After the break-up

If you and your spouse weren’t married, can your partner come after your stuff?



From the November 2010 issue of the magazine.


Sam Evans first met Martha Lee when she auditioned as a singer in his band. Sam found her voice thrilling and was instantly smitten. It wasn’t long before Martha moved into his Toronto townhouse, and for several years, they lived together as a happy couple.

Sam, 33, had bought the townhouse with a $100,000 inheritance, and he paid the mortgage (names have been changed for privacy reasons). Martha, 31, shared the cost of maintaining and renovating their home.

But as time went on, Sam noticed Martha was having trouble paying the bills. She shopped all the time and hid purchases from him. At first he helped her out when he could, but she kept spending more and more. “I’m very fastidious about money,” says Sam. “So when she refused to see a counsellor about her spending, I told her the relationship was over.”

Their common-law relationship ended after seven years, but their disputes about money did not. Sam said the townhouse belonged to him alone; Martha said because she had helped pay for new windows, a furnace and the roof, she was entitled to half the house. Was she right? She took Sam to court to find out.

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to property rights for couples who choose not to marry, but who legally become common-law spouses after living together for one to three years (depending on your province). Some think they have no legal obligations at all, others think they have the same rights as married couples. The reality is somewhere in between.

Unlike in a marriage, with a common-law relationship the property that you bring into the relationship typically continues to belong to you alone. So if you and your spouse separate, you do not automatically divide everything in half.

But if you have made contributions to maintaining or improving your spouse’s property, you can try to get that money back by going to court. “You can only settle property issues with a trial,” says Jacqueline Peet­ers, a lawyer with Bir­enbaum, Steinberg, Landau, Savin & Colraine in Toronto. “It is evidence-based and the common-law spouse making the claim will have to bring receipts for any work she claims she paid for.”

One way to avoid going to court in the first place is to draw up a cohabitation agreement that describes how property will be divided in the event of a split. “Such agreements are worthwhile when there’s a lot of imbalance in the net worth of the two spouses,” says Peeters. Of course, you’ll want to feel your partner out about this carefully—not everyone is keen on the idea.

A year after the breakup, Martha is still waiting for her day in court. Judging by past cases, she’ll likely get some compensation, but not much. Her legal fees will probably outweigh her payout, putting her even further in debt. It’s a sad ending to a romance that started out so well.

74 comments on “After the break-up

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