[I did] "haying, raking, swathing, moving, driving trucks and tractors and teams, quietening horses, taking cattle back and forth to the reserve, dehorning, vaccinating, branding, anything that was to be done. I worked outside with him, just as a man would..."
Irene Murdoch's evidence
Murdoch v. Murdoch is a 1973 Supreme Court of Canada decision from Alberta [http://canlii.ca/t/1xv6k]. It shows law as a blunt instrument when adapting to social change. The case involved the application of old property law principles to emerging matrimonial property realities.
In Canada, marriage was traditional up to the late 1970s. The spouses were male and female, divorce was rare by modern standards and property was mostly held in the husband's name. In the 1970s this started to change as divorce increased after divorce laws were liberalized and people lived together and separated without formal marriage. Women found they had a tenuous claim to share in the property they had acquired and contributed to during the cohabitation.
Women argued that under standard trust law, they had acquired a beneficial interest in matrimonial property to which they indirectly contributed.
Irene and Alex Murdoch married in 1943 and worked for four years on Alberta ranches as a hired couple. Multiple properties of increasing value were bought and sold in succession by Alex, culminating in a substantial ranch at Black Diamond, Alberta. Throughout the marriage Irene worked on the property alongside her husband. She operated the ranch during her husband's substantial absences while he was tending other businesses.
When the marriage ended in 1968, Irene claimed a half interest in the ranch and other assets, the titles of which were in her husband's name. This amounted to about $95,000. She said she was an equal in the ranching business during their 25 years of marriage.
At the Supreme Court of Canada
There had been a few decisions where, in exceptional circumstances of labour and sacrifice, wives could be entitled to a proprietary interest merely from marriage and cohabitation, and without financial contribution. The legal principle was resulting or constructive trust.
Four of the five male judges concluded that Irene's work did not exceed that which is expected of a typical ranch wife. A trust would be found if she had contributed money or if there was a common intention at the time of property acquisition to hold equal shares in trust. Irene could prove...