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Marina Adshade (Erich Saide)

Marina Adshade

(Erich Saide)

MARINA ADSHADE

For common-law couples, 2013 was a ‘we need to talk’ year Add to ...

The cold winds of December bring some couples closer together while blowing others apart; this month more couples get engaged, and more couples break up, than any other month of the year. The end of the year is a time for re-examining relationships with an eye to the future leading, no doubt, to many conversations that start with the phrase, “We need to talk about our relationship.”

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For one particular category of Canadian couples, those in unmarried cohabitating relationships, 2013 has been a year for having relationship talks; this year many couples who thought they were “basically married” learned that they were, in fact, not and others who thought that they were only loosely committed learned that they were, in fact, basically married.

The year started with the Supreme Court of Canada deciding in January that Quebec was within its rights to exclude those in common law relationships from receiving spousal support in the event of a break up.

Individuals in cohabitating relationships in Quebec learned that regardless of how long they have been with their partner and the sacrifices they might have made for that person, in the eyes of the courts they did not have the same legal protection as those who are married.

A few months later, the government of British Columbia passed new legislation that essentially awarded marital status to all couples that had been living together for more than two years. This left some individuals, those who found themselves inadvertently in more committed relationships than they had planned, searching for ways to opt out of this arrangement.

Meanwhile, these new developments left cohabitating couples across the country scrambling to understand the legal nature of their relationship in their particular province.

The year 2013 was one in which cohabitating couples were forced to talk about their relationships.

The legal nature of cohabitating relationships has economic implications for the household in as much as the provincial laws determine the implicit contract that exists between two people living together without being married.

To see why, imagine that we have two people living together as an unmarried couple with each working and contributing to the household income. Now imagine that one of these people is given an incredible opportunity to advance his/her career, but that taking that opportunity will force the other person to make sacrifices in terms of their own career. This might happen, for example, when the couple is forced to relocate to a different city.

If the new job will increase the total income of the household, then the person who loses income might be willing to make that sacrifice if they are guaranteed to benefit from their partner’s now higher income now and into the future. Whether or not they have that guarantee depends on the laws that govern spousal support and the division of assets for unmarried cohabitating couples in the province in which they are residing.

The new arrangement described here might be economically efficient in the sense that it maximizes household income; however when the couple’s legal status is unclear, or appears to be state of flux, there is always the chance that couples will make decisions that ultimately lower their income.

If this year has taught us anything, it is that some have been overestimating, while others have been underestimating, their legal commitment to their cohabitating partner.

From the perspective of household economics, better information has meant that it has been a good year for cohabitating households. I’m not sure everyone will agree, however, particularly those who would rather avoid relationship talks all together.

Marina Adshade is the author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love. She teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics. She tweets @dollarsandsex

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