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How do spouses divide property when a relationship ends?

Dividing assets and debt following the end of a marriage or a long-term relationship can be difficult for spouses in British Columbia. Family laws concerning separation and divorce use the term "spouses" in reference to married individuals, as well as parties in a common-law relationship for a minimum of two years.

Under provincial law, property division is an equal split of assets and debt between spouses. The exception would be a prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement spelling out different terms for ownership and debt obligations. Otherwise, all assets other than excluded property are divisible.

Excluded property includes assets belonging solely to one spouse. Specifically, this is property a person owned prior to marriage or acquired as the result of a direct inheritance or gift. A portion of some excluded assets may be included in family property - any increase in asset value during the time a couple was married or living together belongs to both spouses.

The shared ownership of family property extends to debts -- it makes no difference whether the property or debt is in one or both spouses' names. A spouse is entitled to half of a pension, a marital home, a business or any other investment. A spouse also must share responsibility equally for the burden of family property debt, including bills related to the property following separation.

Courts divide family property in unequal portions only when one party's share is "unfair." To determine fairness, a court considers the length of the relationship and circumstances surrounding debt, along with the spouses' ability to make debt payments.

To avoid financial problems down the road, it is advisable to divide finances as much possible upon separation by contacting creditors, changing beneficiaries and ending as many joint accounts or credit lines as you can. An attorney can help you through this process and represent your interests in the event of a property conflict.

Source: Family Law in British Columbia, "How to divide property and debts," accessed May 8, 2015

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