7 min read

Common Law Relationships in Canada Explained in Detail

Written by
Willfinity Team

Defining Common Law Status

In the realm of legal discourse, the term "marital status" frequently surfaces, particularly when dealing with topics such as estate planning, taxation, and benefits. In Canada, when making a will or understanding one's rights, individuals often encounter three primary categories of marital status: married, single, or common law. The third, common law, tends to pose questions and sometimes confusion for many. So, what exactly constitutes a "common law" relationship in Canada?

In the broad spectrum of Canadian law, a common-law relationship is typically defined as a relationship where two individuals cohabitate in a conjugal manner but are not officially married. However, it's essential to grasp that this definition is not uniform across the board. Different scenarios, be it taxation, immigration, or estate planning, might have nuanced definitions of what constitutes a common law relationship.

Duration Matters: Time Frames for Common Law Recognition

A common query that surfaces is: "How long must we live together to be recognized as a common law couple?" This question is pertinent, especially when considering federal tax implications. According to Canadian federal tax regulations, a couple can be categorized as 'living common-law' if they have been cohabiting for 12 consecutive months. An alternative to this duration is if the couple shares a child, either through birth or adoption.

However, it's crucial to understand that family law, which governs matters related to marriage, divorce, and common-law status, is predominantly a provincial jurisdiction. As a result, the criteria defining common-law relationships can vary from one province to another, especially when discussing estate planning.

Provincial Nuances: Understanding Regional Differences

Given the provincial autonomy in determining the parameters of common-law relationships, it becomes imperative for individuals to be aware of the criteria specific to their province of residence.

For instance, in Ontario, a couple is recognized as being in a common-law relationship after cohabitating for three continuous years. However, there's an exception: if the couple has a child together, the duration is significantly reduced.

Estate Planning and Common Law Relationships: The Implications

One might wonder, "Why is understanding common law so crucial, especially in the context of estate planning?" The reason is both simple and significant. In the unfortunate event of one's passing, the distribution of their assets, known as their 'estate', becomes a matter of legal concern. If an individual passes away without a will—a scenario termed as 'dying intestate'—the distribution follows the default rules of the province.

But here's the catch: common law partners are not always viewed in the same light as legally-married spouses when it comes to these default rules. Each province has its stipulations, often prioritizing legally married spouses, followed by children and then other relatives.

For common-law partners, this can pose challenges. While they may stake a claim to the estate, the process is far from straightforward. Such a claim is subject to judicial scrutiny, relying heavily on the specifics of the situation and, importantly, the judge's discretion. A notable exception exists in Quebec, where common-law partners do not have entitlements under intestacy rules.

To navigate these intricacies and ensure the rights of a common-law partner, creating a will is of paramount importance. Not only does it provide clarity in estate distribution, but it also offers peace of mind, reducing potential legal challenges and stresses for the surviving partner.

Common Law vs. Marriage: Rights and Responsibilities

While many might view common law relationships as analogous to marriages in their day-to-day manifestations, the law perceives them somewhat differently. This difference becomes apparent in areas such as property rights, spousal support, and inheritance.

In many provinces, for instance, property acquired during a legally recognized marriage is subject to equal division upon separation, unless there's a pre-existing agreement. However, common law couples often don't enjoy such default protections. Instead, issues related to property division for common law couples might be addressed through trust law principles, wherein one party might have to demonstrate their contribution to the property to stake a claim.

On the topic of spousal support, while both married and common law partners might be entitled to support after a separation, the criteria and duration can vary. Factors such as the length of the relationship, roles during cohabitation, and financial interdependence come into play.

Children and Common Law: Custody, Support, and Adoption

When children are part of the equation, the dynamics change. The law prioritizes the welfare of the child, irrespective of the parents' marital status. Thus, whether parents are in a common law relationship or a marriage, their obligations towards their children remain consistent.

Child support is determined by provincial and federal guidelines, focusing on the child's needs and the parents' financial capabilities. Both common law and married parents have an equal responsibility to provide for their children.

Custody and access rights, too, are determined by what's in the best interest of the child. While the relationship status of the parents might be a consideration, it's secondary to factors like parenting abilities, the child's relationship with each parent, and the parents' willingness to facilitate access.

Adoption rules might differ slightly for common law partners, with some provinces necessitating a specific duration of cohabitation before a joint adoption can be pursued.

Protecting Common Law Rights: The Importance of Cohabitation Agreements

Given the potential complexities and ambiguities surrounding common law relationships, entering into a cohabitation agreement can be a prudent step. Much like a prenuptial agreement for married couples, a cohabitation agreement outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party during the relationship and in the event of a separation.

