News / Vancouver

Shacked up? How B.C.'s new family law affects cohabiting couples

Legal changes that will erase the line between marriage and common law partnerships in B.C. next month are leaving some newly cohabiting couples anxious and searching for ways to opt-out.

Under the 35-year-old Family Relations Act, common law spouses have had to battle in court to prove they contributed to their partner's wealth in order to claim things such as spousal support or a share of common property after separating.

But the new Family Law Act, which takes effect March 18, will give couples that have been living together for two years the same rights as married couples — the same 50-50 division of debts and assets, excluding pre-relationship property, inheritances and gifts.

Izola Ward, 39, moved to New Westminster from Toronto last fall to live with her boyfriend, Joe, who she met online. She said the two have discussed the possibility of getting married, but they want the freedom to ring those bells when they are ready.

"It could be in two years or five years, but if it happens to be in five years then it does give you more cause to be concerned about the changes, because it's someone essentially determining your title without you having a say-so in the matter," she told Metro.

"Who decided on that magic number that after two years this should be the case? I'd like to think five years sounds a bit more reasonable."

For couples in their situation, there is an inexpensive way out: a cohabitation agreement. North Vancouver-based Self-Counsel Press is planning to release an updated version of its prenuptial package just before the new law takes effect with clear instructions for cohabiting couples who do not wish to share finances.

Gibsons-based family lawyer Alison Sawyer authored Self-Counsel Press' current do-it-yourself cohabitation agreement kit, the cheekily titled:

Gibsons-based family lawyer Alison Sawyer authored Self-Counsel Press' current do-it-yourself cohabitation agreement kit, the cheekily titled: "If You Love Me, Put It In Writing" ($21.95 at self-counsel.com), which will still be valid under the new law.

She said a cohabitation agreement can be signed at any point in a relationship, but there is a catch — like a pre-nup, it requires both parties to fully disclose all of their debts and assets.

She said full financial disclosure is necessary before couples hit that two-year mark because the wealthier of the two often has money tucked away for a rainy day that the other doesn't know about.

"If you knew your partner was two times richer than you thought he was, you might not be so keen to give up your right to share in his wealth," she said when asked why disclosure is necessary.

Her best piece of advice?

"Have a full and frank discussions about your finances and your willingness to share or not share. That's not what people want to hear, but lawyers never tell people what they want to hear."

Self-Counsel Press' updated cohabitation kit, "The Prenuptial Guide: Contracts for Lovers", will be in Chapters and Staples stores March 15.

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