A lot of myths go around about what common-law actually is — don’t get your definition of common-law from friends or TV. Here’s how to protect yourself in a common-law relationship.
According to Statistics Canada, nearly 700,000 people in Ontario choose to forego a trip down the aisle and live in a common-law relationship instead.
In Ontario, a Common-law relationship is defined under the family law act as two people, whether opposite or same-sex, who have been living together for at least three years or have a child and have been living together for some permanence.
Although some people refer to common-law relationships as common-law marriages, they’re wrong. Such a marriage does not exist because a common-law relationship is strictly a relationship. There’s no legal contract required to have one or to end one. Once the relationship is over, it’s over. While there are many similarities between common-law relationships and marriage, there are differences as well.
Common-law 101: property rights
Myth: In a common-law relationship, I have the same property rights as married couples.
Wrong! This is one of the biggest myths Fred Streiman from Dale, Streiman, Kurtz Barristers and Solicitors hears. The property each spouse brings into a common-law relationship continues to belong to that person once the relationship ends. For instance, real estate, vehicles, furniture, financial assets like RRSPs, businesses, even debt – anything you personally own, belongs to you. But, if a couple jointly purchases goods, then both spouses have to share the value or debt incurred.
Lesley Chitra and her partner are high school sweethearts. Prior to getting married, the couple lived in a common-law relationship. But before deciding to take the big step, Chitra did some research and sought legal advice on how she could protect herself. Moving into a house that was under her spouses name, Chitra decided to document everything she contributed to the relationship such as bills, division of labour, and other contributions she made to the house.
“I contributed in terms of furnishing the home and paying bills and what not, whereas he primarily handled the housing.”
Through Chitra’s research, she knew by documenting such things, if she and her spouse were to split, she could argue in court that she should be compensated for her contributions.
For Jennifer Santino, the situation was different. Santino was in a common-law relationship for over five years and during that time she and her partner equally contributed to expenses. When the relationship ended, Santino continued to pay bills that had been incurred by both herself and her partner during the relationship because the bills were in her name.
“I paid thousands extra,” says Santino who admits to not knowing her rights. Looking back, “I’d do more research … and look at my legal responsibilities.”
Common-law 101: spousal and child support
Couples have the responsibility to financially support each other just like married couples. However, unlike married couples, when the relationship ends, spouses in a common–law relationship have a time limit of two years from the time of the split to apply for spousal support from the other person.
But when it comes to child support, a time limit does not exist. A child has a right to be supported regardless if their parents are married or not.
Common-law 101: benefits
Common-law couples may have access to a variety of their spouses’ benefits such as employee benefits, CPP benefits, and welfare benefits. Many benefits have different regulations, time frames, and definitions as to what they consider to be common-law. It’s always best to check to see if you’re eligible for such benefits.
Common-law 101: protect yourself
So what can you do to protect yourself from getting blind-sided after dissolving a common-law relationship?
Streiman suggests couples get a cohabitation agreement or something known as a domestic contract. A domestic contract is a legal document stating how you and your partner want your property, finances, or any legal decisions about the relationship dealt with.
“It avoids uncertainty,” says Streiman, who also adds these contracts may save time and avoid a nasty court battle. Streiman advises couples to sit down and figure out what they would like to put in their contract, because you’ll be putting your time, money and emotions at risk without one.
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