Not all couples who live together meet the definition of “spouse” under BC’s family law. For these couples, learn your entitlement to benefits and what happens if you split up.
Understand your legal rights
BC’s Family Law Act defines the term “spouse” as including married spouses as well as:
- people who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, and
- people who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years and have had a child together (in this case, you aren’t considered a spouse when it comes to property, debt or pensions; we explain what this means shortly).
A couple is seen as living in a “marriage-like relationship” if they present themselves as a family unit to family and friends, and conduct their financial and household affairs as a couple.
This information is for couples who are not spouses under BC’s family law. For example, you may have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years (and not had a child together).
The BC government provides welfare benefits such as income assistance to those in financial need.
As soon as you start to live together with someone else, the welfare office may treat you like spouses. When you apply for welfare, your caseworker will look at the income and assets for both of you. Under BC’s welfare law, “spouse” includes people living together for three months if the welfare caseworker believes their relationship demonstrates “financial dependence or interdependence, and social and familial interdependence, consistent with a marriage-like relationship”.
If you fall within this definition and you qualify for income assistance, you would get it at the rate for a couple or family, and not as two single people.
You have the right to challenge the welfare office’s decision. For step-by-step guidance, see our information on income assistance reconsiderations and appeals (no. 288).
If you claim welfare as a single person when you’re actually living with someone else as a couple, and your relationship is discovered, you may be required to repay any benefits you have received. You may also face a civil court case or even criminal charges, and you could be refused future services by the welfare Ministry.
Old Age Security provides Canadian residents with a monthly pension beginning at age 65. People between age 60 and 64 whose spouse qualifies for a low income pension supplement can receive an “allowance” benefit. To qualify for the allowance as a spouse, you need to be living together for one year.
For more information on Old Age Security benefits, see our information on the laws affecting older adults (no. 239).
Private pension plans generally do not provide benefits for people who are not spouses.
The federal government provides Employment Insurance benefits to workers who lose their job. You may be eligible for EI benefits if you leave a job to accompany your partner to another place of residence. Employment Insurance defines a couple as spouses if they have lived together in a “conjugal relationship” for at least one year.
You can also get EI benefits if you leave your job to follow your partner if you are expecting the birth of a child or caring for an immediate family member.
Note you won’t qualify for benefits if Employment Insurance concludes you had reasonable alternatives to keep your job, such as requesting a transfer or commuting from the new place of residence.
The BC Medical Service Plan covers people who live together. There’s no requirement about how long you must have been living together.
Medical or dental plans or extended health plans from an employer generally do not provide benefits for people who are not spouses.
If you sign for a loan, it’s your loan and your responsibility, not your partner’s. Likewise, if your partner signs for a loan, it’s their responsibility.
If you both sign for a loan, however, you are both responsible to repay the debt. As well, if you guarantee your partner’s loan, and your partner is unable or refuses to make the payments, you’ll be responsible. That is so even though you may not have had any benefit from the loan. If you end up paying some or all of the loan, you can pursue your partner to pay you back.
When a couple breaks up, support is money one person pays another to help with expenses. To be eligible to receive spousal support from your partner, you must have either:
- lived in a marriage-like relationship with your partner for two years or more, or
- lived in a marriage-like relationship with your partner and had a child with them.
See our information on spousal support (no. 123) for the factors that go into a support award.
Rights to property is one of the key areas in which being a spouse under the Family Law Act makes a difference. Under the Act, spouses are presumed to keep the property each of them brought into their relationship and to share in the things they acquired during their relationship (called “family property”). Only spouses who are married or lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years share an interest in family property.
If you do not meet this definition of spouse, the only property you are presumed to keep is the property you brought into the relationship. As well, if you own property together (jointly) — such as a house, a car, or bank accounts — you are each presumed to have an equal interest in the joint property.
If you contributed to the purchase of an asset owned by your partner, or paid more for the purchase of a joint asset than your partner, you may be able to get out what you put in. But you will have to prove your contributions to the purchase and that you didn’t mean your extra contributions to be a gift.
The law in this area is complex and it is highly advisable to seek legal advice.
If you contributed in some way to the assets owned by your partner, you may be entitled to a share of that property based on unjust enrichment. To claim an interest in your partner’s property, you must show three things:
- your partner gained a benefit from your contributions,
- you suffered a loss of some sort as a result of making those contributions, and
- there is no legal reason why your partner should have received the benefit of your contributions at the cost of your loss.
If you can prove these things, a court may agree your partner was unjustly enriched by your contributions and that you should be compensated for your loss. The court can make an order requiring your partner to compensate you. If your partner can’t afford to make the payment, the court may impose a trust, called a “constructive trust”, on your partner’s property so you can be paid the compensation you are owed.
The law in this area is complex and it is highly advisable to seek legal advice.
If you separate, you may have to go to court to sort out some of your support rights and perhaps your property rights. Family Court is a part of the BC Provincial Court, where you can settle many questions dealing with support for you and your children, plus guardianship, parenting arrangements, and contact. Family Court can’t deal with property issues and it can’t make orders about who will live in the family home. For this, you’ll have to go to BC Supreme Court.
For more on going to court, see our information on Family Court (no. 110).
If you want to make sure your partner and children are taken care of after your death, you need to prepare a will. In your will, you can say who you want your property to go to. You can also name a guardian who’ll be legally responsible for your children after you and your partner die.
The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law, hosted by Courthouse Libraries BC, has information on unmarried relationships.
Legal Services Society, the legal aid provider in BC, publishes the booklet “Living Together or Living Apart: Common-Law Relationships, Marriage, Separation, and Divorce”.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in August 2017
Time to read: 7 minutes
Reviewed for legal accuracy by
Thomas E. Wallwork