My partner and I aren't married. What happens if I win the lottery?
This question has likely been on the minds of many people in Ontario lately, due to an ongoing legal battle over a jackpot of roughly $6.1 million between a woman and her ex-boyfriend with whom she was cohabiting. You can learn about the allegd facts of the case in various news reports, including here: Woman sues ex for half of $6M lottery win after he left with ticket.
Had the two been married, this case would be entirely different due to the various property and financial rights/obligations that come with marriage. If the lottery winnings are won during the marriage, the winnings would form part of their Net Family Property, and would be divided in accordance with the laws on property division.
If you are cohabiting without being married, you do not enjoy the same rights as a married couple. The starting assumption is that each person’s property – including lottery winnings in their name – belongs to that person alone. You must instead make a claim for unjust enrichment to the courts, and ask them to give you an interest in some of the property acquired during marriage.
How can I prevent this from happening to me?
Cohabitation agreements are the best way you can protect yours and your partner’s interests, and could have been used to solve this couple’s issue before it even arose. In her claim, the girlfriend alleges that her and her boyfriend had an un-written agreement that they should share any lottery winnings. These types of agreements are exceptionally hard to uphold in court. Unless she can provide other evidence of their arrangement outside of a written contract, a court may find that no agreement was in place.
On the other hand, if they had a comprehensive cohabitation agreement in place that specifically addressed their plans to share lottery winnings equally, she would be able to bring an Application seeking to enforce the Agreement. As a cohabitation agreement is a legally binding contract, the boyfriend would be legally obligated to split the winnings with her 50/50. Likewise, a cohabitation agreement that clearly states neither party has rights in the other person’s property could protect the lottery winner from a claim in a case like this.
Because property division after cohabitation is not addressed in legislation, it is subject to the common law and principles of trust and equity. This means it is a grey area, where you can make many different claims, and resolving them can take a significant amount of time and money.
A cohabitation agreement, like a prenuptial agreement, can protect you from these claims. Whether you play the lottery or not, this case is a perfect example of how a cohabitation agreement can protect you in the event you separate from your common-law spouse.