Family law aims to prevent disputes

A major overhaul of B.C.’s family law is now in force.

A major overhaul of B.C.’s family law is now in force, aimed at reducing disputes over shared parenting responsibilities and division of property when couples split up.

The Family Law Act was passed in 2011 with support from both the B.C. Liberal government and the NDP opposition. It took effect March 18.

One of the main changes is extending property division rules of marriage to unmarried couples who have lived together in a “marriage-like relationship” for at least two years.

Those rules mean property acquired during a relationship is divided equally, unless the couple sign an agreement to split assets differently. Debts accumulated during the relationship must also be shared, including mortgages, loans from family members, credit card and income tax debt.

As with a divorce, inheritances and property brought into the relationship by each partner are not shared.

Attorney General Shirley Bond introduced the changes as a way to keep family breakups out of court, and to take the “win-lose” terminology out of parenting. The traditional terms, “custody” and “access” of children, have been dropped from the Family Law Act, replaced by “parental responsibilities,” “parenting time” and “guardianship.”

The new act also makes it an offence for one parent to violate an agreed schedule for shared parenting.

The law also requires parents who wish to relocate to give 60 days’ notice to those authorized to have contact with children. That applies whether the children are involved in the relocation or not.

When the changes were debated in the legislature, NDP justice critic Leonard Krog spoke in support, noting that B.C. has one of the highest levels of family disputes in Canada.

“If we can keep people out of court, if we can let them settle their affairs in a more friendly and amicable way, then this is all to the good,” Krog said. “It means that people can get on with their lives. It will mean less emotional damage to children.”

Details of the new rules and answers to frequently asked questions are available on the B.C. government website at www.justicebc.ca/en/fam/. The site also has contact information for family justice centres that offer counselling at no charge.