Can Marriage Contracts Force Spouses to Pay Money For an Affair?

Marriage contracts, whether established before or after the wedding, serve as a means to bring predictability to separations and ensure fairness in a marriage. Similarly, common-law couples utilize “cohabitation agreements” for similar purposes. Delve deeper into the world of marriage contracts and cohabitation agreements by exploring the informative video and podcast provided below.

These legal documents are frequently used to outline how spouses will manage finances and their homes during the course of their marriage or relationship. They also define the procedures for spousal support and property division should a separation occur. Notably, some couples wish to address financial matters differently if infidelity comes into play, even going as far as including a “fine” to be paid to the innocent spouse immediately. Such clauses in a marriage contract or cohabitation agreement are commonly referred to as “lifestyle clauses” and are prevalent, particularly among celebrities. Gain a deeper understanding of these crucial legal instruments in the content below.

In some jurisdictions, lifestyle clauses can go pretty far, such as imposing a weight requirement for a spouse. Such clauses can seem pretty extreme. But, in an error where the law says there is “no-fault divorce”, ultimatums about infidelity are among the most popular lifestyle clauses in domestic agreements. Obviously, such clauses raise questions about the trust the spouses have for each other, and whether fidelity is the best way to determine a spouse’s financial well-being after separation. 

There have been quite a few celebrity couples who have made use of this specific lifestyle clause. One example is Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. Biel reportedly gets compensated at least $500,000.00 if Timberlake cheats on her. This is an example of a unilateral cheating clause, but other couples are entering marriage contracts with clauses that have penalties if either spouse cheats.

But these clauses aren’t just for celebrities – the general public is making use of them as well. And there are some sensible reasons behind this. As ‘fault-based divorce’ is no more. Section 5(1) of Ontario’s Family Law Act makes the division of property based on math not conduct, and infidelity is not one of the grounds on which property division can be changed under section 5(6). Section 33(10) of Ontario’s Family Law Act specifically says that the conduct of one (or both) spouses is not a factor in setting spousal support. Under the Family Law legislation, adultery does not affect how money is divided on separation.

However, section 52 of the Family Law Act (section 53 for common law couples) says that how both property division and spousal support are determined can be changed by way of a marriage contract or cohabitation agreement. Further, section 56, which sets out what terms are illegal in marriage contracts and cohabitation agreements, does not prohibit clauses that punish infidelity.

Many couples will include an infidelity clause in their marriage contract to 1) ensure their financial well-being and 2) prevent (or try to prevent) their spouse from cheating.

Reportedly, when Elin Nordegren was contemplating getting back with Tiger Woods she wanted an infidelity clause inserted into their prenup with a $350 million financial penalty for Woods if he were to ever cheat again.

However, where lifestyle clauses are not carefully drafted, there can be problems. The most obvious is when the marriage contract does not specify exactly what is meant by “cheating”? Are scandalous text messages going to count? Does there have to be actual nudity? Another problem is what is the standard of proof to establish that there was cheating. If the contract is not clear, then separated spouses can end up in lengthy, expensive litigation with no guaranteed outcome. 

There is also a question about whether a Family Court Judge, used to a “no-fault divorce” system would enforce an agreement that imposed consequences for fault. A guilty spouse challenged whether a lifestyle clause was even legal in the 2002 California case, Diosdado v Diosdado. In that case, the Court of Appeal for the Second District held that the clause in the “Martial Settlement Agreement” (the equivalent of a marriage contract) was not enforceable because it was contrary to the public policy underlying California’s no-fault divorce laws. Although this case is not binding on Canadian Family Courts, there is a similar approach to Divorce in Canada.

However, contrary to the Diosdado decision, other court decisions from the United States have found the clauses to be enforceable, so long as the infidelity can be proven and the domestic agreement does not violate state law. 

With regards to Canada, the D’Andrade v Storage decision provides some insight as to how Canadian courts are likely to respond to an infidelity clause in a marriage contract or cohabitation agreement. In that case, the court rejected the argument that an affair during the negotiations of a marriage contract, that was negotiated after the parties were already married, would void the agreement. The court stated:

In recognition of the fact that marriages are complicated institutions, whose failure can rarely be attributed to one party or the other, the law has evolved in a fashion that by and large eliminates conduct from the analysis of financial entitlement…

…it is important to consider the purpose of the contract in question. It is not to enforce personal obligations such as the duty to remain faithful or the commitment to remain in the relationship. While people may feel that these obligations are part of the marriage “contract,” these are not the obligations that domestic contracts are meant to deal with.

There has not yet been a reported Canadian Case that has upheld or invalidated a lifestyle clause in a marriage contract or cohabitation agreement. While the Family Law and Divorce statutes do not prohibit such a clause, they do seem to run against the general “no-fault principles” of those same laws. Until there are court decisions about such clauses, it is not clear whether they will be enforced if a couple separates in Canada. Still, as such clauses are not prohibited they can be included as a good family lawyer will draft a marriage contract in such a way as to ensure that the rest of the contract survives, even if the lifestyle clause does not. It will always be difficult for a cheating spouse to convince a judge that he or she should be able to invalidate a clause to which he or she freely agreed. Some judges will see that as “cheating” again.

John Schuman Guide to the Basics of Ontario Family Law book cover

You can get a lot more information about Ontario Family Law issues, including a comprehensive explanation of parenting cases (parenting time and decision making), child support, spousal support, property division, and most other common family law issues by downloading this $9.99 Kindle eBook, Kobo eBook, or iBook for your iPad or iPhone or ordering it from Amazon as a paperback. But to understand how the law works precisely in your situation, it is always best to speak to a good Family Law Lawyer.

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