonial road.
Marriage contracts are among the most sensitive and emotionally charged legal documents. Negotiating a cohabitation agreement or a marriage contract runs contrary to most people’s ideal of romantic relationship because such an agreement requires contemplating dissolution. Nevertheless, entering into a domestic contract is better seen as a sign of mutual respect as it is rooted in the belief that your relationship is strong enough to handle serious discussions about each party’s needs. One thing that I have learned as a family lawyer in Toronto is that rather than a repudiation of a relationship, domestic contracts are a prudent and practical move that establishes and protects everyone’s property rights. Entering into a domestic contract can save you strife and expense of litigation down the road, or at the very least provide a peace of mind.
In recent years, marriage contracts, otherwise known as prenuptial agreements  (prenups or post-nups) have been gaining favour with Canadians. These domestic agreements are designed to protect each person in case of abreakdown of a relationship and divorce and alter the general property rights and various other legal entitlements of married couples.
Here is a summary of what marriage contracts can and cannot do for you:
·       1. Marriage contract usually change the equalization of net family property, by defining ownership of certain pieces of property between your spouse and yourself.
·       Not only will a marriage contract safeguard all of your pre-marriage assets in the even of divorce, but it will also shield you from having to share any increase in the value of property that you owned at the date of marriage. When drafting a marriage contract, you can also determine who will have ownership of any secondary or assets that you purchase    together over the course of your marriage.
·       By entering into a marriage contract, you will likely be safe from pre-marriage debt, financial issues, business ownership, or loans that your spouse may have incurred, and you will be able to address in a mutually satisfactory fashion the division of any joint debts and liabilities.
·       Marriage contracts can provide peace of mind by helping you and your spouse avoid disputes over asset distribution and they can spell out what gifts or inheritances will be shared or held exclusively by one spouse or the other.
·       Under some circumstances, a marriage contract can either do away with spousal support obligations or modify them in a manner that reflects both parties’ values and concerns.
·       A marriage contract can be a useful indicator of intent concerning each parent’s right to direct the education and moral training of their children.
Despite its initial appearance as a magic wand for the divorcing couples, a marriage contract has limitations. Some of the most important ones are the possession of the matrimonial home and the custody of the children.
1) Part II of the Family Law Act provides that each spouse has an equal right of possession of any matrimonial home and that neither party can sell or mortgage a matrimonial home without the written consent of the other spouse. Any provisions in a marriage contract purporting to limit these rights are unenforceable.
2) Marriage contracts cannot prospectively determine the custody of the children or the children of the marriage, as such decisions are subject to the best interests of the child test. In the determination of matters respecting the support, education, moral training, or custody of a child, a judge may disregard any provision of a marriage contract.
No marriage contract lawyer can work miracles. Marriage contracts are expected to be fair and reasonable legal agreements that are designed to protect both parties over the long term. Please note that drafting a patently one-sided agreement may run the risk of undermining the enforceability of the marriage contract in the future under various common law and equitable doctrines. As always, to ensure that your rights are protected, contact a knowledgeable Toronto family lawyer.
Ivan Steele, B.A., M.A.,J.D.
Barrister and Solicitor
Ivan Steele Law Office, 33 Wood Street, Suite 1709, Toronto, Ontario M4Y 2P8, Canada
Phone (647) 342-0568
Fax (647) 344-4493