Somewhere in North America, there is a place where little girls don’t give the slightest thought to what kind of wedding dress they’ll wear one day. A place where young men have never heard the expression: “why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?”—because the milk is always free. A place where no one asks an unmarried couple expecting a baby if they’re getting hitched.
This place is the province of Quebec. The French language spoken here is no guarantee for romance. Couples are practical, and lovers treasure their individuality. Quebec has become one of the least marrying places in the world, thanks to the institution known as “de facto spouses,” But now, thanks to a bizarre legal case entangling a Quebec billionaire and his de facto spouse , the freedom to un-marry is under threat. More than 1 million Quebecois in this kind of relationship may soon be automatically married by the state, against their will.
De facto spouses are defined by Quebec’s law as two people who have been living together for a year or more without being married and who check the “couple” box on their income tax statement form. Quebec’s lawmakers have deliberately chosen not to give de facto couples the same rights and responsibilities that married couples have under the Law of Quebec, to preserve the freedom of choice. Upon the termination of a relationship, “no matter how long cohabitation has lasted, de facto spouses have no legal support obligation to each other, even if one spouse is in need and the other has a high income.” Quebec is the only province in Canada where spousal support payments are not recognized by law for de facto spouses.
Other countries also recognize the status of common-law couples, including France and the Scandinavian nations. In the United States, common law marriage is a legal status in a minority of states.
The very religious province of Quebec traditionally perceived de facto spouses as a threat to the social order. But the “Quiet Revolution” starting in the 1960s led to a radical rejection of the church, a decline in religious weddings, and a reform of the Family Law that introduced the notion of de facto unions in 1979. The status gained more recognition during the ’80s and ’90s, mostly thanks to lobbying by gay rights advocates.
The institution has become wildly popular in Quebec, for gays and straights. An astonishing 34.6 percent of all Quebec couples are de facto couples, and one half of couples under 40 are not married. A full 60 percent of Quebec children are born out of wedlock.
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.
Ever practical, Quebec’s lovebirds are taking precautions. Linda, a 43-year-old woman in Longueuil, moved in with her boyfriend a couple of months ago. He told her that he is going to make her sign a legal document to protect himself in case the “Eric and Lola trial” turns out in favor of Lola. Linda wasn’t shocked and she wasn’t insulted. Being a de facto spouse is normal, the modern way to go. “His legal paper, he can bring it on! If he wouldn’t have suggested it, maybe I would have.” She is happy not to be married, and happy not to be obliged to provide for him.
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