Many common-law couples have same rights as married couples

This article looks at what the legal definition of “spouse” is in British Columbia and why it matters.

Family law in British Columbia is constantly evolving. One of the most important changes in recent years concerns the legal rights of common-law couples. In 2013 a new legal definition of "spouse" came into effect which, as CBC News reported at the time, essentially gave many long-term common-law couples the same rights as married couples. The change in the law is meant to protect individuals from the financial and legal complications that can arise when a long-term relationship breaks down. However, people in common-law relationships need to be aware of what their rights and obligations are so that they are not caught off guard in the future.

The new meaning of "spouse"

Under B.C. law, a spouse is not just somebody who is legally married. The legislation that came into effect significantly broadens the definition of the term. In addition to married couples, a spousal relationship now also exists when two unmarried people live together in a marriage-like relationship for two continuous years or if they have a child together.

Furthermore, while a common-law couple is recognized as being in a spousal relationship after two years of living together, for legal purposes that spousal relationship is deemed to have begun when the couple actually moved in together or when they got married, whichever event comes first.

Why the change matters

Changing the legal definition of spouse is about more than just semantics. It also has a significant impact on the rights and obligations of people in common-law relationships. When a long-term common-law relationship breaks down, that break up is now treated as being almost identical to a divorce. That means that the property that the couple has accumulated over the course of their relationship is now largely considered to belong to both spouses. In other words, regardless of whose name such property is in, it may be subject to division.

That change offers significant protection to people who may have given up a promising career to stay in their relationship (such as by giving up a job offer in another city, for example), but, as the Globe and Mail reports, it could also lead to unwanted surprises. For example, the debt that just one spouse has taken on could suddenly be divided between both spouses if the relationship comes to an end.

Getting protection

A cohabitation agreement, which is essentially a prenuptial agreement for common-law couples, can protect against such unwanted occurrences. For couples who want to decide for themselves how their property will be divided if their relationship ever comes to an end then a lawyer can help. An experienced lawyer can assist clients with drafting a cohabitation agreement and with any other family law concerns they may have.