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March 20, 2013
Ruling affirms Quebec’s distinct laws on common-law relationships

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld controversial rulings by Quebec’s courts affirming that common-law couples do not have the same rights and responsibilities on relationship breakdown as married couples.

In a 5-4 decision, the nation’s highest court ruled in favour of a man who contended that he did not have to pay alimony to his former common-law partner because they were never married.

The case involved a prominent couple who had lived in a common-law relationship for seven years.  During that time, they had three children together.

Upon separation, the woman sought a $50 million lump sum settlement in addition to $56,000 per month in additional support.  While the man agreed to provide large child support payments, he refused the woman’s claim for the lump sum and alimony.  The case then went to litigation.

In 2009, the Quebec Superior Court rejected the woman’s claims, stating that the Quebec Civil Code provided no rights, duties or responsibilities to partners in a “de facto relationship.”  

The woman appealled to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which struck down the Civil Code provision on the grounds that it discriminated against unmarried couples.  At that point, the Quebec government contended the Appeals Court ruling was wrong and appealled to the Supreme Court.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court confined its analysis strictly to the terms of the Quebec Civil Code.  The rights of common-law spouses vary widely by province.  In some jurisdictions, common-law spouses enjoy virtually the same rights as married spouses.  However, disputes regarding the division of assets on separation or death have led to precedent-setting court rulings.  Most recently, the Ontario Court of Appeal awarded a deceased man’s estranged widow the proceeds of his pension’s death benefits, despite the fact that he lived in a common-law relationship at the time of death.  

According to Quebec Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud, the Supreme Court ruling “confirms the principle of freedom of choice, allowing couples to choose the rules that will govern their union.”  However, he also concedes that it may be time for the Quebec National Assembly to review its family laws.

For plan sponsors and administrators, the Supreme Court ruling will mean that terms regarding the division of pension, benefits and other assets on relationship breakdown will vary for Quebec residents based on whether they lived in a marital or common-law relationship.  

Plus, with the courts in other provinces, such as Ontario, also adding their unique interpretations to spousal rights on relationship breakdown, plan sponsors and administrators serving members residing in various provinces will be expected to be aware of each province’s asset division rules.

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