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BC's new law erases line between marriage and common-law

BC's new law erases line between marriage and common-law

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Shacked up? Congratulations
In a little more than a month, British Columbia’s 160,000 common-law couples, including nearly 7,000 gay couples, will wake up sharing finances. They will not have signed contracts or put on wedding rings, but the law will have quietly changed around them. To understand why, you might well ask Margaret Kerr.
 
In June 1991, Kerr was a secretary at the Port of Vancouver when she suffered a stroke. At home and in a wheelchair, she bought groceries with her disability pension and cooked and cleaned for her common-law spouse, Nelson Baranow, while he worked as a longshoreman. Baranow took on more shifts and used the money to pay off the mortgage on his five-storey house overlooking Vancouver harbour.
 
When Kerr and Baranow’s 25-year relationship fell apart in 2006, Kerr asked for an interest in the house. Baranow refused. The resulting court case dragged on five years and went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada before Kerr received a share.
 
Even as Kerr v Baranow plodded through the courts, the BC legislature took steps to stop similar litigation from happening again.
 
BC’s new Family Law Act, which replaces the 1978 Family Relations Act, will give common-law spouses living together in “marriage-like” relationships for two years or more an automatic right to wealth or property accumulated during their time together.
 
It will also make each spouse automatically responsible for half the other’s debt, whether they helped incur it or not.
 
This means that if you break up after two years of cohabitation, as of March 18, you will suddenly find yourself liable for half your ex’s student loans, credit card bills and mortgage. Property acquired before the relationship began is excluded, as are inheritances and gifts.
 
The whole deal kicks in automatically next month — no registration or recognition required. Couples who want to avoid sharing will need lawyers to write legal agreements in order to opt out.
 
BC Attorney General Shirley Bond, who introduced the law, says she hopes the Family Law Act will protect children and keep separating families out of court. The change in common-law rules, she says, will “clarify how property is divided to improve fairness when couples break up.”
 
Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog, the NDP’s justice critic, helped the act pass with unanimous support. “I think it reflects society’s attitudes,” he tells Xtra. “Any people, regardless of whether they are married... tend to think that they should share property in the same manner as married couples. I think it comes from an ongoing belief that you shouldn’t be treating people unfairly when there’s a breakdown of a relationship, whether they’re married or not.”
 
But family lawyer Dennis Dahl says many gay couples choose not to marry in order to avoid property-sharing laws.
 
Nearly a decade after the legalization of gay marriage here, 66 percent of BC gay couples in the 2011 census remain in common-law relationships, compared to only 15 percent of straight couples.
 
“The vast majority of my clients have absolutely no intention of sharing absolutely everything they own starting from the time they get together,” says Dahl, whose clientele is 80 percent gay.
 
Dahl says gay couples are less inclined to share assets because their relationships do not suffer from gender imbalance.
 
Even among straight couples, the traditional family is changing. Since BC family law was last changed in 1978, the Canadian median woman’s income has increased from 41 to 66 percent of the median man’s.
 
Dahl thinks that for common-law couples, the cure is worse than the disease. “I didn’t see it as a big problem. And it certainly wasn’t a problem for the queer community,” he says. “Was there a big enough problem to justify this? I don’t think so.”
 
Dahl is not alone in his support for the independence of common-law couples. On Jan 25 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld sections of the Quebec Civil Code maintaining common-law partners’ separate property.
 
The Quebec National Assembly “has made consent the key to changing the spouses’ mutual patrimonial relationship,” Justice Louis LeBel wrote in his reasons. “In this way, it has preserved the freedom of those who wish to organize their patrimonial relationships outside the mandatory statutory framework.”
 
In BC, however, the contract regarding property will no longer require consent, and Dahl worries the province has not done enough to publicize the changes. He predicts that many gay couples who prefer financially independent relationships will be caught off guard.
 
“I know couples who have been together 20 or 25 years who have no idea that this is happening,” he says.
 
