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Introduction to family law

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Family law deals with the legal issues that come up when family relationships begin and end. Marriage, separation, divorce, parenting, support, dividing property, adoption, and family violence — all fall within this area of law. Learn the basics of family law.

Alert!

This information has been updated to reflect changes to the Divorce Act that took effect on March 1, 2021.

What you should know

Family law problems often come up when people who’ve been in a relationship separate. But family law problems can also come up for people who’ve never lived together or dated but have had a child together. They can also affect people who haven’t been in a relationship at all, like a grandparent who wants more time with their grandchild.

Family law applies to people in same-sex relationships the same way it does to people in opposite-sex relationships. There’s no legal difference between opposite-sex relationships and gay, lesbian, and other LGBTQ+ relationships. 

This information provides an introduction to family law and the courts that deal with family law issues. It also explains some of the legal words and phrases used in family law.

When a couple separates, they must make many decisions. For example:

  • Does one person need financial help from the other? Can the other person afford to pay it? If so, how much can they afford to pay and for how long? This problem is about spousal support.
  • Who will stay in the family home? Can everybody still live there or does someone need to move out? This problem is about the use of family property.
  • How will property be divided? How will debts be shared? This problem is about property and debt division.
  • If there are children, where will they live? How will decisions about their care be made? How will the parents share the children’s time? This problem is about parenting after separation.
  • Does child support need to be paid? If so, which parent should pay child support and how much? This problem is about child support.
  • After parents separate, can one parent move away to another town or province, with or without the children? This problem is about relocation.

Family law deals with all of these common family law problems and more. But not all family law problems are important to all families. It really depends on the type of relationship. 

Family law is about four types of relationships:

  • Married spouses. Married spouses are legally married and have to get divorced to end their legal relationship.
  • Unmarried spouses. Unmarried spouses, also known as common-law partners, have lived together in a “marriage-like relationship” for at least two years. Except when it comes to property and debt division, the term also includes people who’ve lived together for less than two years but have had a child together. Unmarried spouses don’t need a divorce to end their legal relationship. It ends when they separate.
  • Parents. Parents are people who have had a child together, regardless of the nature of their relationship with each other. Parents can be married spouses, unmarried spouses, in a dating relationship, or not in a relationship with each other at all. Parents can also have had a child by adoption or assisted reproduction. Or they might have helped a family to have a child by assisted reproduction, by donating eggs or sperm, or by being a surrogate mother.
  • Child’s caregivers. People who have a significant role in a child’s life but aren’t the child’s parents.

Two different family laws may apply, depending on the type of relationship.

Divorce Act

The federal Divorce Act applies throughout Canada. This law only applies to people who are married to each other or who used to be married to each other. It talks about:

  • divorce
  • parenting after separation, including how children’s time is shared between married spouses
  • child support
  • spousal support
  • relocation

Family Law Act

The Family Law Act is a BC law that applies to married spouses, unmarried spouses, parents, and children’s caregivers. It talks about:

  • parenting after separation, including how children’s time is shared between guardians and people who are not guardians
  • child support
  • spousal support
  • dividing property and debt
  • relocation
  • court orders that might be needed to protect people
  • court orders that might be needed to protect property

But, different parts of this law apply to different people, depending on the type of relationship:

  • The parts that talk about child support and the care of children apply to everyone who is a parent or a guardian.
  • The parts that talk about spousal support apply only to married and unmarried spouses.
  • The parts that talk about dividing property and debt apply to married spouses as well as unmarried spouses, but only to those who’ve lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years.

Understanding the legislation

This chart shows which law applies to whom and for what purpose:

Married spousesUnmarried spousesParentsChild’s caregivers
Divorce ActYesNoNoNo
DivorceYesNoNoNo
Family Law ActYesYesYesYes
Guardianship of childrenYesYesYesNo
Making decisions about childrenYesYesYesNo
Parenting time and contact with childrenYesYesYesYes
Child supportYesYesYesYes
Spousal supportYesYesNoNo
Dividing property and debtYesYes, for some*NoNo
Orders protecting peopleYesYesYesYes
Orders protecting propertyYesYes, for some*NoNo

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* Orders about dividing property and debt and protecting property can come into play for unmarried spouses, but only if they've lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years.

