You’ve likely heard the term ‘common law’ and liken it to being married in the eyes of the law — only without the actual certificate. But many BC residents are not fully aware of what becoming common law may actually mean for them in a legal sense. For example, what positive or negative legal consequences may occur when a couple shifts from just dating into “common law” status? And how would you decide whether a couple is common law in the first place? It is important to educate yourself in order to make the most informed decision for yourself and your relationship, given the various legal issues that may arise when you separate from someone who has become your common law spouse.

Potential Consequences

Under the Family Law Act, in order to become common law spouses, you have to have been living together in a marriage-like relationship for a continuous period of two years or more.

That’s an important marker because after you have become common law you can suddenly have some rights and responsibilities towards each other that you didn’t have before when you were just dating. For example, you could end up being on the hook to pay spousal support to a financially dependent common law spouse if your relationship ends (or become entitled to claim spousal support yourself if you were financially dependent on your common law spouse). Additionally, in some cases you could be required to share some of your property with your former common law spouse upon separation — something that you wouldn’t be required do with a roommate or someone who you’re just casually dating.

What Constitutes A Marriage-Like Relationship?

There’s no one set of criteria that indicates that a couple is in a marriage-like relationship, simply because all marriages are different. No individual marriage is the same, so no common law relationship that looks like a marriage is going to be the same either. And not every couple who moves in together treats that step as a commitment akin to marriage – for many, moving in together is meant to test out the relationship, and that marriage-like commitment will develop over more time. So what constitutes a marriage-like relationship?

Considered Factors

If asked to decide whether a relationship is marriage-like, the court will take into account a broad number of factors related to the couple’s social and financial dynamics and the way they present themselves as a couple to the world. For example, have they been merging their finances – perhaps buying items or property together as a couple, or opening a joint bank account? Have they been filing their taxes together as common law spouses, or perhaps putting each other on their workplace benefit plans? With respect to the social dynamics of the relationship, are they interacting with one another in a way that we would expect married spouses to do, such as eating meals together, being physically intimate, and taking care of each other when they are sick? Do they spend time with each other’s friends and families, and how integrated are they into those groups? All in all, there are a number of factors that go into determining whether a couple is actually in a marriage-like relationship.

Determining whether you and your significant other are common law is a legal question, and not as straightforward as it may seem – as is determining what your financial obligations to a common-law spouse could be upon separation. Whether you’re currently in a common law situation and seek to understand your rights or you’re considering entering into a common law situation and want to learn the pros and cons, we have the experts to help you understand and navigate it all.

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