Such agreements can address matters like property division, spousal support, and even provisions related to children. While no one enters a relationship anticipating its end, a cohabitation agreement provides clarity, minimizing potential disputes down the line.

Moreover, it's important to remember that while many provinces have specific legislation outlining the rights of common law couples, these laws are continually evolving. A cohabitation agreement allows couples to create tailored provisions that suit their unique circumstances.

Concluding Thoughts: Navigating the Complexities of Common Law

The landscape of common law relationships in Canada is both intricate and dynamic. As societal perceptions shift and evolve, so too does the law. For individuals in or considering a common law relationship, awareness of their legal rights and obligations is crucial.

To protect one's interests, seeking legal counsel and potentially drafting agreements can be invaluable. After all, understanding the law isn't just about knowing one's rights; it's also about ensuring that these rights are upheld in various scenarios that life might present.

Beyond Estate Planning: Common Law in Other Legal Arenas

The realm of common law relationships isn't limited to just estate planning. Various sectors of Canadian law intersect with common law status, each carrying its nuances.


When it comes to tax implications, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) considers common law couples who have cohabited for a year or share a child as equivalent to married couples for tax purposes. This recognition entails benefits, such as the ability to share tax credits. However, it also means shared responsibilities, like joint liability for tax debts.


Canada's immigration policy, too, acknowledges common law partnerships. Individuals can sponsor their common law partners for immigration, provided they can demonstrate a continuous cohabitation of at least one year. This stance underscores Canada's commitment to family reunification, irrespective of formal marital ties.

Pensions and Benefits

Common law partners are often eligible for spousal benefits under various pension plans and insurance policies. However, the criteria might differ, with some requiring specific documentation or durations of cohabitation.

The Evolving Landscape: Modern Trends and Legal Reforms

With societal norms continually changing, the legal framework around common law relationships in Canada is also in flux. Recent years have seen significant shifts, both in public perception and legal recognition.

Courts are increasingly recognizing the legitimacy and depth of common law relationships. This acknowledgment is manifesting in more equitable decisions, especially concerning property rights and spousal support. While disparities with married couples still exist, the gap is narrowing.

Moreover, legislative reforms across various provinces are reflecting this evolution. For example, some provinces are reconsidering the duration requirements for recognizing common law relationships, while others are expanding the rights and protections available to common law partners.

Preparing for the Future: Empowerment through Knowledge

For individuals in common law relationships, the key to navigating this evolving landscape lies in being informed. As laws change and legal precedents are set, staying updated can make a significant difference.

Engaging with legal professionals, attending workshops, or even joining support groups can offer insights and clarity. Furthermore, as the dialogue around common law relationships becomes more mainstream, leveraging community resources and advocacy groups can be beneficial.

Final Thoughts: Embracing the Dynamics of Common Law

In conclusion, common law relationships in Canada present a tapestry of complexities, challenges, and opportunities. As the nation progresses, so does its understanding and appreciation of diverse relationship constructs.

For those in common law partnerships, the journey might be fraught with legal intricacies. Yet, with awareness, preparedness, and the right support, they can ensure that their rights are recognized and celebrated, just as they deserve.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Common Law Relationships in Canada

1. What distinguishes a common law relationship from a marriage in Canada?

In the simplest terms, a common law relationship involves two individuals living together in a conjugal manner without a formal marriage. The specific criteria for recognition as a common law couple, such as the duration of cohabitation, can vary by province.

2. How long do I need to live with my partner to be considered common law for tax purposes?

For federal tax purposes, the Canada Revenue Agency recognizes couples as 'living common-law' if they've cohabited for 12 continuous months or share a child by birth or adoption.

3. Are common law partners entitled to property division similar to married couples upon separation?

Not necessarily. While married couples often have statutory protections for property division, common law couples might need to rely on trust law principles. The specifics can vary by province.

4. Can common law partners adopt children?

Yes, common law partners can adopt children. However, some provinces might have specific cohabitation duration requirements for joint adoptions.

5. What happens if my common law partner passes away and there's no will?

Without a will, provincial intestacy rules dictate the distribution of the deceased's estate. Common law partners might not have the same automatic entitlements as legally-married spouses. It's recommended to have a will to ensure the partner's rights are safeguarded.

6. How can a cohabitation agreement benefit common law couples?

A cohabitation agreement outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party in a common law relationship. It can address issues like property division, spousal support, and more, providing clarity and minimizing potential disputes.

7. Are there any advocacy groups or resources for common law couples in Canada?

Yes, numerous advocacy groups and legal clinics offer resources, support, and information tailored to common law couples. It's advisable to consult local listings or legal professionals for specific recommendations.

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