What Does “Common-Law” Mean in British Columbia?

In Canada, the number of common-law relationships is growing faster than the number of marriages. The meaning of, and rights associated with, common-law relationships differ widely across our country. 

If you are unmarried and live with your partner, it is important to be aware of your rights and obligations in the case of dissolution of your relationship. 

In British Columbia, on March 18, 2013 a new act called the Family Law Act (the FLA) came into force replacing the Family Relations Act. 

The new FLA governs the practice of family law in this province along with the Divorce Act, a piece of federal legislation. Neither the FLA nor the Divorce Act contains the term “common-law,” but with the new FLA came a new legal definition of “spouse.”

This new definition of spouse can include people in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships, and can include married or unmarried (common-law) couples. 

Unmarried people who have been in a marriage-like relationship for two years or more are considered to be spouses under BC law and have the same rights and obligations as married couples. 

This means that if you are unmarried and have been living with your partner for over two years, the law treats you as a married couple upon dissolution of your relationship, requiring a 50/50 split of your shared debts and assets, excluding pre-relationship property, inheritances and gifts.

On the other hand, people who have lived in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years are not considered to be spouses unless they have a child together, in which case they are considered spouses solely under the spousal support part of the FLA. This means that they are not considered spouses under the law dealing with property or pensions. 

In addition, it is important to note that laws pertaining to parenting arrangements and child support apply to parents regardless of their marital status or living arrangements. 

It is advisable for some common-law couples to enter into legally binding cohabitation agreements in order to avoid additional stress and conflict in the case of a potential break-up. 

A cohabitation agreement can resolve issues such as division of property, responsibility for debts and the payment of spousal support. 

A lawyer can help you draft an appropriate cohabitation agreement for your particular circumstances, or help you through the various legal issues arising from the potential dissolution of a common-law relationship. 

Please contact our office if you have questions or would like assistance with a cohabitation agreement.