Our communities are completely unaware of the fact that as of March 18, 2013, common law partners will be treated the same as married partners, if they break up. And that means: 50% of the family property and 50% of the family debt to each of you! Read on...you can choose to opt out if you want to...
Who Gets What When?
Division of Property on Breakup of a Marriage or Common Law Relationship under the Family Law Act
The Family Law Act comes into force in B.C. on March 18, 2013. This pamphlet talks about what your situation will be if you break up after March 18, 2013.
(If you broke up before March 18, 2013, the old law, the Family Relations Act, applies to your situation).
Who Does the Law Apply To?
The Family Law Act applies to all married couples; and it applies to unmarried couples who have lived together for two years or more. It applies to heterosexual couples, same sex couples, and couples with one or two trans members.
Who Does the Law Not Apply To?
Any couple can contract out of the Family Law Act. That means that the two of you can create your own agreement about how finances will work during your relationship, and how you will divide property if the relationship ends. So, reading through the rest of this pamphlet, bear in mind that if you don’t like the way the law would apply to your situation, you can create your own contract. Then the Family Law Act does not apply.
When Does the Law Kick In?
The law takes effect as soon as the two of you separate.
Who Gets What if We Break Up?
At the moment of separation, each spouse is entitled to a half interest in all “family property”, and is responsible for one half of “family debt”. It doesn’t matter who contributed what to the purchase of the property, or whose name the property or the debt is in.
So what counts as “family property” and “family debt”?
A thumbnail: what you owned, or what you owed, before you got together, is yours. But whatever property, and whatever debt, either of you acquired after you got together, is divided between you 50/50. Certain types of property are excluded.
Now for the details (and the devil is always in the details).
The way the Family Law Act sets it up, unless there is a specific exemption, family property is all real property (real estate) and personal property (money and things) owned by at least one spouse or in which at least one spouse has a beneficial interest on the date of separation. We’ll get to the exemptions in a minute.
The Family Law Act specifies some things which definitely are “family property”, including:
- a share or an interest in a corporation;
- an interest in a partnership, an association, an organization, a business or a venture;
- property owing to a spouse:
- as a refund, including an income tax refund, or
- in return for the provision of a good or service;
- money of a spouse in an account with a financial institution;
- a spouse’s entitlement under an annuity, a pension, a retirement savings plan or an income plan;
- property, (other than certain trust property), that a spouse disposes of after the relationship between the spouses began, but over which the spouse retains authority, to be exercised alone or with another person, to require its return or to direct its use or further disposition in any way;
- the amount by which the value of excluded property has increased since the later of the date:
- the relationship between the spouses began, or
- the excluded property was acquired.
So what is NOT family property?
The Family Law Act sets out a list of what is not family property:
- property acquired by a spouse before the relationship between the spouses began;
- gifts or inheritances to a spouse;
- a settlement or an award of damages to a spouse as compensation for injury or loss, unless the settlement or award represents compensation for:
- loss to both spouses, or
- lost income of a spouse;
- money paid or payable under an insurance policy, other than a policy respecting property, except any portion that represents compensation for:
- loss to both spouses, or
- lost income of a spouse;
- property referred to above that is held in trust for the benefit of a spouse;
- property held in a discretionary trust:
- to which the spouse did not contribute;
- of which the spouse is a beneficiary; and
- that is settled by a person other than the spouse;
- property derived from property or the disposition of property referred to above.
The onus is on you if you want to argue that a particular property is not a family property.
Some Examples, Please?
What about a business that I bought before the relationship, and operated as a sole proprietor during the relationship? The business was worth $100,000 when we married ten years ago. Now it is worth $150,000:
Because you bought the business before the relationship began, the first $100,000 is yours. But the $50,000 increase in value is a family property and will be divided 50/50. As the owning partner you would get $100,000 + $25,000 = $125,000; your spouse would get $25,000.
An investment I owned before we got together and have never used during the relationship:
Not a family property. But if it earns income, the income is a family property and is divided 50/50.
Property one spouse bought and paid for during the relationship :
I’m a doctor. When we got together I had $38,000 in student loans. I racked up another $20,000 in student loans for the first two years we were married. Then I established a family practice, which is incorporated: the name of my company is Dr. Nolan Finefeather Ltd. I take a draw from the corporation which is the source of my income.
Your professional corporation is a family property since you set it up after you got together.
You are responsible for the first $38,000 of the debt; but the balance is divided 50/50.
