SIGNIFICANT changes to family law in B.C. come into force in March, but how the new rules will affect families involved in breakups is still unclear for many.
In response to a number of inquiries from curious clients, Vancouver-based law firm Watson Goepel LLP hosted a forum at West Vancouver Memorial Library on Wednesday evening. The event highlighted new features of the Family Law Act, which received royal assent in November 2011 and will replace the out-of-date Family Relations Act as of March 18.
"One very big change is that common-law couples are now included in the new legislation," said Laurence Klass, a family law lawyer at Watson Goepel. "The legislation will treat common-law relationships on the same footing as marital relationships."
According to BCStats, the number of common-law couples in B.C. is growing at a rate three times faster than the number of married couples. Including common-law partners - defined as unmarried couples who have lived together at least two years - under the new act is one of many changes designed to make the law more reflective of modern-day families.
In the event of a breakup, property division rules will apply to both married and common-law couples. And certain property need not be shared upon separation.
"Property acquired before the relationship will be excluded from being divided," Klass said. "This would appear to make it easier for those parties that do have assets at the commencement of the relationship."
The Family Law Act also encourages out-of-court resolution - a speedier, and less costly way to resolve separation disputes. Terms such as "custody" and "access" will be phased out in favour of the less adversarial words "guardianship," "parenting arrangement" and "parenting time."
Couples who have a child together and have lived in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years may be entitled to spousal support.
The new legislation also defines family violence and takes it into consideration when making decisions about children.
While Klass welcomes the coming changes, he wants to watch a few trials and appeals go through the system before deciding how the new act will affect family law in B.C. in the long term.
"It's unclear now, but we believe that there will be some challenges to aspects of the legislation," he said. For example, he said a number of trust lawyers have expressed concern about terminology.
Overall, Klass said the new legislation appears positive, "but there are still a number of grey areas."