A common-law relationship is when two people make a life together without being married. Quebec law officially calls these couples “de facto” couples or “de facto union”. To be considered a common-law couple in the eyes of the law, it is not always necessary to live together! A couple can be considered common-law without living under the same roof.
Important! “Civil unions” are different than common-law couples. To learn more about civil unions, see our article on the topic.
Common-Law Couples: Not Automatically Married After a Period of Time
A couple can live together without being married. But even if they have been together for one, three, 15 or 40 years, and even if they have several children together, they are never “automatically” married.
This means that, if they break up, common-law couples don’t have some of the protections married couples have.
People in common-law relationships don’t have these protections:
- They don’t benefit from the protection of the family residence if ownership of the home or the apartment lease is in the name of one person only.
- They don’t have a right to a division of their property if they separate.
- They don’t have a right to a “compensatory allowance” for work done by one person that benefited the other person while they were together.
- One partner can’t ask for support payments from the other partner (financial support for one person in the couple who might need it).
- The partners don’t inherit from each other if one dies without a will or if one was not named as an heir in the will.
How Common-Law Couples Can Protect Themselves
While Living Together or If They Separate
Common-law couples can use a contract to agree on various aspects of their life as a couple while they are living together. The contract can also protect the family home and provide other types of protection if the partners separate.Examples of protections include the division of property, a compensatory allowance and support payments to one of the spouses.
Unable to Make Decisions
Any adult (common-law or not) can prepare a mandate in anticipation of incapacity. The mandate gives instructions in advance about how the person who made it wants to be cared for and how her finances should be managed if she becomes unable to make decisions for herself.
A will is an extremely important document to have to leave property to a common-law partner after you die. You can use a will to choose who will inherit from you and what share of your estate they will inherit.
Everyone should have a will, but it is especially important for common-law couples. If there’s no will, a common-law partner doesn’t inherit anything under the law. This could lead to very difficult and heart-breaking situations. Here are some examples:
- A man dies without a will. His common-law partner doesn’t inherit anything.
- A woman dies without a will. All of her property goes to her children. Since half of the house belongs to her common-law partner, he will end up co-owning the house with the children.
- A man was still legally married to someone else when he died. Since he never got a divorce, his wife (and not his common-law partner) will inherit his property if he died without a will, or the wife can claim a division of property or support payments from the estate.
Aside from leaving property to a common-law partner in a will, you can also buy life insurance. Life insurance gives financial help to the person left behind. Life insurance can cover the loss of income of the person who died, pay for funeral expenses or cover taxes on property of the person who died.
No matter what your situation, a solid estate plan helps you decide in advance what your common-law partner will receive after you die. It will also maximize the inheritance you will leave behind and prevent difficult situations.
Some of the Same Benefits as Married Couples
Many people are under the mistaken impression that they are automatically married after living with someone for a certain number of years. This is because common-law couples have the same advantages as married couples in some specific cases, many of which involve government benefits. (See the table below.)
But even with some of these advantages, there is no standard definition of a common-law couple. A couple can be considered common-law under one law, but not under another. It all depends on the circumstances and which laws apply. Most laws use the following criteria to determine whether a common-law relationship exists:
- two unmarried people who live together and represent themselves in public as a couple, OR
- two unmarried people who have been living together for a certain period of time (sometimes a year, sometimes three years), OR
- two unmarried people who live together AND who have a child together (biological child or adopted), OR
- two unmarried people who live together for a certain period of time (usually one year) AND who have a child together (biological child or adopted).
Sometimes, it is possible to be the common-law partner of one person even if you are still legally married or in a civil union with another person. You can contact the agencies listed below to find out if you are considered a common-law couple in the eyes of the law.
Here are some examples of when common-law couples have the same rights and obligations as married couples:
Federal and provincial income tax, tax programs such as registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs) and tax-free savings accounts (TSFAs), the Québec Pension Plan (QPP), private pension plans and other government payment programs based on family income
Possibility of adopting, as a couple, a child in Quebec or outside Quebec
Youth Centre for your region of Quebec Secrétariat à l’adoption internationale (international adoption secretariat)
Consenting to medical care for your partner
Your doctor, notary or lawyer
Help in organizing protective supervision if your common-law spouse becomes incapable of making decisions and handling her affairs
Your notary or lawyer
Private medical or drug insurance coverage under your partner’s plan
Compensation for work-related accidents, car accidents or the death of your partner
Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) (workers’ compensation board)
Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ)