Quebec law allows for couples to maintain a relationship called a de facto union. The development of family law in Quebec under the Civil Code led the province to respect the freedom of choice of these couples, and does not extend the same rights and responsibilities on de facto couples as married couples or civil union couples.
When a de facto couple breaks up, the obligations for divisions of property and lump sum payments is governed by a pre-existing cohabitation agreement, which can be enforced by the courts, or a dissolution agreement.
The only provision of a cohabitation agreement that a judge in Quebec can alter are provisions relating to children, including child support and custody. Dissolution agreements can include terms relating to division of property, custody, and child support.
De facto spouses do not have any legal spousal support obligations in Quebec, regardless of the period of cohabitation or differences in income. However, de facto couples can obtain several benefits from the law, which treats them the same as married couples in a number of areas including social assistance, legal aid, income tax, pensions, and worker’s compensation.
A high profile case involving a Quebec millionaire and his de facto partner from Brazil may change all of this. Lili Boisvert explains on Slate:
In 2002, “Eric” and “Lola” put an end to their decade-long de facto union. (These are pseudonyms used by the media, because Canadian law forbids the publication of the couple’s real names to protect the privacy of their children.) Lola, a Latin American woman, met Eric, a world-famous billionaire, when she was only 17 and he was 32. Although she wanted to get married throughout their relationship, Eric, who claims like many Quebecois that he “doesn’t believe in marriage,” refused.
When the separation occurred, Lola didn’t take it lying down. She decided to challenge Quebec’s law and ask for everything a married woman would have been entitled to. Her lawyers claimed that the provincial law discriminates against unmarried couples. The first provincial court to hear the case saw it otherwise. In 2009, The Supreme Court of Quebec rejected Lola’s claim for $56,000 (Canadian) per month for herself and $50 million as a lump sum. Eric was already giving her $411,000 per year as child-support payments for their three kids.
Lola appealed that court’s decision, and in 2010, the appeals court of the province sided with her. That decision suggested that every other person in a de facto couple had the same rights as her, or the same obligations as Eric. In other words, it invalidated the province’s law that one de facto spouse never has to support another when they split up. Groups that defend single mothers and children’s rights applauded the ruling.
The Quebec government, however, was astounded. The provincial Justice Minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, declared that the appeal court decision would harm the individual’s right to choose what kind of matrimonial state they want for themselves. The Quebec government has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, which will rule on it by July.
The sums of money involved make Eric and Lola’s case somewhat absurd to the average Canadian. But it could shape the lives of the 1.2 million Quebecois in de facto couples, making them as good as married, even though neither of them exchanged rings or asked the other person’s permission to spend their lives together.
You can read a copy of the intevener factum for the Women’s Legal Education Action Fund (LEAF) here: