Are We “Common-Law”?

I often write about things that could arise or are important after two people break up but this blog will focus on whether or not a relationship is “common-law” or what you should know if you’re not married and your relationship ends.

True or False – a couple who is living together and have hit the 6 month mark are “common-law”? FALSE!

Most times people will contact us to get the answer to that very question. Believing the answer is TRUE is a huge misconception. To be “common-law” actually depends on a series of factors; not just one definition. Just living together doesn’t make you common-law.

Do you live with someone in a relationship and have children with that person? Do you and that person share property or rent a place and share expenses? Do you and that person share accounts, money, resources and assets? Is there a degree of financial dependency between you? If you have answered “yes” to these questions, you are highly likely common-law. Basically, does your relationship resemble a marriage or is it marriage-like? To sum it up, if you have kids together and live together, chances are you’re common-law!

So, what happens if you break up? Married people who separate or divorce are bound at law to divide their property and debts “50/50” (barring any special facts like a Pre-nup or other Agreement) unless they agree otherwise. Common-law couples who break up do NOT have the same rights as married people.

Where this reality is quite significant is if you are together and bought a house together but only one of your names is on title. We see this all the time. A couple breaks up and the person whose name is on the house claims it is all his or hers because they “weren’t married”. Don’t help pay for a mortgage and property taxes and repairs if your name is not on the home. Get your name on it!

The same can be said for buying a vehicle together but only one gets the loan in their name. They break up and the other wants the vehicle because she has made the payments on it! Don’t pay for an asset if you’re name is not on it!

Couples like to spend together and maybe use one credit card for groceries and gas and another for trips or activities. Don’t use your credit card in your own name to pay for anything if you hope to collect half in a break up! Why?! Creditors only care about whose name is on a debt, not who charged an expense during a relationship. It is no excuse to a creditor to say “well we bought a camper for the kids on my credit card and he or she promised to pay me half”. Too bad! The same is cautioned about lines of credit, overdrafts and home equity plans.

To top it all off, if you separate and aren’t married, you ONLY HAVE 1 YEAR from the date you stop living together as a couple to sue for property rights and spousal support. I assure you one year is not a long time. It will fly by. Don’t wind up in a lawyer’s office only to be told you’re too late to sue for a division of property or support. Child support, parenting time and decision-making responsibility over children aren’t handled differently if you’re married or not. Children and their rights are protected either way.

Cohabitation Agreements can go along way to protecting your rights and ensuring you know exactly how it’s going to go down in the event of a break up.

All for now,

Jennifer Donovan