Important Update: The Family Law Act was introduced on 14 November 2011 and contains a number of provisions which are critical to the comments made in this post. See my posts "The Early and Unlamented Deaths of ss. 90 and 120.1: Government takes quick action on parental support and unmarried persons' property agreements" and "Family Law Act Introduced!" for more information.
I was looking at one of the forums which links to my website, and a user had posted a question which reminded me of the prevalence of bad information about common-law relationships: "how do I apply for common-law status?" I think it's time for a refresher.
Being "common-law" is all about qualifying as a spouse as defined by a particular law.
Different laws have different definitions of "spouse."
Under the federal Divorce Act, "spouse" means someone who is or was legally married to someone else; under the Canada Pension Plan, a "common-law partner" means someone who lived in a conjugal relationship with the pension contributor for at least one year.
Under the provincial Family Relations Act, "spouse" is defined as including married people as well as unmarried people who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years. Under the Employment and Assistance Act, the law about welfare benefits, "spouse" includes people who have lived together for at least three months if the relationship demonstrates some sort of interdependence.
As a general rule of thumb, most federal laws define "spouse" or "partner" as including unmarried people who have lived together for at least one year and most provincial laws define "spouse" as including unmarried people who have lived together for at least two years.
Qualifying as a spouse may give you benefits and obligations under a particular law.
A "spouse" under the Family Relations Act is entitled to use the act to apply for spousal support (or may be obliged to pay it), and someone who is the "spouse" of a parent may be obliged to pay child support in respect of the parent's children.
A "spouse" under the Wills Variation Act is entitled to use the act to apply to change the distribution of benefits set out in a person's will. A "common law spouse" under the Estate Administration Act is entitled to an automatic share in the estate of someone who dies without a will.
A "partner" under the Canada Pension Plan is entitled to share in someone's pensionable credits and may be entitled to survivor's benefits in the event of that person's death.
The definition of spouse usually has conditions and limits.
For unmarried couples, applications under the Family Relations Act must be made within one year of separation. After that, they will no longer be a "spouse" within the definition of the legislation. Married couples, on the other hand, must make their applications under the act within two years of divorce or the annulment of their marriage.
The Wills Variation Act and the Estate Administration Act both define a "spouse" as someone who was living with the deceased person immediately before his or her death. If the couple separated before the the person's death, they won't qualify as spouses.
The Divorce Act only defines "spouse" as including married or formerly married couples. Unmarried couples can't use this act for anything.
Being common-law is only about the definition of spouse.
Common-law spouses only become common-law spouses because they happen to meet the terms of a particular law's definition of "spouse," which usually happens because they cohabited in a marriage-like relationship for a specific period of time. They don't apply for common-law status; there's no government agency to apply to and there's no government agency that keeps track of common-law relationships.
Common-law spouses aren't legally married and will never become married, no matter how long the relationship lasts... unless of course they actually get married, with a marriage licence, a marriage commissioner and all the rest.
A couple become common-law spouses when they meet a particular law's definition of "spouse." Meeting a law's definition of spouse usually involves (a) living together (b) in a romantic relationship (c) for a certain amount of time. No application is necessary, just the passage of time. The definition of spouse changes from law to law.
Most but not all federal laws define "spouse" as including unmarried people who have lived together for at least one year; most but not all provincial laws define "spouse" as including unmarried people who have lived together for at least two years.
Being common-law spouses doesn't mean that a couple is married; it means that the spouses may have certain rights and duties toward each other. The nature of these rights and duties also changes from law to law, and some laws impose terms and conditions on the rights and duties unmarried spouses.