Live-in couples now legally common-law after two years

Debts accrued during relationship now shared between couple

NORTH VANCOUVER (CUP) — Earlier this month, BC’s Family Relations Act made a big change that affected many live-in couples in the province. According to the new Family Law Act, live-in couples who have been together for two years will now be considered to be common-law married and will have to divide assets and debts — acquired during the relationship — in half.

Government is the new church — (Courtesy of Douglas Palmer)

Government is the new church — (Courtesy of Douglas Palmer)

The government hopes that this will help modernize the former act, which was in much need of an update with the rate of common-law marriages rising 13.9 per cent between 2006 and 2011.

The new laws are aimed to help clarify the meaning of “family” and parental responsibilities as well as to assist in making the application for spousal support easier.

The law may seem unfair to younger couples moving in together who do not want to divide assets and just want to save a little money, but proponents say that the change was necessary for many couples.

“There are common law relationships that last for 17 years with no spousal support or property rights, that looked like any other marriage,” said Monika Follett, a law professor at Capilano University. “For them it’s very fair — there are no extra hoops to say that it is like a marriage.”

Although other provinces such as New Brunswick and Quebec are not changing their laws for common-law marriage and will be continuing the same type of law British Columbia had previously, the government feels that they need to catch up with society.

There has been an increase in common-law couples in the past few years and a growing demand to re-define “family” Follett points out. “It’s a different approach, to try to catch up with society. Law is always 10 years behind society, it took until 2005 for same-sex marriage to be legal.”

The new laws safeguards pre-marriage assets, inheritance, [pullquote]”The new laws safeguards pre-marriage assets, inheritance, and lottery wins in the case of a break-up.”[/pullquote]and lottery wins in the case of a break-up. Couples can opt-out of this new law by choosing to legally remain seen as roommates and not as a common-law couple. It also makes division of property more transparent, especially when it comes to property owned before becoming live-in partners.

For young couples planning on moving in together Follett said, “They should sit down, each individually with a lawyer and go over the pros and cons and create a written agreement so that later on there’s no confusion. It’s important to know your rights.”

Courtney Fentiman, who is now 22, was with her boyfriend for four years and lived with him for three years, making them a formerly common law-married couple.

“It’s a lot of pressure to put on a relatively young couple. There is definitely a huge stigma surrounding the word ‘marriage.’ When someone becomes your spouse rather than someone you’re just dating, the weight of that change can cause undue stress on the relationship,” said Fentiman.

“You know something has definitely shifted when one day [after the given two years] you can randomly start referring to your live-in boyfriend as your ‘husband’ — it changes things.”

For people who are looking to move ahead but aren’t ready for the full commitment of marriage and division of assets, the idea of moving in with your partner may be something to put on the backburner, along with all of the other considerations.

“On a certain level, it takes the carefree element from the equation. Not only do you share a relationship, but you are also bound monetarily, which takes a huge amount of trust,” said Fentiman. “It may even be the reason for these relationships to end, considering how much is at stake without even being literally married. However, it could also work the opposite way and solidify your relationship, knowing that you both have more than just emotions invested and are choosing to combine your lives.

“The tricky thing about common-law marriage is the fact that one enters into this union often not by conscious choice, but by simply cohabiting for a given period of time. It also gives you more to think about when considering to end the relationship … You may be more hesitant to do so if it means you will take a financial blow.”

With these new changes, couples may want to know their rights and understand what they’re heading into when they move in with their partner. If the relationship is one that is expected to last then the division of assets could be a good thing, but with a law like this couples may consider talking to a lawyer before reaching those two years that lead to common-law marital bliss.

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