Are you in a common-law relationship? Yes? No? This BC Court decision may have your answer.

Connor Estate 2017 BCSC 978

In this case, the judge took an open-minded approach in addressing whether or not a couple had been “common-law” in the eyes of the law.  Mr. Chambers applied for a declaration that he was the “spouse” of Ms. Connor, within the meaning of s. 2 of WESA, although they were not legally married, did not live together and did not have any children.  Ms. Connor did not have any children and she was predeceased by both her parents and her only full sibling.  The application was opposed by Ms. Connor’s five half-siblings, which Ms. Connor had never met. 

In the event a person dies without a will and leaves behind a spouse (but no surviving descendants) the estate usually falls to the spouse.  Mr. Chambers brought his application so that he may be qualified as a “spouse” and receive the estate of Ms. Connor, otherwise the estate would be distributed to Ms. Connor’s five half-siblings (pursuant to s. 23(2)(c) of WESA), which she had never met.  The five half-siblings were Ms. Connor’s father’s children from a subsequent marriage.

The judge found that even though the parties maintained separate residences, took on their own domestic tasks, did not mingle their finances, had limited sexual relations in the 2 years preceding her death, did not display photographs of each other in their homes, and documentation showed they were “single”, they were in a marriage-like relationship.  The judge acknowledged marriage-like relationships can come in many and various shapes, just as human beings.  The judge took a comprehensive look at their lives and found a long-lasting (over 20 years) and loving relationship between Ms. Connor and Mr. Chambers. 

[46]        The respondents do not deny that there was a long-standing relationship of some sort between Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor.  They submit, however, that it was simply a long-standing "affair" which did not amount to a "marriage-like relationship" and particularly so in the two-year period immediately preceding the death of Ms. Connor.  In that regard they point out:

•         the parties maintained two entirely separate residences and did not live under the same roof;

•         each undertook their own separate domestic tasks such as meal preparation, shopping, tending to clothing and household maintenance;

•         no mingling of finances occurred;

•         sexual relations between them in their respective households were significantly reduced in the last two years;

•         Ms. Connor's hospital records identified her marital status as single and indicated Mr. Chambers as an alternative contact identifying him as a "friend";

•         Ms. Connor identified herself as "single" on her tax returns and Mr. Chambers identified himself as "separated" after 2012;

•         Mr. Chambers identified his wife as his "current spouse" in the spousal declaration for his municipal pension plan application in September 2011, a designation that was never changed;

•         in August 2013 Mr. Chambers declared for the purposes of his group benefits with Manulife Financial that he had no common-law spouse and he did not declare Ms. Connor as a beneficiary;

•         Mr. Chambers' children had no involvement in the life of Ms. Connor and indeed the son was never even introduced to her; and

•         neither Mr. Chambers nor Ms. Connor displayed photographs of each other in their respective residences.

[47]        I agree that not all of the Molodowich factors existed in the relationship between Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor.  The fact that they did not live under the same roof and that they each kept separate finances might, without more, militate against a finding of a "marriage-like relationship".  But the Molodowich factors are not a checklist and it is not necessary for each "box" to be ticked before a marriage-like relationship can be found to exist.

[48]        The parties provided a wide variety of cases as examples of circumstances where a marriage-like relationship was found to exist or not exist, as the case may be, and each devoted some effort to raise factual points of distinction in their favour.  However, while much guidance might be found in this case law, the simple fact is that no two cases are identical (and indeed they usually vary widely) and it is the assessment of evidence as a whole in this particular case which matters.

[49]        The evidence tendered on behalf of Mr. Chambers is uncontroverted.  I accept all of it without reservation and find as a fact that the events described in that evidence occurred and that the characterization of the relationship between Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor by the affiants was accurate and appropriate.

[50]        The evidence is overwhelming and I find as a fact that Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor loved and cared deeply about each other, and that they had a loving and intimate relationship for over 20 years that was far more than mere friendship or even so-called "friendship with benefits".  I accept Mr. Chambers' evidence that he would have liked to share a home with Ms. Connor after the separation from his wife, but was unable to do so because of Ms. Connor's hoarding illness.  The evidence amply supports, and I find as a fact, that Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor loved each other, were faithful to each other, communicated with each other almost every day when they were not together, considered themselves to be (and presented themselves to be) "husband and wife" and were accepted by all who knew them as a couple.

[51]        As a result of, and as part of, their relationship, Ms. Connor assisted Mr. Chambers financially and intended to bestow upon him the benefits of both her financial resources while alive and her estate upon her death.  Designating Mr. Chambers as the beneficiary of her RRSP speaks volumes.  While the evidence on this point is perhaps thin, I find it more probable than not that Ms. Connor actually executed a will leaving most of her estate to Mr. Chambers, a will that simply has not been found.  Certainly, I find as a fact that such was her intent, and it was an intent based on Mr. Chambers' status as her romantic and life partner.

[52]        The evidence is clear that the relationship between Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor was of lengthy duration and was of great importance to both of them.  They both intended for it to continue following her retirement, at which time they intended to spend their time together, and provide ongoing mutual emotional and intimate support, albeit maintaining separate residences should Ms. Connor not have been able to overcome her hoarding challenges.

[53]        Like human beings themselves, marriage-like relationships can come in many and various shapes.  In this particular case, I have no doubt that such a relationship existed between Mr. Chambers and Ms. Connor for many years and that it continued to exist right up to the date of her untimely death in January 2015.  I therefore declare that at the time of her death, Mr. Chambers was the "spouse" of Ms. Connor within the meaning of s. 2 of WESA.