How is ‘Spouse’ defined by the Courts?
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Marriage-like relationships can be difficult to define as these relationships vary and can be structured in different ways. There is no set way for such relationships to be established. The definition of a spousal relationship has been clarified by the courts in previous cases, but in a recent case, this issue is being re-assessed due to a unique set of circumstances. In Han v. Dorje, the question was raised of whether a secret relationship occurring mainly online can be considered a spousal relationship?
REFERENCE CASE: HAN V. DORJE, 2021 BCSC 939
Section 3 of the Family Law Act defines a spouse as a person who is married, or has lived with another person in a marriage-like relationship, and has done so for a continuous period of at least two years, or has a child with the other person. However, there is no set definition for the concept of a marriage-like relationship. In Han, the claimant, Vikki Hui Xian Han, is seeking child support, a declaration of parentage and paternity testing, as well as spousal support. However, the facts the claimant alleges do not fit within the traditional concept of a spousal or marriage-like relationship.
The claimant is a former nun of Tibetan Buddhism, and the respondent, Mr. Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is a highly respected high lama of the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. The parties’ “relationship” only consisted of four occasions in which they were together in person. The pair met for the first time briefly in 2014 when the claimant obtained the respondent’s approval to become a nun. They met again in October 2016 when Ms. Han began a three-year meditation retreat at a monastery in New York State. They met once in private in which Han alleges that on October 14, 2017, Dorje sexually assaulted her, which resulted in her becoming pregnant. The pair met for a fourth and final occasion in November 2017, when the claimant informed the respondent that she was pregnant with his child. Dorje initially denied responsibility; however, he gave her his e-mail address and cellphone number, and said that he would provide her with financial support. Han then returned to Canada and abandoned her plan of becoming a nun. Although that was the last time the pair met with each other in person, they began to regularly communicate on a private instant messaging app, exchanged e-mails and occasionally spoke over the phone.
Han asserts her relationship with Dorje began as a non-consensual sexual encounter, but evolved into a loving and affectionate relationship. She alleges their relationship was forbidden by Dorje’s religious duties and beliefs, and was therefore the reason for the unusual nature of their relationship. Han claims they were in a marriage-like relationship from January 2018 to January 2019. In June 2018, Han gave birth, and throughout the year, Dorje provided Han with financial support, totalling US$770,000, for the care of the child, for the purchase of a condo and for a wedding ring. In January 2019, Han lost contact with Dorje. Dorje denies any romantic relationship with Han, but acknowledged that he provided her with emotional and financial support for the benefit of the child.
THE COURT’S ANALYSIS
The trial has been adjourned to April 2022. As Han and Dorje have a child together, the Court determined that Han must plead that she and Dorje lived in a marriage-like relationship in order to receive spousal support. Han’s claims may be considered weak as almost all of the traditional factors of a marriage-like relationship are absent, as they never lived under the same roof, never shared a bed, and never spend time together in person. However, it was noted by the Court that these traditional factors are not a mandatory checklist that confine the “elastic” concept of a marriage-like relationship.
Although our common law is based on precedent, it can still be challenging to apply to cases with unique circumstances such as the one in Han v. Dorje. The concept of a marriage-like relationship is elastic, making it difficult to determine when a “spousal relationship” exists. As a result, cases concerning unmarried spouses can create a slippery slope.
If the courts determine that Han and Dorje’s relationship was marriage-like and spousal support is awarded, the definition of a spousal relationship will be further broadened, allowing for a greater number of cases to come before the Courts for claims such as spousal support.
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