Devastated by divorce court
KEITH BEATY/TORONTO STAR
Jan 27, 2009 04:30 AM
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Wayne Tippett has just two things of any real value left in his life: a 10-year-old car and a granite tombstone.
At 51, Tippett is broken, bankrupt and bunking in the guest room of his parents' Burlington home after a divorce settlement that's left him $75,000 in debt and racking up $1,000 more each month.
Today, he'll appear in court at a default hearing to try to explain why he can't afford to pay his ex-wife (the couple had no children) $3,300 a month, $16,000 in retroactive alimony and $42,000 of her court costs out of a complex case he himself still doesn't understand.
Even his ex-wife's lawyer calls the situation "a total tragedy." And while he says Tippett "is paying for his own foolishness and stubbornness," the settlement is, in many ways, a frightening example of bad timing, lack of adequate information, and a divorce court system that can be deadly unpredictable.
"You're absolutely insane if you want to go into the (divorce) court system," says London, Ont., family law lawyer Peter Eberlie, who represented Tippett's ex-wife Darlene Cormier, also 51. "Any court case is Russian roulette."
"I've been given a life sentence and she's been given a cash for life ticket," says Tippett. "I actually asked my lawyer at one point, `Isn't there a human rights issue here? Don't I have the human right to have a life after divorce?'"
In a desperate act to protect what little he says he has left, Tippett admits that he disregarded a judge's order to make his ex-wife the beneficiary on an old insurance policy and used the $11,000 to pre-arrange his own funeral, buy a family headstone and have his name etched on it.
"Darlene won't bury me, and I don't want my family to have to pay for that. But I'm afraid the FRO (Family Responsibility Office) will seize the stone."
In fact, things might have turned out much differently had Tippett known that family law had undergone some dramatic changes in the time since his separation. Had anyone simply pointed him to familylawcentre.com where he could do the math himself, Tippett might have realized he was at serious risk the minute he stepped into court.
Cormier's lawyer maintains Tippett was controlling and content to have his wife dabble at home-based craft and music businesses that never earned much money. Tippett disagrees, saying he offered to help put her through school, pay for her to go overseas to study music, in hopes she could start earning a living.
None of that really matters now. Under Canada's "no fault" divorce system it's irrelevant who fell out of love first, or that Tippett voluntarily offered to move out and pay Cormier $2,145 a month to cover the mortgage and other expenses until they could work out a formal agreement. By November 2003, they had a deal for splitting assets and $2,300 a month in support, to be reviewed in three years.
Tippett kept writing cheques for $2,300, but the couple failed at every attempt to reach a deal. He says he was "shocked" last January to find himself in the middle of a two-day trial, with his ex-wife citing a litany of health issues – from fibromyalgia to the circulatory problem Reynauds syndrome – that, her doctor testified, made it impossible for her to work full-time. Even her 22-hour a week job at an antique market was proving to be a hardship, Cormier testified, acknowledging that she took a quarter to a half an Advil a few times a week to deal with chronic pain.
What Tippett didn't realize is that since the couple's 2003 agreement, a revolutionary set of "spousal support guidelines," along with significant new case law, was now firmly taking hold in divorce settlements.
The guidelines – one aimed at childless couples, the other for those with children – were meant to bring some consistency and predictability to divorcing spouses, especially women emerging from "traditional" long-term relationships who were unlikely to find decent-paying jobs after years at home.
In fact, the guidelines added up to a sort of "65 rule" – that if the partner's age and years in the relationship equalled 65 or more, the main breadwinner would be paying "permanent support" the rest of his or her life.
"The view now about marriage is that (both) parties are entitled, to the extent possible, to enjoy the same lifestyle after a long-term marriage," says Epstein, who sat on the committee that took five years to draft the guidelines. "We operate on a system that, if you create economic dependency (even if the wife isn't tied to the home caring for children), then you're going to have to redress it."
At the same time, judges were being much more aggressive in not just reviewing "time-limited" settlements but, in essence, going back to square one – looking at income, past support and setting new payments, as happened in Tippett's case.
In fact, during last January's court case, Cormier's lawyer accused Tippett of getting "one heck of a deal" compared to the new guidelines. Ontario Superior Court Justice Grant Campbell clearly agreed, not only boosting Tippett's alimony payments by $1,000 a month in his ruling last March, but making them retroactive to November 2006 and ordering him to pay Cormier's $42,000 court costs.
Facing massive legal bills of his own, Tippett filed for bankruptcy and it was only later, he says, he discovered he's still on the hook, under bankruptcy laws, for any payments related to the divorce case.
That's left Tippett in arrears that are growing monthly, on the default list of Ontario's controversial Family Responsibility Office and facing seizure of his driver's licence, his passport and, in time, a possible jail sentence.
Tippett says he knew "the whole world had flipped" the minute he left the courtroom last January.
"I was suicidal when I realized that I was going to lose. All I could see was black. I went home to my room and I cleaned things up. I was going to kill myself. No one knew what I was going through," says Tippett.
Except his mother, who could see it on his face.
"Sometimes I still worry when he's driving," she says now. "Wayne just spoiled Darlene to death, he loved her so much. Now it's ruined his life."
Even Tippett's Toronto lawyer, John Freeman, has been stunned at the turn of events.
"It's always easy to say, `This is what the law is,' but up until that time (the January alimony review) the law wasn't quite so clear. The spousal support guidelines did not exist when the original (2003) agreement was drawn up so, to a certain extent, Wayne is being pilloried retroactively.