Common-law relationships are on the rise, but what some partners might not realize is they aren't afforded the same legal protections as married couples when it comes to breaking up.

That's what Denise found out the hard way when she separated from her common-law partner of 20 years.

Denise agreed to speak to CBC News on the condition that her last name and face would be kept private, as she's still fighting a legal battle against her ex.

"I honestly can't think of how my relationship was any different from anyone else who lives on this street and happens to be married," Denise said.

Denise and her partner raised three children together, and by the time they broke up they owned two homes.

But Denise discovered she wasn't entitled to either property. She and her children were forced to move into a distant family member's home for months after her separation.

"I left and there were two houses in this relationship but neither of them were in my name," she said.

Legal action only option for many

In Alberta, there is no section under the Adult Interdependent Relationship Act that determines how property should be divided when a common-law partnership splits up.

Under the Matrimonial Property Act, it's presumed both partners are entitled to property that they've accumulated during their time together. But that act only applies to married couples — so if former common-law partners can't agree on how to split up their property, the only option is legal action.

"A lot people think, well, it should be half. So this really needs to be addressed," said Karen Stewart, CEO and founder of Fairway Divorce Solutions.

Karen Stewart

Karen Stewart says the lack of legal options for Alberta common-law couples who break up needs to be addressed by legislation. (Fairway Divorce Solutions)

Denise took her former partner to court. It was a four-year battle.

"I proved my case. I basically proved that we were a family and I got 50 per cent," she said.

But, it wasn't without a cost. So far, she's spent $124,000, and the fight's not over yet — her ex appealed the decision.

Time for law to change, says advocacy group

The number of couples choosing to cohabitate but not marry is increasing. 

Last year, 10 per cent of Alberta couples were in common-law relationships, according to Statistics Canada.

The number of common-law relationships rose 38 per cent from 2006 to 2016, while the total number of married couples in the province grew by only 20 per cent.

The Alberta Law Reform Institute says Denise's case is a good argument for why the law needs to change. 

The organization has proposed legislation that would make Alberta's laws similar to B.C., where common-law partners are treated the same as married couples when it comes to property rights.

The institute has asked Albertans to weigh in on its website before its final recommendations are made to the provincial government.

With files from Elissa Carpenter