Property bought with equal contributions from both spouses, after getting together, but in the name of one partner:
Property bought with unequal contributions – say 90/10 – and put in joint names after the relationship began:
Disability insurance policy:
Disability insurance from work may be a family property.
Property owned in both names:
The important thing is not whose name it is in, but when it was purchased. If it was bought before the relationship began, then each owns the original value of their contribution; but the increase in value after the relationship began is divided 50/50.
Property one of us bought before we got together:
Not family property; but any increase in value after you got together is family property.
I owned a cottage before we got together. It was worth $150,000 when I bought it, and $200,000 when the relationship started. I sold it for $300,000 two years after the relationship began, and bought another property for $300,000:
The new cottage continues to be your separate property and is not subject to 50/50 division even though it was bought after the relationship began, because the property was bought in substitution for an excluded property.
Property one of us bought before we got together, sold, and bought another property:
Home we live in:
There are no special rules for the family home.
Who bought it? Before or after the relationship began? If before, it is excluded, but the increase in value will be shared.
Note that it may not be possible to divide the family home if it is located on a First Nations reserve. Talk to a lawyer.
Here’s how the Family Law Act deals with debt:
Family debt includes all financial obligations incurred by a spouse:
(a) during the period beginning when the relationship between the spouses begins and ending when the spouses separate, and
(b) after the date of separation, if incurred for the purpose of maintaining family property.
When you separate, each of you is responsible for one half of the family debt. And you continue to be responsible for one half of the debt (a mortgage for example) after separation, if the purpose of the debt is to maintain a family property.
So: take note! You can be held 50% responsible for debt – credit card debt, for example, - that you knew nothing about.
Can a Judge Make a Different Division than 50/50?
Yes, but only in very limited circumstances. Before a judge can intervene, the law says that it must be “significantly unfair” to divide it equally. This is a very strict test and we can expect that a court will not often divide family property other than 50/50.
If you ask the judge to make a different division than 50/50, the factors a judge can take into account in making that decision include:
- how long you have been together;
- the terms of any agreement you have made between you
- a spouse’s contribution to the career or career potential of the other spouse;
- whether family debt was incurred in the normal course of the relationship between the spouses;
- if the amount of family debt exceeds the value of family property, the ability of each spouse to pay a share of the family debt;
- whether a spouse, after the date of separation, caused a significant decrease or increase in the value of family property or family debt beyond market trends;
- the fact that a spouse, other than a spouse acting in good faith:
- substantially reduced the value of family property, or
- disposed of, transferred or converted property that is or would have been family property, or exchanged property that is or would have been family property into another form, causing the other spouse’s interest in the property or family property to be defeated or adversely affected;
- a tax liability that may be incurred by a spouse as a result of a transfer or sale of property or as a result of an order;
- any other factor, other than the consideration referred to in subsection (3), that may lead to significant unfairness.
In addition to those factors, a court can also consider the extent to which the financial means and earning capacity of a spouse have been affected by the responsibilities and other circumstances of the relationship between the parties.
Even though the calculation of the 50/50 share is only on those properties which are family property, and not excluded property, a judge can order that excluded property be divided between the parties in some circumstances, for example where a family property or debt located outside B.C. cannot be divided; or if it would be unfair not to divide the excluded property given how long the couple was together and what contributions each of them made to the preservation, maintenance, improvement, operation or management of the excluded property.
The Take-Home Messages
1. Opt Out
The Family Law Act is an “opt-out” regime.
If you don’t like the idea of having the property you acquire during the relationship being divided 50/50 when you break up, or you don’t like the idea of being responsible for 50% of the debt of someone whose spending habits are far different than yours, then…write an agreement. You are allowed to create an agreement that says that you will NOT be bound by the rules in the Family Law Act, and you can specify exactly who will get what if you separate. If you have such an agreement, it takes precedence over the Family Law Act rules.
If you do not have such an agreement, you will have to take it as it lays under the Family Law Act, if you ever separate.
2. Keep Records
If you break up, you may find yourself having to establish the value of a property you acquired before the relationship began, as of the date the relationship began. Don’t throw out any financial records, no matter how old (in fact, especially if they are old).
This article contains legal information. It is not legal advice. For advice about your specific situation, consult barbara findlay QC or another lawyer.
Current to March 18, 2013
© barbara findlay QC
635-1033 Davie Street
Vancouver, British Columbia V6E 1M7
T 604 251-4356
F 604 251-4373
Feel free to reproduce this booklet provided that you credit the author, include this information block, and do not charge for it.