Many people in common law relationships don’t usually know the difference between their relationship and a marriage. This causes a lot of confusion and grief if the relationship ends either through breakup or death. This article will explain what a common-law relationship is, and the legislations that govern this relationship in Alberta.
In Alberta marriages are governed by the Divorce Act, the Family Law Act, and the Matrimonial Property Act. These acts deal with child and spousal support as well as division of property. For example, the Matrimonial Property Acts states that property acquired during the marriage even if it is acquired only in one spouses name will be divided equally. Also, any property owned separately prior to marriage and any property inherited during the marriage will be exempt from equal division but the increase in value of these assets may have to be shared equally.
Common-law couples, however, are only governed by the Family Law Act. This means that there is little legislation to regulate the division of property between a common-law couple who is separating. Because there are fewer legislations that apply to adult interdependent partners, common-law separations can be more difficult.
There is one act that applies specifically to common-law relationships. The Adult Interdependent Relationships Act is the most current piece of legislation that regulates common-law relationships. It is important to note that these types of relationships are not called “common-law marriages,” but rather the couple is referred to as “adult interdependent partners” (AIP). The act explains that two people become adult interdependent partners if they live in a relationship of interdependence for a continuous period of not less than 3 years or if the relationship has some permanence and they have a child together. The Act defines “ relationship of interdependence” as a relationship outside marriage in which any two persons
- share one another’s lives,
- are emotionally committed to one another, and
- function as an economic and domestic unit.
The Adult Interdependent Relationships Act treats partners as spouses and therefore allows them to claim spousal support under the Family Law Act, Canadian Pension Plan benefits, division of an estate on intestacy (when there is no will), benefits under the Fatal Accidents Act. Also, if a will does not provide adequate support to the surviving AIP then the Court can overturn the will and order the Personal Representative to pay the partner a sufficient amount for this support.
Since the legislations governing common-law relationships are different than the legislations governing marriages, it is a good idea to sign a prenuptial agreement, or cohabitation agreement, before entering into an interdependent relationship. A prenuptial agreement defines the legal relationship of the couple and prevents misunderstandings if the relationship ends. It can be difficult to talk about these issues but a legal agreement can prevent future misunderstanding.
Unlike divorces, there is no formal proceeding to end a common-law relationship. Legally, there are three ways to end a common-law relationship. The Adult Interdependent Partners Act explains that an interdependent relationship can end if:
- the couple lives separate and apart for one year with no intent to renew the relationship,
- the couple enters into an agreement to end the relationship by obtaining a Court declaration,
- or if one of the partners marries someone else.
Although there are fewer laws regulating common-law partnerships, they are still legal relationships and the law expects partners to care for each other in a similar manner to a marriage. The best way to understand the legal consequences of a common-law relationship is to enter into a prenuptial agreement. If you and your partner have talked about the terms of your relationship beforehand, there will be less confusion if the relationship ends or if one of you passes away. If you choose to end your common-law relationship, an agreement will finalize the details of your separation and allow each partner to understand the terms of their separation.