Common Law Spouses in Ontario and Intestacy
In my previous blog on the benefits of estate planning for millennials, I canvassed some of the ways in which today’s young adult generation differs from the young adults of generations past. One such difference is the increased prevalence of common law relationships in today’s millennial cohort. In a wide-ranging public opinion poll conducted in 2018 by the Angus Reid Institute, 53% of Canadian adults expressed feeling that marriage is “simply not necessary.” This attitude is reflected in rising rates of common law marriage in Canada: as Global News reports, while only 6.3% of Canadians were in common law relationships in 1981, this figure jumped to 21.1% by 2016.
While common law couples may feel no emotional difference from any formally married couple, there are significant differences between some of the legal rights that common law and married couples enjoy. In the estates context in Ontario, for example, common law spouses are treated differently than married spouses when one spouse dies without a Last Will – also known as dying “intestate”. This blog summarizes the relevant law and difference in treatment, below.
Common Law Spouses Have No Entitlement on Intestacy
In Ontario, Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act RSO 1990, c S 26 (the “SLRA”) governs how one’s assets will be divided if a person dies intestate.
Pursuant to sections 44 and 45 of the SLRA, when a person dies intestate and leaves behind a surviving spouse and no children (or “issue”), the surviving spouse will be entitled to the entirety of the deceased’s estate.
If the deceased leaves behind a surviving spouse and any children, the surviving spouse will get the first $200,000.00 of the estate (being the current SLRA “preferential share” value). If there is one child, the remainder of any residue is divided equally between the surviving spouse and child. If there is more than one child, the spouse will receive a third of the balance of any residue, while the remaining children will share the other two-thirds equally.
If the estate’s net value after debts, funeral and administration expenses is less than the present SLRA’s “preferential share” value, the surviving spouse is wholly entitled to the deceased spouse’s estate, irrespective of whether there are any surviving children.
Notably, however, the definition of “spouse” in this section does not encompass couples who are not formally married. For the purposes of intestacy, the SLRA adopts the definition of spouse found in section 1 of the Family Law Act, RSO 1990, c F 3, which reads:
“spouse” means either of two persons who:
(a) are married to each other, or
(b) have together entered into a marriage that is voidable or void, in good faith on the part of a person relying on this clause to assert any right. (“conjoint”)
As such, only married spouses are entitled to benefit under the intestacy regime. While a common law spouse may potentially seek redress by making a dependant’s support claim against their deceased spouse’s estate, for example, they are not entitled to a share of their deceased partner’s estate pursuant to the laws of intestacy.
Given the above, it is all the more important for common law spouses to turn their minds toward formulating an estate plan wherein they provide for their partner accordingly.
Thank you for reading!