No vows, no rights
Certainly something to be aware of for stay at home spouses men and women.
You probably wouldn't buy a house without consulting a lawyer to avoid any pitfalls. But people shack up together for years without a thought about the financial consequences of a split.
Because common-law relationships have become so prevalent in recent years, many Canadians have simply assumed that they're entitled to the same rights as married couples.
Well, it's time for a reality check. Five years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada decreed that a common-law union is not a marriage. It was a major news story at the time, but it bears repeating.
"To presume that common-law couples want to be bound by the same obligations as married couples is contrary to their choice to live in a common-law relationship," the court explained.
"If they have chosen not to marry, is it the state's task to impose a marriage-like regime on them retroactively?" the court asked pointedly.
Anyone moving in with a partner should read the 2002 ruling (Nova Scotia vs. Walsh) or at least spend an hour with a lawyer.
Or you could blithely combine households with your honey, pledge your undying love to each other, and take a huge financial hit later when love goes sour.
It's too late for Ottawa resident Lori Clarke, whose common-law relationship abruptly ended after 24 years.
An earlier marriage when she was a teen hadn't lasted long. "I'd been married, done that, thought it was just a piece of paper," says Clarke, 50.
So when she fell in love again in her twenties, she and her partner decided not to marry. Their decision to simply shack up was also prompted by the lack of stigma surrounding common-law unions.
They didn't want their daughter to suffer any discrimination because her parents weren't married. "We found out that nobody cared. It didn't matter," says Clarke.
"We actually sent our child to a private Christian school and it wasn't an issue that we weren't married. It just showed us the degree to which society has accepted common-law relationships."
In 2005, her world fell apart when her partner left. She went to a lawyer and was shocked to discover that there is no right to a 50-50 split of assets.
Clarke, who earns less than $25,000 a year as a facility worker with a seniors' day centre, is entitled to spousal support because of the length of time they were together and their salary differences. But she has no right to a portion of his pension.
Because common-law partners and married couples are treated equally in some respects, such as for spousal and child payments and survivor benefits, she thought getting half the assets would be automatic.
"I think there's a common perception in society that living common-law is the same (as marriage)," she says. "So I was really quite astounded to find out that it wasn't the same."
Fortunately, she has an RRSP and has been working all these years. She's also going to buy her ex-partner's share of the house.
But she wants to warn others so they don't make the same mistake. Get legal help so you know your rights, she says.
WRITE A CO-HAB
Edmonton family lawyer Leonard Pollock agrees, adding that common-law couples can protect their rights by drawing up a cohabitation agreement, just as some married couples draft pre-nups to avoid an equal property split.
"Life ain't fair but you've got to draw a line," says Pollock. "People who shack up try to dignify (it) with the term common-law marriage. Well, it's a marriage-like relationship, but it's not a marriage."
You've been warned. Don't casually slide into a common-law relationship like you're buying shoes. It could lead to lifelong blisters.