2.5 Legal Orientation


Understanding the Law

In BC, a spouse is someone in a married or common law relationship. A couple is in a common law relationship if they are unmarried but have lived in a “marriage-like relationship” for two years or more.

At the end of a relationship, each spouse has certain legal rights and responsibilities.  Generally speaking, your rights are the same whether you were married or if you were in a common law relationship.

The major difference between married and common law spouses is that married spouses have to apply for a divorce if they no longer wish to be married to each other. A common law couple does not need a court order to declare they are no longer spouses.

In Canada, there are both federal and provincial laws that apply to separation and divorce. In BC, separating couples can use the Family Law Act and married couples can use the Family Law Act or the Divorce Act.  

 Common law    --- >   Family Law Act   

Married    --- >   Family Law Act or Divorce Act


It is important to know which law you will be using when you are going to court or applying for a divorce or consent order.  You probably won’t need to refer to the legal acts while you are negotiating, but knowing what these laws say about your rights and obligations are important and will be discussed in this chapter.

Before you start learning the laws, it’s important to make sure these laws apply to you.  To do so, check if you fit the definition of a spouse or a guardian.

Am I a spouse?

Spouses are people who:

  • are married
  • have lived together in a "marriage-like relationship" for at least two years; or
  • have lived together in a "marriage-like relationship" for less than two years and have a child together.

Am I a guardian?


In this course the term parent is used to include the legal definition of guardian.  

If you are a parent there are three ways to be a guardian:

  • You have lived with your child,
  • You haven’t lived with your child but regularly take care of him/her or
  • You haven’t lived with your child but have an agreement appointing you as a guardian. 

If you are not a parent you can be a guardian only if a court order or a will appoints you as one.

What is property?

Property in the legal context includes the physical items (e.g. houses, cars, or jewelry) you own as well as the intangible items (e.g. pensions, investments, or savings).

Who Can Divorce?

Only married spouses can get divorced. An unmarried couple’s relationship as spouses is over when they separate. You can file for divorce in BC if you can prove the following:

  • Your marriage is a legally valid marriage
  • You or your spouse live in BC and have lived here for at least a year or you were married in BC but you lived somewhere in the last year that wouldn't let you get divorced. 
  • One of the following grounds for your divorce:
  1. That you and your former spouse lived separate and apart for at least one full year
  2. That the respondent spouse has committed adultery (the claimant spouse cannot commit adultery and claim it as a ground for divorce)
  3. That the respondent spouse treated the claimant with physical or mental cruelty that makes it impossible to live together anymore


Key Issues

At the end of a relationship, each spouse has legal rights and responsibilities. Both in legal and practical terms, separating couples need to make decisions about these matters:

1.Care of Children: Who will care for the children?
2.Child Support: How will the children be financially supported?
3.Spousal Support: Is one spouse entitled to receive support payments from the other?
4.Property Division: How should the assets and debts be separated?

Decisions about these four key issues are the main topics of a separation agreement.  This chapter focuses on the general legal principles around each of these key issues. 

By the end of this chapter, you should have an understanding of your rights and responsibilities so that you are in a better position to negotiate with your spouse and come to an agreement. Chapter 6 will discuss these issues in more detail and focus on getting to agreement in each of these areas. For now, we will focus on legal rights and responsibilities.