Older Canadians like to shack up rather than tie the knot

Call it shacking up, living in sin or love without the paperwork — more older Canadians are choosing it over traditional marriage.

The most recent census figures show big increases in the number of people over age 50 in common-law unions, with the most significant growth in the early-60s crowd. At the same time, the practice has nearly flatlined or even declined among the twenty- and thirtysomethings who used to scandalize their parents by moving in together.

The baby boomers are inflating the ranks of the 50-plus in general, but experts say that between more liberal social attitudes, a “been there, done that” mentality among those who have been divorced and the lack of financial incentive to marry, many older Canadians simply don’t feel the need to walk down the aisle.

“We choose to stay common-law because, quite frankly, there’s nothing in it for us to get married. There’s no financial advantage; we need to file our income tax together anyway,” says Jenni Hopkyns, 61, who’s been living with her partner, Mike, in Victoria for four years. “We said ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ It seems to be working well.”

Hopkyns had been married twice before and her 67-year-old partner had been married once, and she says seeing marriage vows break down makes another ceremony less enticing.

“It’s not to mean that we’re any less committed, because I wouldn’t say that at all,” she says. “We’ve just made a commitment to each other every day.”

Between 2001 and 2006, the most recent year for which census data are available, the number of Canadians in common-law relationships shot up 77 per cent among those ages 60 to 64 and between 44 and 64 per cent for all other age groups over 50.

Most financial, retirement and tax regulations provide no benefit to saying “I do” and treat common-law couples the same as married spouses, says Patricia Lovett-Reid, senior vice-president at TD Waterhouse.

The big difference with a marriage licence comes with home ownership, she says, where married couples have equal rights to possession of the matrimonial home but common-law rights are restricted to properties for which someone holds a deed or helped to pay for it. But that can be attractive to many older couples who come into later-in-life relationships with wealth and property they’ve accumulated, she says.

“There are crisper parameters when people decide to live common-law (instead of getting married),” she says. “There’s a lot more clarity around the financial details: income level, debt, who’s bringing what into the relationship and the attitudes around money.”

Susan Eng, vice-president advocacy of CARP, the national advocacy organization for older Canadians, believes the cohabitation trend has been fuelled by boomers in more than one sense. It’s a generation that came of age in the freethinking ’60s and ’70s and wants to do things its own way, she says, and also one full of self-sufficient women for whom marriage isn’t necessary from a social or financial standpoint.

“The companionship and romance and so on is enough and the marriage licence, in and of itself, is not as important,” she says.