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Would a couple have to specifically declare themselves or apply for common-law status, or is it implicitly bestowed?

For example, if one passes away, can the other claim common law status without a written indication from the deceased? Can the two file taxes separately, or must they file together?

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Taxes in Canada, unlike the US and some other jurisdictions are always filed separately. There is no joint filing; however you are expected to declare your spouse on your tax forms.

The primary reason to declare a spouse is to claim a spousal amount if that person has no (or very limited) income.

Some help about what a spouse is from the Canada Revenue Agency can basically be summarized as living together for a year, or that you have a child (natural or adoption) together.

If you had been living together for some time, then one passed away, for that given tax year, I expect you could claim some spousal amount. But if there are deeper issues you need to clarify, then a visit to a tax lawyer would probably be worth the cost.

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