A new law is set to shake things up for unmarried couples who live together in British Columbia, Canada.
After the Family Law Act comes into effect on March 18, the rules regarding property rights, spousal support and family assets that have traditionally only applied to married couples will now also apply to unmarried couples who have lived together for more than two years.
Some are welcoming the new law, including long-term unmarried couples who see it as protection in the case of a breakup.
But others aren’t happy. Couples who live together for financial benefit and convenience, and who aren’t sold on a long-term partnership, don’t want to be legally tied to their significant other.
The United States does not currently have anything exactly like the Family Law Act, but there is something that resembles it: common law marriage.
What is common law marriage?
A common law marriage is a less formal alternative to a traditional marriage.
It doesn’t require a marriage license, marriage certificate or wedding ceremony, but a couple married by common law has all the rights and obligations of any other married couple. As any family law attorney will tell you, the law considers them legally married.
Which states allow common law marriages?
A couple can enter into a common law marriage in the District of Columbia and nine other states:
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
One important thing to note is that if a couple enters into a common law marriage in a state where common law marriages can legally be contracted, then moves to a state where they can’t be legally contracted, the couple is still considered married.
Even so, their legal status and rights, particularly regarding children, can be murky in that situation, so many lawyers for dads and moms recommend a formal marriage contract to clarify things.
The Family Law Act vs. Common Law Marriage
The main difference between the Family Law Act and common law marriage is control. In British Columbia, the Family Law Act will automatically apply to an unmarried couple who lives together. But in the US, a couple that lives together must choose to be married by common law.
To enter into a common law marriage, two people must choose to ‘present themselves as husband and wife.’ They can do this in a variety of ways, including:
- telling the community they’re married
- calling each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’
- wearing wedding rings
- using the same last name
- filing joint tax returns
In the case of a breakup, however, a common law marriage is very similar to the Family Law Act in that all the rules of a traditional divorce will apply.
Property will be divided. Alimony may be ordered. A family law attorney may be needed to sort things out, and if there’s a custody dispute, a lawyer for dads and moms can be helpful as well.