BC’s New Family Law Act 2013 – Do You Know Where Your Finances Are?

On March 18, 2013, 160,000 common law couples all across British Columbia woke up, ate breakfast, went to work, ate lunch, socialized, worked, came home, ate dinner and are doing evening activities. What many won’t know is that a major law has just been changed around them, one which could have a huge impact on their finances, property and assets. This is thanks to the BC Family Law which went came into effect today.

Here’s what the law does, in essence. It has been, by and large, packaged as a way to protect children in relationships that are falling apart. For example, it makes the best interest of the child the only consideration when it comes to decisions that would affect it, it better addresses and increases the ability of courts to deal with, family violence, it helps parents stay out of the courtroom to resolve differences whenever possible and it tries to help both parents to spend time with their child equally by both helping parents get that time and enforcing that time through the use of expense reimbursements and even fines on parents who won’t spend time with the child. (assuming the parent is fit to visit of course).

All of this is fine and well and though there are problems here, they are not within the scope of this particular article. Our focus will be on the one line in the governmental summary that has many BC lawyers up at arms:

Property Division applies to married spouses and to unmarried spouses who have lived in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years.

What does this mean?

Confused? The new family act takes a harder look at property division overall. Property owned before the relationship and thing like inheritances don’t usually count; however, property owned by the spouses over the course of the relationship can be divided. This also includes debt incurred over the course of the relationship. In essence, if you’ve been living with your darling for the last five years and you break up, each person is liable for half the debt incurred over the course of the relationship-whether the person incurred the debt or not! And no, you don’t have to have been married-the lines between marriage and common law mean absolutely nothing here.

All right, before grabbing up your pitchforks and torches, let’s take a closer look at the prose and cons here.

Benefits

General Shirley Bond, BC attorney who first introduced the law, state that this law is geared largely towards protecting children and encouraging the adults to settle their differences out of court. This would help to relieve pressure on family courts, relieve strain and make a difficult time just a tiny bit easier.

Another benefit is that people who are entering a common law relationship with knowledge of this law are hopefully going to be more likely to discuss their financial situation before moving in together. This is very important; a huge number of relationships break up over money: resentment towards someone for making more or less, secrets regarding debt and incompatible spending habits. With the threat of losing half of one’s assets upon a break up, many lawyers are hoping that more people will be candid about their finances before jumping into a relationship feet first.

For myself, I really believe that more and more couples should spend some time talking about what will happen to the money and things purchased during a relationship if there’s a break-up. For example, my husband and I have a verbal agreement that if we parted ways, we would take all of the things we purchased for ourselves, split the rest and I would have custody of our son with my husband having unlimited visitation rights. We also regroup regularly in regards to our savings goals, debt repayments, and money issues. Are they comfortable talks? No, but they are necessary and I think that more couple should do it. It could well be that this law will provoke these discussions early on and throughout a relationship.

Problems

But there are some serious problems and as always, it’s with the vague language and differing circumstances. One of the supporters of the law said that it was also geared with the idea of fairness; that everyone in the relationship should share property and assets even if they fall apart. However, this completely overlooks the fact that many people used to not get married precisely because they wanted to avoid sharing their property and finances. For example, many gay couples don’t get married because they don’t want to share everything they own right away. They don’t need to share assets because there is no worry about gender imbalances in pay checks and so there is less of a need to share property.

Straight couples also have the same problem. The average woman’s income has increased from 41% to 66% that of the average man’s. It’s still nowhere near equal, but many women are self sufficient now and have no desire to share it with a man that they only want to live with for a while before committing one way or the other. And of course many couples choose never to get married for whatever reason-for example, my grandmother and her common law husband were together for over a decade before he died and they had no intention or need to get married.

Furthermore, the law for what makes one ‘common-law’ has become looser. Nowadays, all two people have to do is hold yourselves up as a couple and share a home for two years. But you don’t have to share a bank account, be monogamous, file taxes together or even live together all of the time. My sister and roommate took it to further fields of ridiculousness by joking that they could be called common law in a few months even though they have absolutely no interest in each other whatsoever (at least not in a that way). And what about people who are going through the divorce stages and are already living with a new partner? Could someone claim property from two spouses if the new relationship breaks up? What about polyamourous or multiparty families? They are technically illegal, but they do happen.

Finally, this law completely breaks down another line between marriage and common law status; marriage has practically become nothing more than a ceremonial tool and under law, it is no different than common law. Now, whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate; many people have pointed out that legally speaking, there should be no advantage to marriage-it’s nothing more than a ceremony anyway. Other people hold marriage to a higher standard. This is entirely subjective, but it’s something to keep in mind when looking at the ramifications of this law.

You have to talk to a lawyer to opt out of this new act; otherwise, you’re automatically covered by it. This law has also made it even more imperative for new couples to talk about the money matters before moving in together. Finally, it will encourage more couples to at least attempt to be reasonable in break ups and dealing with children which could be a good thing.

Whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, starting today, thousands upon thousands of couples are now going through a huge change in their relationship and how it can affect their finances and assets. Make sure you talk to a lawyer about your options and more importantly, talk to your significant other and make sure that you’re on the same page. Be money smart!

You can read more about the BC Family Law Act here:

http://www.ag.gov.bc.ca/legislation/family-law/index.htm

http://www.xtra.ca/public/Vancouver/BCs_new_law_erases_line_between_marriage_and_commonlaw-13162.aspx

http://elan.lss.bc.ca/tag/family-law-act/

Read, be educated and be aware because you don’t want to be caught unaware if, goodness forbid, you end up in a break-up.

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