Common-law relationships 101

Author: Family Lawyer Matthew Katsionis
How Long Do We Have to Live Together and What does it Mean?
It may be the question family lawyers get asked the most: how long do I have to live with my partner until we are considered common-law? Generally, the law in British Columbia is 2 years, but there are some exceptions. Section 3 of the British Columbia Family Law Act states:

A person is a spouse for the purposes of this Act if the person
(a) is married to another person, or
(b) has lived with another person in a marriage-like relationship, and

  • (i)has done so for a continuous period of at least 2 years, or
  • (ii)except in Parts 5 [Property Division] and 6 [Pension Division], has a child with the other person.

Therefore, you must be living with your partner in a marriage-like relationship for a period of 2 years, or you need to have a child with the person you are living with, in which case it will shorten the period of time needed to become a spouse. In the Family Law Act of British Columbia, the term common-law is not used and instead the Family Law Act just considers people to be spouses if they meet the conditions set out in section 3.

The period of time it takes to become common-law is different in every province. For example, the family Law legislation in Alberta is very similar but it takes three years to become common-law.

What is a marriage-like relationship?
A marriage-like relationship in British Columbia is one where you are living together, and in the eyes of reasonable third parties you are in a marriage-like relationship. Intimacy is a factor, but not the defining factor. Other factors can include shared bank accounts, shared pets, sharing chores and household responsibilities, planning for the future together and drafting joint wills among other things.

What are the consequences of a common-law relationship in British Columbia?
In B.C., common-law means that you have the same rights, responsibilities and liabilities as someone who is legally married. Most notably, that includes, but is not limited to, rights such as:

  • The right to 50% of all property, assets and debts accumulated during cohabitation if the relationship breaks down and you separate. This includes bank accounts, investments (RRSP and TFSAs for example), businesses, real property such as a condo or a house, cars, pets and anything else that is worth money;
  • The potential right to receive spousal support (alimony) after separation; and
  • Potential rights to pensions such as a work pension and Canada Pension Plan.

As common-law relationships in British Columbia are treated the same as marriages, you can also enter into a cohabitation agreement, which is a prenuptial agreement for common-law relationships. A cohabitation agreement works to help protect your financial interests and limit your liabilities in the event of separation. It also helps to reduce conflict in the event of separation as the rules with respect to how property and other assets are divided up is clearly outlined in the cohabitation agreement. This is especially true if businesses are involved, as the Family Law Act of British Columbia treats a business that has been developed or increased in value during the relationship the same as any other asset.

If you are currently cohabitating and worried about how assets will be divided in the event there is ever a separation, do not try drafting a cohabitation agreement on your own. Home-made cohabitation agreements are rarely enforceable as there are very specific terms that are required to increase the likelihood that an agreement will be upheld if ever challenged in Court.

If you have any questions about cohabitation agreements, prenuptial agreements or marriage agreements the family Law team at Crossroads Law Vancouver is happy to help. We offer flat rates for uncontested cohabitation and prenuptial agreements as well as other family law services.