March 03, 2017

In Nova Scotia, How Long Do You Have to Live Together Before You Become "Common-Law"?

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These days, almost every couple lives together for a period of time before they get married, and increasingly, more and more couples never get married at all.  We get a lot of questions about common-law status, such as how long does it take to become "common-law", what does it mean, and do we have the same rights as married people?

The purpose of this article is to explore the first piece of the puzzle: how long does it take to become common-law?

In family law, the short answer is: two years.  But there's more to it.

First of all, you don't become common-law with someone just by living with them for two years.  You need to be in a relationship with that person that looks something like marriage.  So don't worry – you aren't going to be considered common-law with your roommate, no matter how long you two live together. 

What, exactly, do you need to prove besides living together?  This depends on the reason you're trying to prove your common-law status in the first place.  Generally speaking, the relationship needs to be "marriage-like", i.e. it needs to resemble a married couple's relationship.  Typical indicators include commitment to one another; sleeping in the same bed; having sexual relations; sharing meals and household duties; providing financial support or combining finances; and presenting yourselves to others as a committed couple.

Another important point is that the required length of time can, in some circumstances, be longer or shorter than two years.  Again, it depends on why you're asking. 

In family law, the usual answer is two years because that is how "common-law partner" is defined in Nova Scotia's Maintenance and Custody Act, which deals with custody, child support and spousal support following the breakdown of a relationship.  However, when it comes to dividing property, there is no length of time that will give you the same rights as a married couple.  Common-law couples do not, by default, split their property equally when they separate.

Other examples of when the required length of time may vary are:

  • Filing your personal income tax (CRA says you're common-law after just one year)
  • Making a claim for benefits under your significant other's insurance policy, or under your own policy on their behalf (whether the insurance policy covers a common-law partner, and who qualifies as a common-law partner, depends on the wording in the policy)
  • Making a claim against an estate, such as where your common-law partner has died without a will (this can be a complex issue)

For advice on this and other family law issues, contact one of our family law lawyers, Jocelyn M. Campbell, Q.C. or Andrea L. Isabelle.

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Cox & Palmer publications are intended to provide information of a general nature only and not legal advice. The information presented is current to the date of publication and may be subject to change following the publication date.