When A Common Law Spouse Dies Without a Will

When A Common Law Spouse Dies Without a Will- Death of Spouse

When A Common Law Spouse Dies Without a Will- Death of Spouse

Common-law spouses are not treated the same as married spouses under the law and do not automatically have the same property rights. In Ontario, if a common-law spouse dies intestate (dying without a will), the surviving spouse will not inherit any part of the estate. They are completely omitted. However, depending on the facts and circumstances, a surviving common-law spouse can file a claim against the estate in two ways: filing a dependency claim or filing a claim for unjust enrichment.

Dependency Claim

If a common-law spouse was dependent on the deceased and the deceased did not adequately provide for them in a will, the common law spouse could be entitled to file a dependency claim. This would be done by filing an Application against the estate in court. A judge can award a lump sum, a periodic payment, or a transfer of a specific asset to a surviving common-law spouse.

The Succession Law Reform Act (Ontario) broadly defines “spouse” and includes those couples who cohabited for at least three years or couples who are in a relationship with some permanence and have a child together. Section 57 of the SLRA includes a spouse in the definition of “dependant”. Section 62(1) of the SLRA lists many factors that the court should consider in determining the amount and duration of support, including the moral obligations of the deceased. A calculation of dependency must be supported with an Affidavit and documentation by the surviving spouse.

While this may be a successful way for your surviving common-law spouse to obtain adequate support, it is a long and costly process both financially and emotionally. Also, be aware that this type of Application must be filed within six months of the Certificate of Appointment of an Estate Trustee (executor) being granted.

Unjust Enrichment Claim

Unjust enrichment is an equitable principle that one person should not receive a financial gain at the other’s expense. Examples are when one spouse takes care of the home or provides services without compensation from the other spouse. A common-law spouse can make a claim against the estate on this basis. There must be some kind of valuable gain to the deceased, at the expense of the survivor, without a legal reason for that gain. Meaning, there is no contract or legal obligation for that spouse to provide a gain to the spouse that died.

This unjust enrichment claim can be remedied by the court in two ways:

  1. by using a constructive trust
  2. by a quantum meruit award

A constructive trust awards property, equal to the surviving spouse’s contribution. Quantum meruit is a monetary award based on the promise of a future award from the spouse who died. Courts generally prefer this relief over a constructive trust if it is available. Although the Supreme Court of Canada case law supports these awards for unjust enrichment, it is a long and costly road to travel. It should also be noted that the Court of Appeal of Ontario recently ruled that claims for unjust enrichment for real property falls under the 10 year limitations period s. 4 of the Real Property Limitations Act.

Save the trouble. Contact our Wills & Estates lawyer to get a quote to make a Will.

Amy MacAlpine

Amy MacAlpine is a partner at Hummingbird Lawyers. She supports clients in the areas of Wills and Estates, Litigation, and Family Law.


  • Reply December 18, 2019

    Julie Hayward

    How can we change this? How can we get the gov’t to recognize common-law partners as “legal” spouses without a marriage certificate? In the 21st century, there are probably more common-law couples than married couples. Many people do not believe in marriage, or are not religious, or do not feel they need to pay for a piece of paper to prove their bond or love. It’s a cash grab by the government. My common-law and I have been together for over 16 years now and have 3 children. I have legally taken his last name. We don’t feel the need to get a piece of paper for the government (only) to see use as husband and wife because, to each other, we ARE husband and wife. We take care of each other and if, after so many years, one of us should pass and the government says “No! everything you two built together in your relationship is no longer yours unless you can PROVE it!!” is extremely unfair and unjust to the person who just spent the majority of their life with that person. I think, when a couple of co-habitates for 10 years or more, the government should recognize them as legally “married”. I actually think they should do away with “legal” marriages, but again it’s a cash grab all the way around so I know it will never go anywhere.
    Who can I contact to petition to have this changed?

    • Reply December 18, 2019

      Amy MacAlpine

      Hi Julie, I hear you!

      You need the legislature to change the definition of “Spouse” under the Succession Law Reform Act.
      That would resolve the issue.


  • Reply February 17, 2020


    Hi. my common in law has passed but i was not in the will. what happens to my own personal belongings that i bought or had given to me or my kids?

    • Reply February 18, 2020

      Amy MacAlpine

      Hello and thank you for your question.
      Your own personal belongings or your children’s, are yours to keep.
      Only things that were his, are part of the estate.
      While he may not have included you in the Will, it is possible that you may still have a legal claim against his estate.
      You should seek legal advice as soon as possible to ensure that you know what your possible entitlements are.
      Please email me directly if you would like to arrange a consultation.

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