You can deal with family law problems in ways that don’t involve going to court. Options include: 

  • Negotiation. You and your ex talk about your legal problems and try to agree on as many of those problems as possible.
  • Mediation. You and your ex meet with a trained, neutral person (called a mediator) who helps you talk to each other and agree on as many of your legal problems as possible.
  • Collaborative negotiation. You and your ex hire specially-trained lawyers and agree to do everything you can to resolve your legal problems without going to court.
  • Arbitration. You and your ex hire a trained, neutral person (called an arbitrator) to make a decision resolving your legal problems. Hiring an arbitrator is like hiring a private judge.
  • Parenting coordination. If you and your ex already have a plan about parenting, you can hire a parenting coordinator to help resolve continuing problems about parenting. A parenting coordinator is a neutral person who tries to help you agree on a resolution, like a mediator, but they can make a decision, like an arbitrator, if you can’t agree.

For more on resolving family law issues outside of court, see our information on mediation, collaborative negotiation, and arbitration.

If you can’t resolve your problems using these processes, you may have to go to court to have a judge make a decision.

There are two courts in BC that make decisions about family law problems: Provincial Court (often called Family Court) and Supreme Court. 

Family Court is a division of the Provincial Court. Family Court can deal only with some issues under the Family Law Act: guardianship, parenting after separation, child support, and spousal support. It doesn’t charge court filing fees and uses simplified rules and forms. Learn more in our information on Family Court.

The Supreme Court can deal with all issues under the Family Law Act and all issues under the Divorce Act. Its rules are complicated. Also, it charges fees to file documents and schedule certain hearings. 

This chart shows which court deals with which family law problems:

Family CourtSupreme Court
Divorce ActNoYes
DivorceNoYes
Family Law ActYesYes
Guardianship of childrenYesYes
Making decisions about childrenYesYes
Parenting time and contact with childrenYesYes
Child supportYesYes
Spousal supportYesYes
Dividing property and debtNoYes
Orders protecting peopleYesYes
Orders protecting propertyNoYes

Here are definitions of some key words and phrases used in family law.

Separation is the breakdown of a romantic relationship. Separation usually means at least one of the spouses has moved out. But it’s possible for people to be separated while still living under the same roof. To learn more, see our information on separation and separation agreements and deciding who will move out

Divorce is the end of a marriage by a court order. Here, we explain the requirements for divorce.

Child is any person under 19, the age of majority in BC. It may include a person who is an adult child for the purposes of child support. The Divorce Act uses the term “child of the marriage” when it talks about children. 

Parent is someone who is the birth parent of a child, the adopted parent of a child, a parent by assisted reproduction, and, in some cases, a donor of eggs or sperm, and a surrogate mother. A parent is usually, but not always, a guardian of their child.

Guardian is someone who has the right to make decisions about children. Most of the time a parent is a guardian of their child.

The two main laws use different terms to talk about how parents make decisions about children. The Divorce Act talks about decision-making responsibility. This includes making all significant decisions about a child. The Family Law Act talks about parental responsibilities. This includes making significant decisions about a child and often day-to-day decisions as well.

Parenting time is the time a spouse or guardian has with a child. Parenting time is usually divided between spouses or guardians on a fixed schedule.

Contact is the time someone who isn’t a spouse or guardian has with a child. Contact is usually provided on a fixed schedule.

For more on these terms about parenting after separation, see our information on guardianship, parenting arrangements, and contact.

Child support is money usually paid by one parent to the other to help raise their child. Here, we explain child support.

Spousal support is money one spouse pays to the other to help them financially after a separation or divorce. Here, we explain spousal support.

Who can help

The Family Law website from Legal Aid BC features self-help information and guides for people in family disputes.

The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law, hosted by Courthouse Libraries BC, provides comprehensive information on family law, including sample court forms and how-to information.

Options for legal help include legal aid, pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates. See our information on free and low-cost legal help.

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed in March 2021
  • Time to read: 8 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

JP Boyd, QC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers

JP Boyd, QC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

Related

On Dial-A-Law

Dial-A-Law has more information on Divorce & separation in the section on Families + Children.