Victoria feature: Marriage without consent

Couples entering cohabitation and those leaving relationships have things to think about under new Family Law Act

Couples moving in together may want to consider cohabitation agreements if they haven’t taken the step of marriage.

Mamata Kreisler and her boyfriend are like many modern couples.

They’ve lived together for the past two years, share a French Bulldog-Boston Terrier cross and recently bought a house in Saanich together.

They each have debt, prefer to keep separate bank accounts and, perhaps most tellingly, have trouble saying exactly when their dating life began.

“He was living with me and my roommate, sleeping on a couch, and then we started dating about six months later,” she said.

But as of Monday, Kreisler and her partner now inadvertently hold a legal label they thought was years away from reality: married.

The new B.C. Family Law Act provides sweeping changes that will affect many of the 15,000 cohabiting couples in the Capital Region and more than 160,000 couples in the province.

“If you have lived in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, the law now considers you a spouse,” said Christine Murray, a partner at Victoria-based Cassels-Murray Family and Estates Law.

For the first time, common-law couples are subject to the same legal rights and responsibilities of married couples.

If a couple separates, any gains in assets or debt incurred during the relationship are now split down the middle, regardless of which partner owns them.

“That property includes real estate, personal property, bank accounts, generally anything with value owned by one or both spouses at the date of separation,” Murray said.

Property acquired before the relationship began, as well as gifts, inheritances and damage awards will still be protected from equal division.

“If it is a couple’s intention to keep their property separate, they’ll have to enter into a written agreement to make sure they can have their intentions carried throughout their relationship,” Murray said.

Some questions, such as whether or not both partners are responsible for the depreciation value of a home, will have to play out in court, she added. It could also be difficult to prove when a relationship began, as Kreisler and her partner illustrate with their roommate-to-romance situation.

“It’s not a clear-cut, black-and-white test,” Murray said.

Despite the confusion for common-law couples, the Family Law Act is considered a progressive piece of legislation, extending property rights and child protection measures to B.C. families who are more commonly choosing not to get married. It also encourages couples to pursue non-court agreements for dispute resolution through arbitration, where the success rates can be as high as 80 per cent, said Keri Boyle, executive director of Mediate B.C.

“You can go to court and have a judge tell you what the result is, or you can try a different process, which, in my experience, is going to be cheaper,” she said.

Mediation and other forms of collaborative law can also preserve relationships more effectively than court battles, Boyle added.

“Success needs to be measured by more than resolving the issues. If a couple comes out of the process with a relationship intact, that’s much better for their children.”

Time will tell whether the revised laws will ease the burden on the justice system, but Murray hopes couples will begin to have serious discussions early.

“Maybe it will be a good thing and people will think about their living situations at the front end of their relationship, so they don’t have to do as much heavy lifting if that relationship ends.”

Kreisler isn’t concerned with how the law chooses to label her relationship, and the idea of a cohabitation agreement doesn’t make sense to her.

“I understand prenuptial agreements if one person is really rich and one isn’t. It could be a concern going into a marriage,” she said.

“But that’s not something either of us are worried about.”

Learn more about the Family Law Act here.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

Just Posted

Sidney has highest walk-in clinic wait times in the country: report

Several Vancouver Island facilities wait times notably poor

Search underway as Our Place Society CEO Don Evans resigns

‘It’s time for me to take a break to recharge my batteries’

Victoria shuttle service aims to use cruise ship waste as fuel

Pacific Northwest Transportation Services wants to have a zero emission fleet by 2026

More clouds, showers ahead for Wednesday

Plus a look ahead at the weekend’s forecast

VIDEO: Harbour Air makes history with first electric aircraft test flight

Successful flight marks first of its kind in the world

UPDATED: No survivors in Gabriola Island plane crash: RCMP

Coroner confirms multiple fatalities after small plane goes down Tuesday night near Nanaimo

POLL: Do you have a real or artificial Christmas tree?

The lights are up, holiday shoppers are bustling through the streets and… Continue reading

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of Dec. 10

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

The Grinch who Stole a Hedge: Security camera captures Chilliwack tree theft

RCMP arrives as person calmly walks away with tree in downtown area

Tavares scores twice as Maple Leafs earn 4-1 win over Canucks

Vancouver sees two-game win streak snapped

The Russell Troupe finds a comfort zone in small Island community

Family gathering with two parents and five kids a common scene around Chemainus

Salmonella outbreak in Canada linked to rodents and snakes

92 cases of salmonella across six provinces, including B.C.

Meng Wanzhou wins right to more documents involving arrest at Vancouver airport

Defence lawyers allege the Huawei executive was unlawfully detained, searched and interrogated

Most Read