It’s unclear how these older couples will reach back decades to determine the value of their property when they started to cohabit, he adds.
 
Supporters of the act, such as family lawyer Fiona Beveridge, say gay couples need not worry. “We’re not making anyone do anything,” she says. “We’re just making it so that married persons and unmarried persons have the same rights at the end of the day.”
 
But family lawyer and feminist advocate Agnes Huang says that is precisely the problem. The new law removes meaningful divisions between common-law relationships and marriage, even for gay couples who do not choose to formalize their partnerships.
 
“My objection to it is that it essentially takes away from those of us who chose to structure our lives a particular way,” she says. “It imposes a system on us.”
 
The best thing gay couples can do if they want to avoid sharing property, all the lawyers agree, is to educate themselves.
 
The qualifications for a common-law relationship, Dahl says, are much lower than they once were. To have a “marriage-like” relationship in BC, you do not have to share a bank account, call yourselves married, be sexually monogamous, file taxes together, or even cohabit all the time. To “hold yourself up to the community as a couple” and share a home is probably enough.
 
The new law makes it even more important, says marriage counsellor Barbara Mulski, to get to know your partner’s finances. “Most of us know what sexual intimacy is, and we know what romantic intimacy is. But then there’s financial intimacy. We don’t bring that along,” she says. “There’s still a stigma to asking someone about money.”
 
Mulski says discussing finances should be an important part of dating, especially now that a bad financial situation is infectious. She advises couples to talk seriously about money before making joint financial decisions or moving in together.
 
To avoid legal conflict, the lawyers suggest, each partner should seek independent legal advice to write a cohabitation agreement that sets out a personalized arrangement for the relationship, disposing of the rules set out by law.
 
It is also a good idea to set down the value of any current assets, Beveridge says, and include a clause allowing review after five years.
 
Darryl Aarbo, a family lawyer in Alberta, where a similar law already covers common-law couples, suggests writing a legal agreement even if you are happy with the new law.
 
Many couples in Alberta end up in court anyway, he says, arguing that property should not be split exactly half and half. “It can result in some very nasty litigation unless you make that contract,” he says.
 
The law could also leave polyamorous or multiparty families in a strange situation. Federal law forbids partnerships among more than two people. But in a multiparty breakup, who would be entitled to what? The Ministry of Justice says it does not know.
 
“It is difficult to predict how such a situation would be treated if such a case were brought forth to court,” spokesperson James Beresford says.
 
It is possible, however, for a person to have multiple spouses: for example, an undivorced person cohabiting with a new partner. “There is no legal reason,” Beveridge says, that in the case of a breakup, someone could not claim property from two spouses. This, and other unforeseen complications, will have to be worked out by the courts.
 
During the debates on the Family Law Act in 2011, Langley MLA Mary Polak said she hoped the act would promote marriage and the traditional family model.
 
“Who knows? For those who long for the nostalgic days when marriages, as they felt, were the traditional and best way to go, perhaps this will encourage more people to tie the knot,” she said, “and perhaps the jewellery stores will be doing better business in engagement rings.”
 
Dahl believes the very opposite is true. The law has taken away all difference between marriage and common-law, he says, and with it left all but a ceremonial advantage to marriage. After March 18, it will not matter whether you say “I do” — only whether you say “I don’t.”
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Comments

People died for basic civil rights
Shame on all those who voted this into law.
The basic rights of being an adult who makes the choice not to be classified " married" is now taxed with lawyer fees to be an individual.
What happened to basic civil rights. This is not a law it's a tax on civil rights and freedoms to be an individual with an other sharing time. Why is government so interested in my private friendships and those who share a roof with me.
As an adult i make the choice not to be in a classic marriage setting why do I lose my rights to be free from others debts. This will not promote fairness this will increase harm. Fairness starts with people being accountable for there actions and choices first and foremost. This law takes civil rights away from adults and taxes them for not being married. Shame on you all who voted this into law Our troops fight and died for basic civil rights and you took that honour away. Shame on you.
Equality of outcome is still discrimination
Single people don't have a right to the rights of married people. That's why they are single.

