Understanding BC's Laws On Unmarried Relationships

British Columbia was one of the first provinces in the country to recognize that families come in all shapes and sizes. As such, its family laws include provisions for couples who live together, but are not officially married, which has become increasingly more common. Here are some of the questions (and answers) our lawyers hear regarding common law marriage.

Define 'Common Law Marriage.' What Does It Actually Mean?

In March 2013, BC's Legislature updated the Family Law Act and expanded the definition/role of a common-law marriage or relationship. Essentially, it means that people who live in a "marriage-like" relationship for at least two years will be considered spouses in terms of property and, in some cases, spousal support.

If you split up, the law expects you to divide family assets (and any appreciation on excluded assets) fairly in your separation agreement, just like married couples who divorce. You may also qualify for spousal support if you make a claim within a certain time frame, and you could seek inheritance if your partner dies without a will or clear estate plan.

So What Does 'Marriage-Like' Mean?

The law isn't clear on the exact parameters of what marriage-like means. In some ways, this benefits couples because it allows for flexibility, since every couple's relationship will be different. In other ways, however, this can cause confusion and, in some cases, expensive legal battles over the division or inheritance of property and assets.

Generally speaking, the Court looks at the following when determining whether people live in a marriage-like relationship:

  • The couple's living arrangements — Do they live together? Do they own property jointly or routinely inhabit each other's respective homes or cottages?
  • Their sexual relations — Does the couple have an intimate or romantic relationship? How long has this sort of relationship lasted?
  • The attitudes each person has toward the other — Do they share affection for each other? Are they monogamous? Do they consider the other their partner in life?
  • Their domestic responsibilities — Do the partners share home-owning responsibilities or finances? Are they involved in their partner's children's lives and take an active role in parenting them? Do they share investments?
  • Their social life as a couple — Do they have shared friends? Do they regularly vacation together? Do they attend social functions and present themselves as a couple to the public?

These aren't the only factors the Court may consider, but they can give you a good guideline for how it might view your relationship if you ever end up in a familial dispute.

So I Might Have To Divide My Assets 50/50 If I Break Up. What Can I Do?

What you can do to protect separate assets and property depends in part on your current circumstances:

  • If a breakup seems imminent, you should speak with a family lawyer soon about your options for negotiating a separation agreement. At Westside, we have extensive experience helping unmarried spouses protect individual investments and property while simultaneously seeking effective solutions in an efficient manner.
  • If you are considering moving in together or purchasing a home together, you need a cohabitation agreement. This contract spells out how you and your partner would divide up your assets, property and debt if you split up in the future. It can also include your agreements regarding spousal support and preferences for dispute resolution (e.g., you can agree to use mediation should a dispute arise).
  • If you are considering marriage, a prenuptial agreement may be more appropriate. We can help you determine which option best suits your needs. Contrary to popular belief, a marriage agreement can give you both peace of mind and strengthen your relationship, since you will know where each person stands financially. This can lift significant stress off of you as you plan for your special day.

Remember that an effective family agreement of any kind involves input from both parties. If the Court finds that the agreement skews more to one side or that a partner was pressured to sign it under duress, it can set aside the agreement. Know your rights before you sign!

Get Your Questions Answered

We are happy to help you understand the legal ramifications of your relationship. Our firm has represented Vancouver families of all kinds for decades, and we know each case requires a unique approach. Call us at 604-800-8853 or schedule an appointment by email to get your questions about common law marriage answered.