In the plot of the Adam Sandler movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, two colleagues get married so they can both get health benefits. These days in Canada, experts are seeing a similar script play out in real life: while access to benefits isn’t driving people to get married – it is preventing them from getting a divorce.
“It’s coming up a lot more than it was three, four or five years ago,” says Chris Gory, founder of Toronto-based Orchard Benefits, who puts together benefits packages for tech startups. “And I suspect the people who run the plan for the employer may not come to me every time.”
Mr. Gory is among several financial and legal experts who say access to a spouse’s extended health and dental benefits is a common reason some separated Canadian couples don’t divorce.
“The definition of spouse varies from insurance company to insurance company,” says Mr. Gory, noting only a few of the major insurers’ policies contain wording that states the partners must be cohabitating. “I’ve been doing benefits now for 15 years … I’ve never been asked for proof of cohabitation or marriage.”
With precarious employment more common, it’s increasingly likely that only one spouse has an employer-provided health plan, Mr. Gory adds. He noted privately-obtained health coverage is not cheap and – like everything else – is getting more expensive.
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Mr. Gory says the cost of benefits has risen on average about 7 per cent from 2021 to 2022, an increase in line with inflation but drastic compared with 2 per cent the previous year. He estimates the current cost for a family to buy private benefits to be about $250 to $330 per month, for a plan that covers 80 per cent of the eligible health and dental fees, and does not include life insurance or disability coverage.
Margo Hilbrecht, director of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, says it’s hard to know how many people are separating without divorcing because separations aren’t tracked by Statistics Canada.
“I’ve definitely heard about people choosing to stay separated” instead of going all the way to divorce, Ms. Hilbrecht said. “If one of the partners has a benefits package, they may choose not to make any changes so there’s less financial hardship for the other partner.”
She notes the statistics also don’t track separations of the increasing proportion of couples who are common law, many of which may also include members who rely on their spouse’s benefits. She says the trend shows extended health benefits aren’t available to everyone who wants them, possibly making a case for better universal coverage that doesn’t leave one partner dependent on a relationship they would prefer to leave.
Jo-Anne Fiore, a financial divorce specialist and mediator based in Caledon, Ont., says she encounters separated couples who don’t divorce “a great deal.” For some, she notes it’s just because neither partner plans to remarry, but for many others, financial interdependence and health benefits are major factors.
“I have clients who stay separated for 15 or 20 years,” she says. “[Benefits] can be very important in a relationship, especially if someone has a health issue.”
If a benefits provider is going to cut off a separated partner from the policy, she urges people to give their exes at least 60 days’ notice so they can line up appropriate private coverage if necessary. Ms. Fiore adds that so much of the financial success of a separation or divorce hinges on keeping conflict to a minimum.
“Marriage is like a small family corporation and there are two shareholders responsible for the production or depletion of any wealth the corporation accumulates,” she says, noting all interactions related to a couple’s post-separation finances should be treated as business decisions, as they will affect both parties’ financial security for the long term. “What is the best decision for you as a shareholder? So much emotion is tied into all kinds of things.”
Ms. Fiore says the separation agreement should cover child custody, benefits, and the split of assets such as pensions and the marital home. The cost of this document varies widely, depending on how well the former couple can get along. Mediation can cost up to about $6,000, split between two people – “as long as you want to come to the table and you’re going to act in good faith.”
Collaborative divorce, which includes emotional, financial and legal experts to help iron out the separation can cost $10,000 to $30,000 per person, while a drawn-out battle in the courts can add up to hundreds of thousands, and take a huge chunk out of a family’s net worth, she says.
Kevin Caspersz, senior associate at Toronto family law firm Shulman and Partners, says the start of a new year is often a busy time for separations and divorces, for reasons that appear related to holiday stresses, whether interpersonal or financial.
“They call January divorce season,” he says. “It’s not unusual to see difficult financial circumstances be the cause of the dissolution of the marriage.”
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