Common-Law and Marriage: Legally, What’s The Difference?

Entering a live-in relationship is an exciting period. You and your partner are beginning an all new phase of your relationship where you will learn much about each other’s habits and personalities.

But at this point, it’s essential that you know that you might not just be entering a new phase of your relationship but might also be creating a legal relationship. When you move in with a partner and combine your affairs in one household, you are considered cohabitating under the law. This kind of relationship gets defined by common-law as a de facto relationship. It can be established after one year of cohabitation; however, this varies from province to province.

In general, a common-law de facto relationship means two people who have been living together for a long time and share finances in terms of a bank account or bills and assets. A marriage is a legal relationship between a couple who has established a legally binding marriage through a ceremony performed by someone with the legal power to marry them, for example, a judge, justice of the peace, or religious official.

A common-law relationship might be the perfect option for some couples. Many no longer look at marriage as ideally as they once did because priorities are shifting. Weddings are expensive, resulting in couples choosing to allocate their finances elsewhere – such as towards purchasing a new home.

Whether you have a marriage or common law relationship doesn’t affect anything so long as the relationship continues. However, should the relationship break down, we encounter some differences between the two legal relationships. In terms of support such as spousal support, child-support, division of parenting time, and decision-making responsibility, there is no legal difference between a common law or marriage. However, this is not the case with assets.

Division of Assets

The differences between the common law and marriage relationships arises when the parties look to divide their assets, including the following:

  • Dividing shared property
  • Who can stay in or sell the family home
  • Dividing property in your spouse’s will


When a marriage breaks down, the division of assets is covered under the Family Law Act, which attempts to ensure that each spouse receives the same benefit from the union. The assets and liabilities of each spouse at the date of marriage and the date of separation are used to calculate how assets are separated and if payment from one spouse applies.

Common Law

There is no specific regime of asset separation under the Family Law Act when it comes to a common law relationship. Each party should exit with what they brought into the relationship and any jointly acquired assets should be split.

Questions often arise when it comes to the family home. How is that divided? Well, it’s treated just like any other asset. If one party purchased it independently and their partner moved into the home with them, the purchasing party will exit the relationship with the property. If the home was purchased jointly, then it will be split.

The same rules that apply to asset division apply to debts. Each party will be responsible for their own debts, and any that accumulated jointly will be divided evenly.

Consult a Professional

If you and your partner are looking to enter or break down either a marriage or common law relationship, it’s important that you get professional advice to know your rights. The Mikhailitchenko Law Office is highly experienced in Family Law. Our team can help navigate you through your legal relationship circumstances, whatever they may be. Contact us today to find out how we can help protect you.