Common-law relationships

The term "common-law relationship" is often used to refer to a marriage-like relationship that has lasted a certain length of time, usually one or two years. Used in some federal laws to refer to a marriage-like relationship of a year or longer.



Frequently asked questions

Can I get legal aid for my family law problem?

Legal aid in BC, provided by the Legal Services Society (LSS), can take one of three possible forms: legal representation, legal advice, or legal information.

If you are financially eligible, you may be able to get legal representation and most legal advice for free. The eligibility guidelines for legal advice and for legal representation are separate. Legal information (plus some kinds of legal advice) is free to all British Columbians. If you're reading this page, you've already received a form of legal aid.

To find out more about legal representation for family law problems and what's covered, see the Serious family problems or Child protection matters pages on the LSS website. If you don't qualify for legal representation, you may still be eligible for legal advice services.

To find out for sure whether your particular case qualifies for legal representation, go to your local legal aid office (or call the provincial LSS Call Centre) to apply.

Can my ex-spouse make me pay half their debts?

If you're married or have lived together for at least two years, the debts that either of you incurred while you were living together are considered family debt. When you break up, the starting point is that responsibility for all family debt is divided equally between you. This might not apply if it would be "significantly unfair" to divide it this way.

However, the person who you or your ex-spouse owe money to can only try to recover that debt from the person whose name is on the debt.

What can I do about a collection agency that's harassing me about my former partner's debt?

When we lived common-law, my partner bought furniture for the apartment with his credit card (not a joint card). He took half the furniture when we split up and didn't keep up the credit card payments. The collection agency is threatening to repossess my furniture and garnish my wages.

Because your name wasn't on your former partner's credit card account, you're not responsible for any charges on that account even though you have some of the items purchased on it. The collection agency can only collect from the person listed on the credit card. Your partner could possibly get a court order to get you to pay part of his debt, but that is between you and your spouse.

The only way the credit card company could touch your personal property or wages would be to successfully sue you in court and get a court order authorizing the seizure. As you have no direct responsibility for the debt, this is unlikely to happen.

To stop the collection agency bothering you, send a letter by fax or registered mail to the agency saying that you dispute the "debt" and would like them to go to court if they think they have a case (which they don't). Under BC's consumer protection laws, the agency can then no longer communicate with you.

For more information, see the fact sheets Dealing with debts after separation and How to divide property and debts and the online manual Consumer Law and Credit/Debt Law.

When can I stop paying child support? Is it when my child turns 19 or when she finishes college or university?

Parents who are separated or divorced must financially support their children, even, in some circumstances, after those children become adults (at 19). Children are entitled to be supported by their parents if they are under 19, or if they are 19 or over but unable to support themselves because of illness, disability, or some other reason, such as going to school full-time.

For more detailed information, see our fact sheet about when child support ends.

Can Immigration Canada ask me for proof that my past common-law relationship is over before I can sponsor my new husband?

Yes — one of the documents they ask for is a "Declaration of severance." It's probably enough to submit a letter saying that your relationship with your former partner ended as of a certain date, and that you've not tried to reconcile (get back together). Be sure to sign the letter.

However, if you want to make completely sure that the immigration office is satisfied, you can hire a notary public to write up a Statutory Declaration for you with the same information. You then swear to the truth of the declaration in front of the notary public, who puts his or her seal on the document.

Am I married if we live common-law long enough?

No, you aren't married, but after two years, you have a lot of the same rights as a married couple would. And some federal benefits treat you as married spouses if you've been living together for one year.

You can't "become" married by default — you have to actively go and get married for the law to treat you and your partner exactly as it would a married couple.

But when it comes to matters such as health insurance, government benefits (including retirement), and inheritance, you could be treated like married spouses. Generally, it takes two years together before this is the case, but many benefits are available after just one year of living together, or have no minimum requirements.

When it comes to dividing property and debt, the courts will treat you like a married couple if you had lived together for at least two years before you broke up. When it comes to determining spousal support, the courts will treat you like a married couple if you lived together for at least two years, or for less than two years but had a child together. See our fact sheets How to divide property and debts and Spousal support.

For more information, speak to a lawyer. We also have a booklet called Living Together or Living Apart: Common-Law Relationships, Marriage, Separation, and Divorce.

How is property divided when a common-law relationship ends? Our house has both our names on the deed. If one party paid all of the down payment, then how should the house value be split?

For dividing property and debts, couples who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for two years are treated like married couples. This means you equally share all the property you acquired during the relationship. If you bought the house while you were in a marriage-like relationship, it doesn't matter who paid the down payment — the house is considered family property and you'll have to divide it equally. (If either of you owned property that was bought before the relationship, you have to share the amount by which the value of the property increased since you started living together.)

However, if applying the rule would result in significant unfairness, a judge can order a division that's not 50/50.

Our publication Living Together or Living Apart: Common-Law Relationships, Marriage, Separation, and Divorce contains a discussion of division of property for common-law couples (see Chapter 5). See also our fact sheet How to divide property and debts.

JP Boyd's family law website contains a section about property and debt for unmarried spouses.

To find out where you can go for legal advice, see Who can help? for information about various services, including the Lawyer Referral Service.

Still got a question?

If your legal information question isn't answered here, please send us an email. Provide some background information for your question, including where you live in BC and the level of court involved (Provincial or Supreme), if applicable. Your question (without your name or identifying details) and its answer may be added to our FAQ pages.

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