Justice minister explains Family Law Act

Shirley Bond tries to allay concerns over status of commonlaw couples

Headlines have mistakenly suggested that common-law couples are now “married” under B.C.’s new Family Law Act. This is not true.

I want to make it very clear: the new family law is not about forcing unmarried couples into getting married. When it comes to the law’s property division rules, it’s about providing fair rules for couples who split up – and ensuring that those rules are crystal clear at the onset of a relationship.

The new family law’s model is fair: you keep what’s yours, but you share what you accrued together as a couple. This means that property brought into a relationship, and certain property you might receive during your relationship, such as inheritances or gifts, are generally not divided upon separation, regardless of whether you are married or not.

Only property and debt that a couple accrues together during their relationship is dividable.  This is similar to many other Canadian jurisdictions.

Under the outdated Family Relations Act, property division provisions only applied to married couples.

A common-law couple could live together 20-plus years, and when they broke up, the property would stay with whoever’s name it was in. It would not be considered joint property and divided in half, as would be the case for married couples.

This resulted in complex legal cases and often great unfairness, usually to women, as the property was more often in the man’s name.

Today common-law couples have the freedom to opt-out of the property division rules by written agreement.

The agreement will allow them to divide their property as they see fit, with limited ability for the court to overturn the agreement.

It is important to note that under existing law, common-law couples are already subject to many of the same laws as married couples, such as those around income tax and wills and estates.

Also, under the old Family Relations Act, common-law couples could seek spousal support.

The new Family Law Act replaces outdated legislation passed in the 1970s and addresses the needs of modern B.C. families and shifts in societal norms.

Shirley Bond

Minister of Justice and Attorney General