Why common-law partners with debt need a domestic contract

How can Rita make her fleeing partner pay his share of their debt?

Rita’s common-law partner left her high and dry last spring

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Q. My common-law partner of 20 years left last year with no communication with me whatsoever. He has left me with all the debt. He had told my daughter that he has another bank account and has been planning this since May. What can I do legally to get him to accept his responsibility for the debt?

—Rita

A. Hello Rita. It sounds like your common-law partner thinks that leaving and changing his bank account alleviates him from any responsibilities. Because you are common law, you are not protected under matrimonial law when it comes to property issues.  So your situation now is no different than if you and I were business partners and I decided to walk away.

Still, it’s often not as cut and dry as the picture I’ve painted, and a lot of factors could come into play. Which is why I advise common-law partners who want to protect assets as separate, or want to have some say over ownership and disposition of assets, that the best way to accomplish this is through a domestic contract.

For any debt that is incurred in both names, it is completely joint and therefore both parties are equally responsible. In cases such as yours where there is no contract, the first thing I would do is notify all the creditors that you have joint debt with a partner. It’s a good first step to let them know this.

But this step alone doesn’t absolve you of responsibility and you will probably be told that you are now completely responsible for the debt yourself. I would then urge you to seek legal counsel. I would also cancel or close down any accounts/credit cards that you have as this will stop any future debt from accruing and being your responsibility.

Finally, if you continue to make payments on the debt in an attempt to keep all the balls in the air, I would keep very good records and receipts for the future in case you decide to pursue civil litigation and try to hold your partner accountable.

Debbie Hartzman is a Certified Financial Planner, a Chartered Life Underwriter and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst in Kingston, Ont. She is also the author of ‘Divorce is not easy, but it can be fair.’

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