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What is a marriage-like relationship in B.C.? Things to consider when preparing your will

Senior couple sits on a dock by the lake. (iStock)
Summary

What are some things you need to consider if you're in a marriage-like relationship before preparing your will in B.C.?

You don’t need to be legally married to have rights, North Shore Law partner Mark Slay says

It is possible your granny may be “married” and you didn’t even know it.

Decades ago, the definition of marriage was relatively simple. Two people got married in a civil or religious ceremony, and that was that. But times have changed, and so has the definition of what is a “marriage-like relationship.” The implications are far-reaching, covering issues like spousal support and division of property if parties separate, but also impacts a person’s estate if they pass away.

Mark Slay is a partner at North Shore Law and says you don’t need to be legally married to have rights.

“When we are dealing with a situation where parties have chosen not to go through that form of marriage, it doesn’t mean that their rights are necessarily any less than that of a person who has gone through legal marriage.”

‘Marriage-like relationship’ checklist

So, how do you know if you are in a “marriage-like relationship?”

Slay says courts in British Columbia have adopted a checklist created by those in Ontario.  And while it is not a complete “must have” list for determining if someone is a spouse, he says it’s a good tool for people to consider when preparing their estate.

Shelter

Slay says sharing the same residence can be a factor in determining whether a couple was in a marriage-like relationship.

Both the Family Law Act and the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (WESA) lay out similar definitions, which refer to living together for at least two years.

But there have been court decisions which have declared parties to be spouses, even though they did not live together.

Slay notes a case called Connor Estate, where a couple had been in a relationship for 21 years but had never shared the same home – but the courts still found they were in a marriage-like relationship.

Sexual and personal behaviour

Physical intimacy can be a factor in deciding whether someone is a spouse. What type of intimate and personal relationship do you have?

Services

Any married couple will tell you, it’s not just fun and games. A court will look at how a couple helped each other during their relationship.

Slay says this could look differently depending on the couple.

“Did they help each other out? Did they clean the house? Did they cook for each other? Did they do the shopping? Did they fix things around the house?”

Social

The activities a couple participated in together could also affect whether they are seen to be spouses.

Slay says this includes how they engaged with friends and with the community.

“Did the couple hold themselves out as being a married couple?”

Societal

Your mom may have told you that it doesn’t matter what other people think, but when it comes to being considered a married couple – it could.

Slay says the courts do look at what the couple is perceived as by others. If, generally, other people consider their relationship to be like marriage, the courts could make the same determination.

Economic support

Financial support is also something that could determine if two people were in a marriage-like relationship. How were the bills paid?

Children

And of course, children.  Slay says the courts will look at whether the couple had children together and parented together.

“What were their views on parenting?”

Difficult conversations today, far fewer headaches tomorrow

While going through the process of evaluating your relationships and sitting down with a lawyer today may seem like a daunting task, Slay says it will make life much easier for loved ones in the future.

“Going to see a lawyer while you are alive, and planning your estate properly can cost hundreds of dollars,” says Slay. “But, if you don’t, and you don’t make provisions and talk to your adult children, it could end up costing thousands of dollars in the future.”

Slay notes this is becoming an even more significant issue for adults in their “golden years” entering new relationships, and perhaps not having frank conversations with adult children about what their wishes are.

“If you put these conversations off because they’re difficult – and they are difficult – you are just creating a headache for everyone.”

As for adult children, he notes, they should be making sure their parents are happy and that they know what their wishes are.

For help getting your affairs in order, contact North Shore Law.