Everyone knows common law marriage exists. But it’s surprising how many people misunderstand the concept. In Ontario, the law deems you to be in a common law relationship once you have lived together continuously for three years. And once you’ve crossed that threshold, you are potentially on the hook for spousal support. But unless you tie the knot, neither of you is entitled to assets you’ve respectively acquired before the relationship began, and have only limited rights to those acquired while you lived together (for example, if she paid the mortgage).
I recently went through the dissolution of a common law relationship and learned a few useful—and expensive—lessons along the way. These lessons relate to my specific situation where I was the sole breadwinner in the household while she pursued her artistic interests. That said, even if you are not in an identical situation, but your marriage has hopelessly fallen apart, some of these lessons still hold true for you.
Pull Up the Drawbridge
Yes, you still love her. You don’t want to be cruel. You want to avoid lawyering-up.
But trying to work things out on your own with her when trust is gone is almost always a bad idea. So pull up the drawbridge. Close the bank accounts. Change the locks. And refer all communications to your lawyer. That doesn’t mean you have to leave her homeless and penniless. Just be sure that you have a record of any money you give her so that it can be factored into the final spousal support settlement.
Listen to Your Lawyer
They’ve been there. They’ve seen that. They know that emotions rule in break-ups. And they know clients who fail to take their advice in these situations pay much more than those who do.
The Law is Blind to Fault. Get Over It.
The law doesn’t give a rat’s ass who caused the split when it comes to determining financial liability in a common-law breakup. (Yes, that seems unfair, but that’s the law.)
The current law in Ontario simply considers rational factors in determining a financial settlement in a common-law relationship: things like the length of time you were together, your age, your respective incomes, and whether there were kids from the relationship. All are part of the equation. The fact she slept with a guy in her pottery class doesn’t reduce your spousal support liability.
Make an Offer, Then Shut Up
There are online calculators to estimate common law partners’ respective spousal support liability within a low-to-high range. Use one to get an estimate and then work with your lawyer to propose a fair settlement, usually in the mid to upper quartiles. Then just leave it there. Don’t follow up, as the onus is no longer on you to do so. And don’t be baited into a pointless rounds of negotiation. Your original offer will almost certainly stand. Just ask them to ask a judge.
I didn’t do that. Instead, I pushed my lawyer to respond to every cockamamie accusation and demand. And that got expensive, fast.
Keep it Cool—and Keep it Off Social Media
Yes, you are hurt. But making public statements about the break-up is unbecoming of a gentleman—privately or publicly. So keep a distance from her, especially on social media. Block her from all your social media accounts. And don’t post anything to social media about your break-up.
Even if she decides to behave in the opposite manner.
Let Your Friends Decide
One of the hardest aspects of the break-up of a long-term relationship is the division of friends. There are some who will side with you, some who will abandon you, and some who will stay neutral.
Don’t lobby friends to your cause. Let them decide where their allegiances lie. You may not like the outcome but you’ll quickly learn who your friends really are.
And those people are the most precious assets you have.