Mon | Nov 20, 2017

Laws of Eve | What does it mean to be 'single'?

Published:Monday | September 11, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Although the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is not Jamaica's final appellate court, the decisions of that court are still of interest to us, because they could influence the outcome of similar cases in Jamaica. For that reason, the case of Katrina Smith v Albert Anthony Selby [2017] CCJ 13, which commenced in Barbados, is required reading.

For more than nine years after the death of Albert Michael Selby (Michael), his lady love (Katrina) and his brother (Anthony) waged a legal battle over who is entitled to benefit from his estate since he died interstate that is, without leaving behind a will.

The Succession Act (the act) in Barbados presented two options, based on the categories of possible beneficiaries. If Katrina was deemed to be Michael's spouse, she would be entitled to two-thirds of his estate, but if she was not, she would inherit nothing, and his siblings would be entitled to share his estate equally.

Michael and Katrina commenced cohabitation in 2002 while Michael was married, but separated, from his wife. He eventually got divorced in 2004. They continued to live together until Michael's sudden death in 2008.

Like many statutes in Jamaica that define spouse, Barbados' act defines a spouse to include a single man or woman who cohabits with a single woman or single man as if they were in law husband and wife for a period of not less than five years immediately preceding his or her death. In this case, Katrina resided with Michael for more than a total of six years, but for less than five years after he got divorced.

 

THE MEANING OF SINGLE

 

The central issue in the case was the meaning of the word 'single' and the duration of cohabitation as a single man. The trial judge ruled that Katrina could administer Michael's estate as a spouse, but the Court of Appeal reversed that ruling and found that, in its ordinary meaning, the word 'single' was intended to reflect the parties' status throughout the five-year period of cohabitation.

In ruling that Katrina was Michael's spouse and entitled to benefit from inheritance, the CCJ concluded that "inheritance as spouse is based on cohabitation for five years, not the status of being married". In summary, the rationale for that ruling is that:

- The court's primary role of interpreting statutes is to give effect to the intention of Parliament by using available material and understanding the objective of the legislation.

- The legislation must be reviewed as a whole and consideration must be given to the social and historical context.

The old law afforded rights of inheritance based on the marital status of the parties at the date of the death of the deceased, and that did not include an unmarried cohabiting partner of the deceased. Under the act, there is provision for a cohabiting partner who does not qualify to be a spouse to receive maintenance from the deceased partner's estate. However, such a cohabiting partner must pass the five-year threshold in order to inherit from the estate.

When Katrina and Michael began to cohabit, she was a single woman and he was a married man, who became single when his divorce was granted in 2004. They lived together for a period of not less than five years.

The adjective 'single', which qualifies the terms 'man' and 'woman', is descriptive of a quality which the parties must have possessed immediately before the death of the deceased and not a state which must have endured for the five-year period.

Whether there would be a similar outcome in Jamaica is left to be seen, but the ruling in this case may well affect the quality of the advice Jamaican lawyers give to married men or women who get divorced while living with single partners.

- Sherry Ann McGregor is a partner and mediator in the firm of Nunes Scholefield DeLeon & Co. Please send questions and comments to lawsofeve@gmail.com or lifestyle@gleanerjm.com.