Today, more couples are choosing to live together in a relationship resembling marriage, without the formalities of marriage. There are many different reasons why a couple may choose not to get married; however, just as choosing to get married has legal implications, so does choosing not to get married. One of the most notable legal implications of not getting married relates to the division of property when the relationship breaks down. So, if you make the decision not to get married, do you really know what you are (not) buying into?
Division of Property for Unmarried Couples
Division of property is dealt with in Part I of the Family Law Act. When married couples separate, generally speaking they are entitled to divide their property equally between the two spouses, regardless of who legally owns the property. Under the Family Law Act, “spouses” are entitled to divide their property on the breakdown of the marriage. “Spouse” is defined as either (1) two people who are married to each other, or, (2) two people who entered into a marriage that is either void or voidable, in good faith. It does not include “common law couples” – even couples who have lived together for more than least 3 years, or are living together and are the parents of a child. So, what does that mean exactly? It means that common law couples cannot look to the Family Law Act to make a claim to a share of property that they do not own. Let’s look at an example:
Jack and Jill have been living together for the past 15 years. They are not married. They live in a quaint house owed by Jill that they both spent time furnishing, decorating and renovating. They have two cars. Both vehicles are jointly owned. Jack and Jill each have their own chequing account. They also have a joint savings account in which they both deposit money to save for a vacation. Jill has a fairly substantial pension with the federal government. Jack only has a modest RRSP. Jack was never worried about his retirement because he knew Jill had a large pension that could support them both. They never had any children. Suddenly, Jill tells Jack she is no longer happy and wishes to end the relationship.
Dividing Jack and Jill’s Property
When common law couples break up, lawyers look to the title, or ownership of the property to determine how it will be shared. If the title is held jointly, the parties can share the value of the asset equally. If the title is held by only one person, only that person is legally entitled to the asset, with only limited exceptions.
What Jack and Jill Can Share
Jack and Jill will be able to share in the value of both vehicles, as well as the joint savings account. This is because these assets are held jointly. Both parties are automatically entitled to share in the value of those assets.
What Jack and Jill Can’t Share
Jack and Jill would each keep their own bank accounts. Unfortunately for Jack, the title to the house is in Jill’s name alone. While Jack and Jill have been living in the house together for the last 15 years, and both put time and money into renovating and decorating the house, Jack has no automatic entitlement to half the value of the house. Jack is also not entitled to exclusive possession of the home. If Jack and Jill were married, the treatment of the house would be very different.
Jack would be entitled to keep his RRSP. Jill would keep her pension; quite unfortunately for Jack, as he was hoping to share in Jill’s pension to fund his retirement. Now that Jack and Jill are no longer together, Jack is likely going to have to come up with an alternative retirement plan.
While the law for dividing property on the break down of the relationship for common law couples follows the title of the asset, it may be possible to make a claim for an equitable share in an asset that is in the other person’s name. The best means of doing this is to claim a Constructive Trust based on equitable principles. Be forewarned that such a process is expensive and protracted. And the threshold for establishing a claim is high.
When asking the question: to get married or not, it is important to understand the legal implications of your decision. The best way to do this is to consult with a lawyer to better understand how the law will apply to you. A lawyer can advise you as to what you can do to protect yourself, and your assets, prior to entering into either a marriage, or a common law relationship with your partner. A lawyer can draft a domestic contract that can set out what will happen if the relationship breaks down and can address the equal sharing of assets, whether you marry or do not marry. This will help to save you from ending up as Jack did: a victim of the fact that common law spouses are not included in the division of property provisions of the Ontario Family Law Act.