How is property divided when a common-law relationship ends?

Common-law couples who live together for more than two years largely have the same property rights as married couples.

British Columbia's common-law property rights are unique in Canada

Many couples today live together in what are often described as marriage-like relationships (previously called common-law relationships) without going through the process of actually becoming legally married. In fact, according to 2011 Statistics Canada data reported on by the Globe and Mail, the growth of common-law relationships is ten times that of marriages. Many common-law relationships develop in such a way that partners can become financially dependent on one another or share joint accounts and financial interests, much as spouses would in a marriage. For British Columbians who are in a common-law relationship, it is useful to note that the province's laws are unique in Canada when it comes to dividing property after a relationship ends.

Dividing property

The rules for dividing property that is acquired during a common-law relationship are governed by the province's Family Law Act, which was introduced in 2013. Unlike in many other provinces, the law in British Columbia largely treats the property rights of common-law couples as being the same as married couples in the event of a relationship breakdown.

Both partners in a common-law relationship have an equal right to the family property (and an equal obligation regarding family debt) that was acquired during their relationship so long as they have been living together in a conjugal relationship for at least two years or if they have had a child together. Not all property, however, can be divided. Inheritances, gifts, settlements, and awards for damages are exempt from division. Assets that were owned by either partner prior to the relationship beginning are also excluded, although if those assets have increased in value during the relationship then the monetary value of that increase can be divided.

Cohabitation agreements

Subjecting common-law couples to the same rules concerning division of property will undoubtedly protect many people who are going through the end of a long-term relationship. At the same time, as the National Post points out, other couples can be shocked to learn that the law largely treats their relationship as though it were a marriage and the end of such a relationship as though it were a divorce.

A cohabitation agreement can be particularly useful for common-law couples in British Columbia. Similarly to a prenuptial agreement for married couples, a cohabitation agreement can dictate how property is to be divided in the event that a couple that is living together eventually chooses to part ways. As with a prenuptial agreement, a cohabitation agreement should be drafted with the assistance of a qualified legal professional.

Understanding family law

Regardless of whether people are in a marriage or a common-law relationship, they should always reach out to an experienced lawyer when confronted with issues related to family law. A dedicated lawyer can help inform people of how the law applies to their specific situations and what the best steps to take may be in order to protect their and their family's best interests.