Common Law Relationships - Are they that different from a traditional marriage?

The simple answer is no.

There are, in fact, substantial differences should the relationship end upon the death of one partner or one partner leaves the relationship. You must be aware of the pitfalls of a common-law relationship becoming "undone".

The sanctity of marriage as the bedrock of the Canadian family is steadily eroding, according to census data from the 2011 census.

Instead, although married couples are still the norm — about two-thirds of families — their numbers are lagging and only increased by 3.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011.

In contrast, the number of common-law couples rose by 13.9 per cent and lone-parent families rose by eight per cent over the same period.

The shift means that common-law couples now account for 16.7 per cent of all families, and lone-parent families now represent 16.3 per cent of the total.

You must take into consideration the following before you enter in a common-law relationship:

  • The Family Law Act of Ontario currently treats common-law relationships as trial marriages. You can live together for up to three years without having to worry about court ordered support obligations should you separate during that period (unless there is a child born of the relationship).
  • The Family Law Act of Ontario, after a common-law relationship has passed the three year mark, treats both parties the same as if they were married when determining support obligations upon Separation. Support is based upon the need of one party and ability to pay by the other.
  • Should two people living common-law have a child together, the Family Law Act of Ontario states that support obligations, should the couple separate, take effect immediately in spite of the length of the relationship.
  • Rights to share each other's property is a very different story. There is NO sharing of property when a common-law relationship ends except jointly owned property. Receipts for purchase must show both names and for real estate the deed must be in both names. There are legal remedies to this problem, which has gone to the Supreme Court of Canada twice now, but not easy ones. I refer you to my article on this issue which you may access by clicking on this link: Property Division under a Common-Law Relationship as Contrasted to a Marriage
  • Should one of the common-law partners die, unless there is a will, there is no right to claim against the deceased partner's estate.
  • Some good news is that you can share in your deceased partner's Canada Pension Plan benefits if you have lived together for at least one year.
  • Private pension and medical plans have their own rules as to sharing when it comes to common-law relationships. Check the plans carefully.
  • The Income Tax Act Canada has for almost a decade recognized, for income tax purposes, common-law relationships, if the parties have a child together or have lived together for a least one year. Your accountant can help you with the changes to your tax returns to reap most of the benefits that married couples enjoy.
  • Single Parents beware: If you enter into a common-law relationship, your combined incomes will be considered when the Child Tax Credit is determined.
  • By all means protect yourself in a common-law relationship by entering into a cohabitation agreement. Draw Wills and Powers of Attorney and then you can avoid almost all of these consequences. I refer you to my articles on these issues which you may access by clicking on these links:

Revised March 2015