C is for Common-Law

editorial

There’s nothing white about a Common-Law wedding. No proposal, no ring, no breathy engagement announcement. No planner, no shower, no stag. No limo, no walk, no giving away. No “now you may kiss.” No wedding DJ, no rice-strewn sendoff. No honeymoon. I now pronounce you Common-Law. Done.

From the moment you and your best love shack up in a “conjugal relationship” the clock starts ticking, and after only 365 days your carefree days as Live-Ins magically transform into the everyday of Common-Law Partners. In the eyes of the law, you are wed. In the eyes of the Canada Revenue Agency, you are wed. Now run off and report this turn of events within a month or else they’ll get cranky. Unless a child happens to be born within that year, then the family’s status changes immediately—happy birthday!

Whether the drawbacks outweigh the benefits depends on your circumstances. On the plus side, swapping spit and tax credits can pay if your income is right (if one partner is a student, for instance). If one partner has extended health benefits through their employer, everyone gets regular dental cleanings now. But for income-tested benefits like the GST credit or Child and Family Benefits, it can cost families in lower income brackets. These are calculated based on “family income,” and the thresholds can be high—just high enough to disqualify the working poor. Going “family style” with the Medical Services Plan also delivers a serious hit; premium rates skyrocket, and premium assistance is reserved for the very poor.

Then there’s property and debt—the bottom line is what’s mine is, was, and forever will be yours, too. There are protections for the partner who brings a house into the relationship. There are also protections for the partner who doesn’t bring $60k of student loan debt into the relationship. But the only way to really protect yourself is with a trip to the lawyer. These conversations are hard for any couple, let alone two people who just happened to be coupled under duress.

And make no mistake, current laws are tantamount to forced marriage. Normally, some just wouldn’t be bothered to marry. Others very consciously choose not to couple—they’re often the ones covered in thick scar tissue from broken homes. Whatever the reason, a couple’s definition of their relationship is theirs to make, not the government’s.

If things don’t work out, it becomes more complicated than splitting up the record collection and moving out. That clock starts again and you aren’t officially uncoupled (Common-Law divorced?) until 90 days pass. There is paperwork and there are declarations. Then the assets and debts need to be figured out, something that lawyers may need to be involved in. Living single, living on less again, those benefits that helped prop things up before The Unwedding don’t come back in a big hurry. For a single mother who relied on Child and Family Benefits before the magical marriage, three months without that income can be devastating.

The government has tightened the loopholes so, short of maintaining separate homes, there’s no way around this dance of the invisible wedding and Common-Law partnership. Tax time is around the corner—does the government know who has been sleeping in your bed?

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