Couples Who Are Not Spouses: Your Income, Support and Property Rights
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Shelagh Kinney, Watson Goepel in April 2020.|
Not all couples who live together meet the definition of spouse under BC’s family law. Those who aren’t considered spouses have some rights but not others. Learn what happens if you’re in an unmarried relationship that ends.
“My partner and I lived together for 17 months before we ended our relationship. We had bought a place together. It was only in my partner’s name, as was the mortgage. I thought I was automatically going to get half the property. But because we lived together for less than two years, that’s not the case. I have a harder path to asking a court for a share of the property."
– Serena, Kimberley, BC
What you should know
Who a spouse is
There are two main laws that define who a spouse is. The federal Divorce Act defines a spouse as either of two people who are married to each other.
BC’s Family Law Act expands the definition. Here, the term spouse also includes:
- people who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, and
- people who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years and have had a child together (in this case, though, you aren’t considered a spouse when it comes to property, debt or pensions; we explain what this means shortly).
A couple is living in a marriage-like relationship if they present themselves as a couple to family and friends, and carry out their financial and household affairs as a couple.
This information is for couples who are not spouses under BC’s family law. For example, you may have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years (and not had a child together). Or you have a child together but have never lived together.
Your rights to support
Support is money paid by one parent or guardian to another, or one spouse to the other, for financial help after a relationship ends.
Under BC law, each parent and guardian of a child has a duty to financially support the child. It doesn’t matter if the parents of a child have ever lived together. Generally, you can ask for child support from the other person as long as they’re a parent of the child under BC law. The other parent must pay child support for that child under the Child Support Guidelines.
To learn more, see our information on child support.
A person who’s a spouse under the BC Family Law Act is eligible to apply for spousal support. (See “Who a spouse is” above). Someone who isn’t a “spouse” under BC family law cannot apply for spousal support.
To learn more, see our information on spousal support.
Your rights to property acquired during the relationship
Property division is one of the areas in which being a spouse under the Family Law Act makes a difference. Under the Act, spouses are presumed to:
- keep the property each of them brought into their relationship
- keep certain other property such as inheritances and gifts from someone other than your spouse
- share the other things they acquired during their relationship, no matter who bought it (called family property)
Only spouses who are married or who’ve lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years share an interest in family property. If you’re in a relationship that doesn’t meet this definition of spouse, you’re only allowed to keep the property you brought into the relationship.
If you own property together (jointly) — such as a house, a car, or bank accounts — you’re each presumed to have an equal interest in that joint property.
If you contributed to the purchase of an asset owned by your partner, or paid more for the purchase of a joint asset than your partner, you may be able to get out what you put in. But you’ll have to prove your contributions to the purchase. And you’ll have to show that you didn’t mean for your extra contributions to be a gift.
To learn more, see our information on dividing property and debt.
Because the law in this area is complex, you should get legal advice.
Your rights to property based on unjust enrichment
If you contributed in some way to the assets owned by your partner, you may be entitled to a share of that property based on unjust enrichment. To claim an interest in your partner’s property, you must show three things:
- your partner gained a benefit from your contributions,
- you suffered a loss as a result of making those contributions, and
- there’s no legal reason why your partner should have received the benefit of your contributions at the cost of your loss.
If you can prove these things, a court may agree your partner was unjustly enriched by your contributions, and that you should be compensated for your loss. The court can order that your partner compensate you. If your partner can’t afford to make the payment, the court may impose a trust, called a constructive trust, on their property. Then you can be paid the compensation you’re owed.
The law in this area is complex and it’s highly advisable to seek legal advice.
Responsibility for debts
If you sign for a loan, it’s your loan and your responsibility — not your partner’s. Likewise, if your partner signs for a loan, it’s their responsibility. But if you both sign for a loan, you are both responsible to repay the debt.
If you guarantee (promise to pay) your partner’s loan, and your partner is unable to make the payments (or refuses to), you’re responsible. That’s true even though you may have had no benefit from the loan. If you end up paying some or all of the loan, you can ask your partner to pay you back.
Getting income assistance
The BC government gives income assistance to those who need financial help.
As soon as you start living with someone else, the income assistance office may treat you like spouses. When you apply for income assistance, your caseworker will look at what income and assets you both have.
Under BC’s income assistance law, spouse includes people living together for at least the last 12 months in a row. The income assistance caseworker must believe that, like a marriage-like relationship, your relationship shows:
- financial dependence or interdependence, and
- social and familial interdependence.
If you meet this definition and qualify for income assistance, you’ll get it at the rate for a couple or family — not as two single people.
You have the right to challenge the decision of the income assistance office. For step-by-step guidance, see our information on income assistance reconsiderations and appeals.
If you claim income assistance as a single person when you’re actually living with someone else as a couple, you:
- may have to pay back any benefits you’ve received,
- may face a civil court case or even criminal charges, and
- could be refused future services by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
Getting benefits under a pension plan
Old Age Security provides Canadian residents with a monthly pension beginning at age 65. People between age 60 and 64 whose spouse qualifies for a low-income pension supplement can receive an allowance benefit. To qualify for the allowance as a spouse, you need to be living together for one year.
The Canada Pension Plan allows pension credits earned during a marriage-like relationship to be divided. This is true as long as spouses have lived together for at least one year and an application is made within four years of the separation date.
Private pension plans generally don’t provide benefits for people who aren’t spouses.
Getting employment insurance benefits
The federal government provides employment ensurance (EI) benefits to workers who lose their job. You may be eligible for EI benefits if you leave a job to follow your partner to a new place. Employment insurance defines a couple as spouses if they’ve lived together in a “conjugal relationship” for at least 12 months in a row.
You can also get EI benefits if you leave your job to follow your partner if you’re:
- expecting the birth of a child, or
- caring for an immediate family member.
Note that you won’t qualify for benefits if the government concludes there were reasonable ways you could have kept your job. These might include requesting a transfer or commuting from the new place of residence.
Coverage under your partner’s medical and dental plans
The BC Medical Services Plan covers people who live together in a marriage-like relationship. There’s no requirement about how long you must be living together.
Medical or dental plans or employers’ extended health plans generally don’t provide benefits for people who aren’t spouses.
Will I have to go to court?
If you separate, you may have to go to court to sort out some of your support and property rights. BC Provincial (Family) Court can help you deal with support for you and your children, plus guardianship, parenting arrangements, and contact. Family Court can’t deal with property issues. It also can’t make orders about who will live in the family home. For these issues, you’ll have to go to the BC Supreme Court.
For more on going to court, see our information on Family Court.
You may be able to deal with some or all of your family law issues outside of court through mediation. You can try contacting a family justice counsellor. They are mediators who are specially trained to help families with guardianship, parenting, child support, and other family law issues. See the BC government website to learn more.
Do I need to make a will?
If you want to make sure your partner and children are taken care of after your death, you need to make a will. In it, you can say who you want your property to go to. You can also name a guardian. They’ll be legally responsible for your children after you and your partner die.
Who can help
With more information
The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law, hosted by Courthouse Libraries BC, has information on unmarried relationships.
Legal Aid BC has information about family law basics in its booklet Living Together or Living Apart: Common-Law Relationships, Marriage, Separation, and Divorce.
Free and low-cost legal help
Options for legal help include legal aid, pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates. See our information on free and low-cost legal help.
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