If you've separated from your spouse, you might be worried about what could happen to your property while you're trying to work out how it'll be divided.
Here are some things you can do to protect your property while you're making a separation agreement or getting a court order.
Make a note of your separation date
The date you and your spouse separated is important. This is because from that date:
- each of you is entitled to half the family property,
- each of you is responsible for half the family debt,
- any money you earn or property you buy with your own money is yours to keep, and
- any debts you incur (run up) are your responsibility alone.
Write down (or text or email yourself) the date you separated so you remember. It’s also a good idea to tell people you've separated.
Make a list of what you and your spouse own and owe
If you've decided to separate, collect information about your and your spouse's individually and jointly owned assets (things you own separately and together), debts, property, and money (savings and investments, for example). Make a list of:
- bank accounts
- properties (for example, land, houses, or apartments)
- points on any loyalty or points cards (for example, Air Miles, Avion)
- anything else you own
- any debts (credit cards, loans, mortgages, lines of credit)
- any other assets or debts not listed above
Get as much information as you can about all of these, and gather as many documents about them as you can find.
Gather your and your spouse's:
- tax returns (personal and corporate)
- bank and investment statements (including statements from any borrowing or savings accounts)
- credit card statements
- life insurance policies
- pension statements
Make copies of all these documents (or take pictures of them).
- Take the originals of any paperwork that belongs to you (for example, your tax returns) and leave behind a copy or be prepared to provide a copy later on.
- Take the originals of any paperwork that relates to anything you share with your spouse (for example, bank statements for any joint bank accounts you have with your spouse) and leave behind a copy or be prepared to provide a copy later on.
- Take the copies of any paperwork that belongs to your spouse (for example, their tax returns) and leave the originals for your spouse.
When people separate, valuable items like jewellery often go missing and both spouses say the other person took them. The missing items rarely turn up later. If you have any personal property that's valuable or special to you:
- make a list of the property,
- take a photo of the property (with a time and date stamp, if possible),
- take the property with you (if you leave) or give it to someone you trust to look after, and
- be prepared to share your list with your spouse.
Valuable personal property includes things like:
- wedding bands
- expensive jewellery
- stamp, coin, or card collections
- Bitcoin passwords
If you take anything like this with you, you must include it in any lists of assets when your property and your spouse's property is being divided. You're not taking it to keep it for yourself. You're taking it to keep it safe.
Keep your personal documents safe
Whether you're leaving the family home or staying there, keep the following documents in a safe place where you can find them quickly and easily:
- your driver's licence
- your and your children's birth certificates
- your and your children's SIN cards
- your and your children's passports, citizenship cards, permanent residency cards, or immigration papers
Ask someone you trust to look after your documents for you or put them in a safety deposit box at a bank or other financial institution.
You might want to store your children's personal documents in a separate safety deposit box so that:
- you and your spouse both have access to your children's documents, and
- you both need to be there if one of you wants to take out any of the documents (for example, the children's passports).
Protect your bank accounts and credit cards
If you and your spouse have a joint account, you can ask the bank to close it after you've divided the funds in the account.
If you decide to keep the account open, call your bank, tell them you and your spouse have separated, and ask them to:
- put a limit on how much cash can be taken out of any joint accounts by one person, and
- change the account so that all larger withdrawals need both account holders to sign for them.
If all of the accounts are in your spouse's name, you might have to go to court to get a financial restraining order to make sure they don't take all the money out of the account. Get legal advice about this as soon as possible.
If you're the primary account holder (the person responsible) of any credit cards you and your spouse both use, call your credit card company and ask them to remove your spouse from the account. Or, you can ask them to lower the credit card limit.
If you and your spouse applied for a credit card together and are co-borrowers, you're both responsible for paying back what you borrow. Contact your credit card company and ask them to cancel the account.
Protect any land or house properties from being sold or borrowed against
If a property is in your spouse's name and you want to protect your interest in the property from being sold or borrowed against (used as collateral or security for a loan), speak to a lawyer.
Update your beneficiaries
A beneficiary is someone who'll get money or property from an insurance policy, benefit plan, or will after you die. People usually name their spouse and sometimes their children as beneficiaries.
If you separate from your spouse, look at who you've named as beneficiaries in your:
- insurance policies
- CPP or QPP
- employer-sponsored pensions
- RRSPs, RRIFs, or TFSAs
If you don't remove your spouse as a beneficiary, they can get benefits or inherit your property even though you separated.
You might need to get your spouse's permission to remove their name as a beneficiary from certain benefits. Read the document that names them as a beneficiary to see if you need their consent. If you do, and they refuse to give consent, speak to a lawyer.
Update your will, benefits plans, and all your other estate planning documents so that your estate goes to the people you want it to go to.
Find out more about protecting your property
For more information about protecting property (and dealing with debts) in family law matters, see:
- Dividing property and debts after you separate
- Dealing with debts after you separate
- The Protecting Property and Debt in Family Law Matters page of the JP Boyd on Family Law Wikibook
Jaswinder learns how to protect herself financially after separation in our short illustrated story, Finances after separation.