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Family Law 101: Terms you need to know

Thunder Bay Family Lawyer, Lauren Conti, breaks down some common terms used in separation and divorce.

Our first Live Q&A in October 2021 with local family lawyer Lauren Conti was jam-packed with good information. Lauren managed to condense the basics of family law, the options for legal representation in separation and divorce, and what to expect when first meeting with a family lawyer all into one 45-minute talk.

It was an especially good reminder that most women (us included) find themselves in the legal landscape of separation and divorce without speaking the language of lawyers, courts and judges.

Want to watch a recording of Lauren’s talk? Members get unlimited access to all our events and event recordings.

There are a lot of legal terms that get used to draft and negotiate separation agreements or divorces, and understanding what they each mean will help you better understand your legal rights and options.

To help, we’ve put together an edited excerpt from Lauren’s talk, with her introduction to some of the common terms and concepts of Family Law:


Spouse is a term used to mean a married person. It can also be a person you share a child with, or a person you’ve been living with in a continuous relationship for 3 years or more.

Common law

If you are common law spouses in Ontario, you are two people that haven’t been married, but have lived together in a continuous relationship for three or more years or have a child/children together.

Common Law is a bit of a different regime when it comes to dealing with property, so it can be a good idea to consult a lawyer if you are separating from your common law partner.


A separation is when two spouses decide to live separate and apart and there is no reasonable possibility of reconciliation (this can occur under the same roof). If you’re married, separation doesn’t end the marriage or automatically turn into a divorce. There is no time limit to being separated; you can remain indefinitely separated from your spouse and never file for divorce.


A divorce is when a court officially ends a marriage and it severs your legal relationship as married spouses. In order to file for divorce in Canada, you must first complete a full one year of separation (living “separate and apart”). The only exception to this rule is if your divorce is filed under the grounds of adultery or cruelty.

You need a certificate of divorce if you want to get remarried. You have the option to file for divorce online in Ontario, with or without a Separation Agreement, or you can get help from a lawyer.

Separation Agreement

A lot of people talk about “legal separation” but there is no such thing in Ontario, it’s not a term lawyers use. A Separation Agreement is the term used to formalize the terms of your separation.

A Separation Agreement is a legal domestic contract about family life. It’s a contract between two spouses that are going to unhitch; they aren’t going to be spouses anymore. It deals with all the issues related to your separation and is a path and your main document that you will both follow until forever or until there is a material change that says you are going to open that agreement and re-negotiate something.

Decision making

This used to be called custody. It’s about making significant decisions for the kids—the big decisions like education, religion, health. It can be either joint between both parents or just one parent has decision making.

Parenting time