What the court did was the same sexist crap they've been doing for centuries.

An independent and autonomous woman makes a decision that she can't profit from later on down the road and law makers change the law in her favor so she can take the property of a man.

There is no way a court would side with a man if he was the one suing his girlfriend after she financially supported him for years.

And it was his property. She sat on her butt at home and did light house work while her boyfriend did the hard work and kept them both afloat.

He financially supported her for years and in the end she wants half.

If she wanted half she should have earned it.

If she wanted the rights of a married person she should have gotten married.

I'm glad I don't live in BC. You're "lawmakers" are cracked in the head.
NDP?
To Robert P. of Vancouver - what in the world does the NDP have to do with this new law?
Cohabitation agreements $1,500!!
A Cohabitation agreement is $1,500. All the lawyers recommend having one even if you are in agreement with things. How on earth is the minimum wage earner supposed to afford that? Only the rich are allowed to protect themselves?
Lost the Right to Plan our Families or Businesses!
This may be the most insane, ill thought-out mess the government ever came up with.

This kills your right to plan for a family. This is a violation of our economic freedoms.

Many young people live together while mutually engaging in separate businesses. We do so in order to establish a safe home and income before taking on the responsibility of children, marriage and another's debt for example. And we do so to survive in a city with prohibitively high rent! We could not run these businesses while carrying extra debt.

My girlfriend runs a business. Am I now responsible for both her clothing line and my website company? I literally cannot be responsible for that. Nor do I feel right operating my business knowing that each decision should be passed by her - who, for all her brilliance, is not a computer programmer... And I am not a seamstress.

I was supporting the NDP, but this is such a brutal betrayal of our basic rights and economic freedoms, I don't believe that they will enjoy the benefits of my support any longer. They are not protecting anybody, they are destroying the businesses and relationships of many many young hard-working British Columbians.

I'm not even going to start on what this does to the institution of marriage. I'm disgusted.
Not the smartesst law
What about roomates? What if I a renting a place with a roomate and after 2years he/she claims we are in a relationship? So then he/she gets half of what I bought in that 2year and now I have to pay off their deb as well?

What if I was living with my partner and in the 23rd month I change all my address to another place (parent's place or relatives place). Then after a month I change back to my orginal address?

2years is way too short they should at least make 5 and also no debt should be share unless it is being sign or co-sign by both party. What if a relationship goes sour(or someone cheated) so the other part decide to rack up huge debt and then after 2 years the other party now have to share half of that debt? Sounds unfair to me.
YOU WANT TO BREAK UP WITH ME????
Where's the credit card, I'm going shopping.
Well..
Don't be in a serious relationship, its much much safer.
Uncomfortably vague
This law makes me uncomfortable. I think I would feel differently if the couple had agreed to combine finances and *had been* combining finances for that 2 year period. Many couples move in together because of financial reasons (to save money) or to "test" a relationship before marriage without combining any financial aspects of their lives.

If you're not financially interdependent as a couple, what claim can your partner have on your assets post-breakup if they weren't shared before? The exception to this (that I can think of) would be if one partner left their career to raise kids or care for a disabled family member by mutual agreement.
other financial support
So, if I was in a relationship with someone who gets regular financial support from their parents, do I get half of that, along with half of her student loan debts? I wonder how her parents would feel about that, and whether this law would force them to keep giving her the same amount.

What I don't understand about the spirit of the law: If I wasn't giving her half of my money when we were together, if I wasn't helping her pay down debt, why would she be entitled to that when the relationship is *over*? If I didn't want to do it when I loved her, why on earth would I want to when she dumped me? Where on earth does the entitlement come from? It certainly can't be argued (as often seems to happen in marriage cases) that she "became accustomed to the lifestyle of financial assistance" because there was none.

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