High schools should teach family law basics

For Valentine’s Day this year, some friends and I went to see a taping of the podcast Single Girl Problems. In the introduction, the host mentioned she’d be discussing, among other things, spousal support.

Sara Tatelman

For 'Galentine’s' Day this year, some friends and I went to see a taping of the podcast Single Girl Problems. In the introduction, the host mentioned she’d be discussing, among other things, spousal support. Upon hearing that, I turned to my friend Katy with great excitement — which quickly faded when the show wrapped without a single mention of the Divorce Act. So, in the post-taping Q&A, Katy asked the host about the omission and was told the intro always mentions more topics than the episode will actually cover. And, fair enough, hosts need a degree of flexibility, but what a missed opportunity to incorporate public legal education into pop culture.

In my family law professor’s first-day pitch to get us to stay in the course, she said that unlike criminal or securities, family law will touch most people’s lives at some point. That is, we’d find the course useful as humans, not just as lawyers. Halfway through the term, I wholeheartedly agree. A mere six weeks ago, I had no idea a court won’t reduce the amount of spousal support ordered even in instances of extreme physical violence. I didn’t know that upon widowhood, one can elect to ignore their partner’s will and seek equalization of net family property instead. I was completely unaware that a post-wedding inheritance is yours and yours alone, but any income derived from it is jointly owned unless the testator clearly indicated otherwise.

What surprised me most, however, is that the law ascribes so many rights and obligations upon unmarried cohabitating couples. Shacked up for a year? Bae can make your health-care decisions should you become incapacitated. You’ve lived in sin for three years before you split? Spousal support’s on the table. My extremely unscientific poll of Toronto-area millennials found few understand what they’re signing up for when they move in with their significant others or know they can opt out via contract.

And that’s where Single Girl Problems and its brethren could come into play. Media attention on spousal support shouldn’t be limited to personal finance newspaper columns. Why not start a conversation about the financial consequences of decisions of the heart with a group of mostly young mostly women as they sip overpriced cocktails on a Wednesday night? Real estate agents and mortgage brokers should also be encouraged to share with their coupled-up clients easy-to-read pamphlets explaining the legal repercussions of cohabitation.

But to ensure everyone understands what cohabitation might entail, provinces should include basic family law lessons in high school. The class could also include other life administration tasks: how to file taxes, how to make an insurance claim, how to write a will, even how to talk about uncomfortable topics such as money, STD tests and cohabitation agreements with romantic partners.

In Ontario, such a class could replace Grade 10 careers, the highlight of which, as I recall, was taking personality quizzes and Googling to find which teachers made the Sunshine List. In 2017, Ontario committed to incorporating more financial literacy through its grades four to 12 curricula so students “can understand how to make informed financial decisions,” according to the Ministry of Education’s website. Making informed romantic decisions that carry enormous legal and financial repercussions is just as important.

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