What happens if your common-law partner dies?

In BC, if you've been in a marriage-like relationship (you might call it a common-law relationship, but that’s not a legal term in BC) for at least two years, the law:

  • treats the two of you like a married couple, and
  • calls your partner your spouse.

Your spouse can be:

  • the same sex as you, or
  • the opposite sex from you.

Many of the laws about wills and inheritances are the same for married people and people who've lived together as if they were married. You might need to speak to a lawyer about this.

Click the text that applies to your situation to find out more about the rules around wills.

If your spouse made a will and they left you something in it:

  • you just go through the usual legal steps to probate the will, but
  • any debts that your spouse owed have to be paid off first from the money they leave. (That can include any debts they owed to an ex-spouse or to their children.)

A judge might change what's written in a will if:

  • your spouse leaves you nothing or very little in the will; or
  • you and your spouse had children together or adopted any children and they're not in the will; or
  • your spouse was in a relationship with someone before you and they:
    • didn't leave enough for those children to take care of them, or
    • left them nothing.

If this happens, you or the other people involved can go to court and ask the judge to change the will.

If your spouse didn't make a will, get legal advice:

  • you have a right to a share of the estate, but
  • any children you and your partner had together or adopted also have a right to a share of it.

What about your spouse's children?

If your spouse dies without leaving a will and you want their children to live with you, you might have to go to court to apply for guardianship of them, even if they're already living with you.

If you adopted your spouse's children before your spouse died, you're still their parent after your spouse dies.

Other rights

The law says you have certain rights after your spouse dies, even if they don't leave a will.

Here are some rights you should know about.

Joint bank accounts

If you and your spouse had a joint account with right of survivorship, the account automatically belongs to you after your spouse dies. You just need to show the bank your spouse's death certificate.

If you have problems with this, contact the bank's head office.

House ownership

If you and your spouse own a house in joint tenancy, after your spouse dies:

  • you'll be the living joint tenant, and
  • you'll become the owner of the whole house.

If you own the house as tenants in common, after your spouse dies, their share goes to:

  • the person it was left to in the will, or
  • their general estate.

The title deeds of your property will tell you if you're joint tenants or tenants in common.

If it doesn't actually say "joint tenancy" (or if it doesn't call you a joint tenant), it's automatically a tenancy in common.

If you live on reserve

The Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act says that if your spouse dies, you can stay in the family home for at least 180 days (six months).

But you can apply to stay there for longer.

If you apply to stay in the family home for longer than 180 days, the court will look at several things before it makes a decision.

For more information about your rights if you live on reserve, see Wills and estates on reserve on our Aboriginal Legal Aid in BC website.

Life insurance policies

If your spouse named you as the beneficiary in any life insurance policies, you get insurance money when they die.

Usually the insurance company will give you some of the money right away to help with expenses. You get the rest when the legal paperwork is done.

Wages

Ask your spouse's employer if you can get any wages that were owed to your spouse.

Workers' compensation

If your spouse is killed at work, you might get workers' compensation death benefits if you and your spouse:

  • lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years; or
  • had a child together and lived in a marriage-like relationship for at least one year.

But compensation and pension plans are all different.

If your spouse was part of a union or a pension plan, call them to find out if you get any other death benefits or life insurance proceeds. Many unions and private pensions have small insurance or death benefit policies for the benefit of a survivor.

If your spouse was supporting an ex-spouse or children (or if they were supposed to be supporting them), the ex-spouse or children might have a right to these benefits, too.

To find out more, call WorkSafeBC:

  • 604-231-8888 (Greater Vancouver)
  • 1-888-967-5377 (elsewhere in BC)

Crime Victim Assistance Program

If your spouse died because they were a victim of a violent crime, you might be able to get financial help from the Crime Victim Assistance Program.

The money is supposed to make up for loss of income and to help pay for burial, counselling for you or your family, or similar expenses. It doesn't compensate for pain and suffering.

To find out more about the Crime Victim Assistance Program, call:

  • 604-660-3888 (Greater Vancouver)
  • 1-866-660-3888 (elsewhere in BC)

Canada Pension Plan

If your spouse paid into the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), you might be able to get some benefits.

For CPP, you're treated as a married couple if you lived together for at least one year before your spouse died.

CPP benefits can include:

  • Death benefit: A lump-sum benefit that's paid into the contributor's estate (that is, a lump sum that's added to any money that your spouse had).
  • Survivor's pension: A monthly benefit that's paid to the surviving spouse. You have to be over 35 for this unless:
    • you have dependent children living with you, or
    • you have a disability.