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Surprise—You’re Married! Understanding Legal Consequences of Living Common Law in BC

a couple is living happily under common law

In British Columbia, you can be a spouse even if you are not legally married and never plan to get married. BC’s Family Law Act states that unmarried partners who live together in a “marriage-like relationship” for a certain period of time have the same legal rights and obligations as married spouses. Many cohabiting couples in BC are not aware that they are considered spouses.


Fewer still are aware of their legal and financial obligations to each other. Read on for information about cohabitation requirements and the legal implications of living common law in BC.


When are you considered common law in BC?


In 2013, BC’s Family Law Act expanded the definition of “spouse” to include unmarried partners who live together in a “marriage-like relationship” for a continuous period of at least two years. This means couples who have lived together for two years or more automatically have the same rights and obligations on separation as married couples. If they break up, they are entitled to an equal share of all property accumulated during their relationship, and they are required to equally share all debt, including credit card debt, student loans, and vehicle loans. A common-law spouse, like a married spouse, also has the right to make a claim for spousal support. For more on cohabitation requirements and what it means to be in a “marriage-like” relationship, have a look at this article from our blog. 


How long is common law in BC vs. the rest of Canada?


It is important to be aware that the law in BC is different from the federal law and the law in other provinces. For example, family law in Ontario is that unmarried partners are considered common law after three years of cohabitation and the Ontario rules for division of common law property are much less generous than in BC.


Federal law, which applies to matters such as income taxes, benefits, immigration, and Old Age Pension, defines common law in a different way. The federal government considers an unmarried couple to be in a common law relationship after just one year of living together in a conjugal relationship (which is similar to BC’s definition of “marriage-like”).


Rates of cohabitation are steadily increasing


Over the years, living with a partner without being married has become much more acceptable throughout the world. In fact, among G7 countries, Canada has the highest share of couples that are living common law (23%). 


Why is cohabitation increasing?


Rates of cohabitation are increasing due to a number of factors, including changing societal values, fear of commitment to marriage and the desire to not add to the increase in divorce rates. Another major factor is the skyrocketing cost of living. Many couples are choosing to live together to share expenses without realizing the significant legal consequences of that decision.


You can opt out of being automatically common law in BC


An unmarried couple who lives together for a continuous period of at least two years is automatically considered common law in BC unless they actively “opt-out” of the law that applies to common law relationships. Common law spouses can opt out by entering into a written Cohabitation Agreement that is properly signed and witnessed.


A Cohabitation Agreement is like a prenuptial agreement or a marriage contract. In it, the couple can agree on how property and debt will be divided if they should separate. For example, the couple can agree to keep all their assets and debts separate. The couple can also decide whether there will be spousal support if they end their relationship. The process of separating may be much easier if you have an enforceable cohabitation agreement in place. This agreement could ensure that the automatic property division rules in the B.C. Family Law Act do not apply to you.


Call Valerie M. Little Law Corporation When You Need a Common Law Lawyer


If you are concerned about how BC’s rules relating to unmarried spouses apply to common law property and debt in your situation, contact Valerie M. Little for help. Ms. Little can advise you on your common law legal rights and entitlements. She can assist you with preparing a cohabitation agreement that will apply if you do separate in the future. If your common law relationship is at an end, Ms. Little can assist you in preparing a legal agreement between you and your former partner customized to your particular situation.


Valerie M. Little strives to resolve legal problems amicably and outside the court through mediation and negotiation, but she is ready to go to court for you, if necessary. Arrange your private and confidential family law consultation with Valerie M. Little, a family lawyer in Coquitlam with over 30 years of experience, by calling her office at 604-526-3333 today or emailing her at


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