British Columbia

B.C. common-law couples to get marriage rights

The B.C. government is proposing the first overhaul of the province's family law in 30 years.
The B.C. government wants to make courts the last resort for family dispute resolution. (Mike Laanela/CBC)

The B.C. government wants to extend laws governing the division of property to common-law spouses who have lived together for two years or who have children together.

The proposal is part of a package of major changes to the province's family law put forward by Attorney General Mike de Jong on Monday morning.

De Jong said the package is intended to modernize the province's Family Relations Act for first time in 30 years by making it less adversarial and easier to understand.

The changes cover a wide range of issues such as separations, child custody, support payments, division of property and pensions, access responsibilities, children's participation in the legal process and family violence.

Equal division in common-law separations

One of the most significant changes is a proposal to extend laws governing the division of property in separations to common-law spouses who have lived together for two years or who have children together in a marriage-like arrangement.

Georgialee Lang, a family lawyer from Vancouver, says it's a revolutionary proposal because the current property-division laws don't generally apply to common-law separations.

That means couples that choose not to get married to avoid the marriage property division laws may need to reassess their arrangements, and that may include drawing up written agreements.

"Being a common-law spouse now, if these recommendations are enacted, is no longer protection against your property," she said

"All these people that don't get married because they don't want to deal with property ... they're all going to need agreements, because you can opt out like married people do now, you can opt out of the law that says property is divided 50-50," she said.

But the proposal also seeks to exclude pre-relationship, gifts and inheritances from property that would be divided 50-50 in any separation.

Out-of-court resolutions favoured

The far-reaching package of proposed changes also includes reforms to create more options for out-of-court dispute resolutions and improving the tools for enforcing court rulings.

"A fundamental shift is needed that encourages and assists parents and spouses to resolve disputes co-operatively where appropriate, with courts being a valued, but last resort," said de Jong.

Under the proposed reforms, family court professionals would be required to advise couples on how to resolve their differences out of court.

There are also measures meant to curb domestic violence, including a proposal to replace restraining orders with protection orders that would be enforceable under the Criminal Code.

Tracy Porteous, the executive director of the Ending Violence Association of B.C., was enthusiastic about the changes.

"I think the minister is taking a big step to increase the safety of women and children," said Porteous.

The public will be able to contribute comments on the proposed changes until Oct. 8 through the B.C. government website.