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Common Law vs. Marriage

Common Law and Marriage are often confused when it comes to the division of property and other rights and obligations upon separation. In order to know what you’re entitled to, it’s important to understand the distinction between these two terms so you can create the best plan for your future.

What may be confusing to some is the fact that the Family Law Act (“FLA”) has two definitions for spouse and that these two types of spouses are treated very differently upon separation.

Definition of Spouse in Ontario

Keep note that the definition of spouse and the rights that flow from that definition differ from province to province. This post is restricted to the definition of spouses and their rights in Ontario.

The first type of spouse is defined in s. 1(1) of the FLA and it means either of two persons who:

  1. Are married to each other, or
  2. Have together entered into a marriage that is voidable or void and in good faith

This includes marriages from anywhere else in the world.

The second type of spouse is found in s. 29 of the FLA.

Here, spouse means any spouse as defined in s. 1(1) (the married spouses) AND anyone that meets the following criteria:

Persons who are NOT married to each and have cohabited:

  1. Continuously for a period of not less than three years; or
  2. In a relationship of some permanence, if they are the parents of a child.

What is also important here is the part that says “cohabited continuously.” Consider the following example for a couple with no children:

  • Partners live together for 2 years starting January 1, 2015;
  • They then live apart for 7 months from January 1, 2017 to August 1, 2017;
  • Then they start living together for 5 more months starting August 2, 2017.
Start of cohabitation – 2 years Break in cohabitation – 7 months Restart of cohabitation – 5 months End of three years
January 1, 2015 January 1, 2017 to August 1, 2017 August 2, 2017 January 1, 2018

 

In this example, they would not meet the criteria of common law spouse as defined in the FLA.  They would have to live together for 3 more uninterrupted years from August 2, 2017 to August 1, 2020 to be considered common law spouses.

However, if this couple had children, then they would likely be considered common law.

How do these separate definitions of spouse affect me?

These two definitions mean that there are different property rights for a married spouse and a common law spouse. Under the FLA, married spouses have automatic property rights in addition to support rights.  This means they have rights to an equalization payment, property such as the pension, the matrimonial home, support payments, and intestacy rights.

Common law spouses on the other hand, only have automatic rights to spousal support on separation under s. 29 of the FLA. This comes as a shock to some clients as they believe that simply living in the home is enough to guarantee rights to the home or any other shared property. This is only true in common law where both parties share property as joint tenants or tenants in common.

However, spousal support is not guaranteed like child support is. Spousal support is granted according to various factors, one of which is need (see s. 30 of the FLA).

Now that doesn’t mean a common law spouse can never claim rights to property out of the common law relationship and succeed; it just means they will have to seek one of the following alternative remedies;

  1. Unjust Enrichment;
  2. Quantum Meruit;
  3. Constructive trust; or
  4. Resulting trust.

These types of remedies are called “equitable claims” and usually involve litigating the matter in court in order to successfully receive the remedy.

Contact Rabideau Law’s caring and experienced staff for a consultation to see what legal options are available in your specific situation.