When Is A Spouse Not A Spouse?

For most people, the word “spouse” is simple to define. A spouse is commonly understood to be the husband, wife, or common law partner of another person. But as we often see, definitions are not always so cut and dry with the law. Sometimes the definition of a term can change as common law evolves. In other situations, such as in a case recently heard by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, a spouse might have one definition under one act and another definition under another act. In situations like this, which piece of legislation should the courts follow?

The arbitrator’s decision

The case came about as an appeal to a decision issued by an arbitrator in 2017. The incident arose when a woman, (“MH”) was injured in a car accident while in the parking lot of her place of employment. There are two insurance companies involved. The appellant was the insurer of a man (DZ) with whim MH lived. The respondent was the insurer of the driver that struck MH.

MH originally sought accident benefits from the appellant through DZ’s policy as his spouse. Section 268(2)(2)(i) of the Insurance Act states that a non-occupant of an automobile (in this case MH) has recourse firstly “against the insurer of an automobile in respect of which the non-occupant is an insured.” That person is only able to seek recourse from the insurer of the automobile that strikes them if there is no recovery available under their own insurance.

The Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule, O Reg 34/10 states that the “spouse of the named insured” falls within the definition of “insured person.” The Insurance Act defines the word spouse as including “either of two persons who…have lived together in a conjugal relationship outside marriage, continuously for a period of not less than three years.” Under the Act, the period of time a couple is required to live together for is three years.

At the time of the accident MH and DZ had lived together for less than three years, were not married, and did not have children together.

The arbitrator reviewed both the Insurance Act and the Family Law Act. While each act had the same definition of “spouse,” common law in family decisions has evolved to allow for a more flexible definition of the term. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision which the court in this decision said  “indicated that the meaning of ‘spouse’ for the purposes of spousal support in the event of marital breakdown requires a more global or ‘unitary’ approach that takes into account a number of features of the couple’s life together and contains appropriate flexibility. Much of this, the Court indicated, turns on how the couple is socially perceived – especially in the context of a same-sex relationship which was at issue in (the Supreme Court’s decision) – as different types of relationships may be subject to varying social perceptions.”

The arbitrator found that the couple were spouses, having been dating since 2008. Even though they lived in different homes before moving in together in 2013.

The appeal

The court overturned the arbitrator’s decision because the Insurance Act requires its own contextual approach, writing,

“ Unlike the Family Law Act, the Insurance Act provides automatic benefits to spouses regardless of need. It therefore requires a context-specific approach of its own. More specifically, the insurance context contains no imperative to deviate from the ordinary understanding of what it means for two persons to ‘live together’. In the family law sense of the term, where dependency is crucial to the spousal support context, persons can ‘live together’ – i.e. live interdependent lives – but maintain separate physical residences. In most non-family law contexts, and particularly in the insurance law context of automatic benefits without a broad sociological foundation on which to base those benefits, people who ‘live together’ can be considered spouses, but only if they do so in the normal sense of those words and for the requisite period of time.”

At Derfel Injury Law we know that accidents and injuries can come with a multitude of complex legal issues. We have the skills, knowledge, and expertise to assist anyone who has been disabled or injured in any type of accident, including automobile accidents. Contact Derfel Injury Law to meet with one of our personal injury lawyers. We can be reached online or by phone at 416.847.3580.