Proprietary Rights of Common Law Partners ExpandedMoran v Crocker Estate, 2013 CanLII 81253 (NL SCTD).
Ms. Rhonda Moran (Ms. Moran) and Mr. Gerald Crocker Jr. (Mr. Crocker) were never married but began cohabitating in 1985 and continued a 24-year relationship until Mr. Crocker’s death in January 2009. The couple lived together and also occupied a cabin on Crown leased property, which were both held in Mr. Crocker’s name. Both properties were substantially renovated during the couple’s relationship, equally financed by both parties.
Upon Mr. Crocker’s death, Ms. Moran brought an action seeking a share in the distribution of Mr. Crocker’s estate on the basis of the common law principle of unjust enrichment.
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Decision
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador (NLSC) relied heavily on the principles set out in Kerr v. Barnow, a Supreme Court of Canada case where on break-up a common law partner was awarded a monetary sum to recognize her efforts in the accumulation of the couples’ assets. Specifically, Thompson J. focused on the four elements identified in that case when determining if a monetary award should be given to a common law partner, namely, mutual effort, economic integration, actual intent, and priority of the family. Additionally, the court stated that, while Kerr was based on common law property rights on the breakdown of a relationship, the same principles should apply on death.
The NLSC reviewed the details of the renovations of the properties throughout the couple’s relationship and found that there was significant economic integration and mutual effort present. As a result, the court found that Ms. Moran was entitled to a share in the properties. Further, the NLSC incorporated the current trend of the courts in this area by adopting the idea of proportionality of shared assets accumulated during the course of a “joint family venture” to which both parties have contributed, by awarding the Plaintiff, not just a monetary award, but a fifty percent ownership share in the two properties.
The Effect of the Decision
The starting point for common law partners’ proprietary rights upon breakdown of the relationship or death of a partner is that each partner retains ownership of property in their name. However, recent court decisions have seen the doctrine of unjust enrichment used to advance these rights. The decision in this case has built on the principles developed in Kerr to further evolve the proprietary rights of common law partners in this Province. The result is that, while NL legislation does not recognize the property rights of common law couples, the doctrine of unjust enrichment and specifically the idea of proportionality of shared assets accumulated during the course of a “joint family venture” to which both parties have contributed, is being used to bring these rights closer to those of married couples.
Notwithstanding that NL legislation does not recognize the property rights of common law couples, it is important to remember that it does provide other rights for common law couples upon the breakdown of the relationship, primarily in respect of partner support where a couple has cohabited for two or more years, or one year if children have resulted from the relationship, in addition to child support obligations. Additionally, Canadian federal pension legislation permits common law partners to apply for an equal split of pooled CPP credits where there is a breakdown in the relationship and the couple cohabited for longer than one year.