Common-Law Marriage Suit Could Alter Canadian Law

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A Canadian Supreme Court case has the potential to change marriage across the country. In the province of Quebec, partners in a common-law marriage have no legal obligation to support each other if they separate. But that law's validity came into question when the long time de-facto spouse of a Canadian billionaire demanded alimony payments.

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We're going to hear now about a court case in Canada that could change things for millions of couples. In Quebec, couples are far less likely to be married than almost anywhere else in the world. They often just live together or a third of Quebecois have de facto, or common law, partnerships. They share a home, join their finances, and have families without getting married. That is much different than the U.S., where common law relationships are fairly rare. North Country Public Radio's Sarah Harris reports on the case before the Canadian Supreme Court.

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SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: Jon Kovecses(ph) and his partner, Eva Redwanly(ph), are stretching in the Parc du Mont-Royal after a run. They've been living together for eight months. Soon, they may have a union d'efet; a de facto marriage or common law partnership. Getting a legal marriage isn't that important to them.

EVA REDWANLY: I guess I'm like most women. I would love to get married for the dress and the party, but it's not really necessarily a proof of love for me.

JON KOVECSES: I think it is important to me, but not legally speaking.

HARRIS: If they break up, Eva and Jon won't owe each other anything. At least not under current Quebec law, which says that if their common-law union ends, they have no financial obligation to each other. Married couples, on the other hand, split the assets acquired during the marriage 50/50. If they have kids, they'll have to pay child support. But there's nothing like alimony or spousal support. So Eva and Jon could just walk away, no strings attached.

But that may change, depending on how the Canadian Supreme Court rules in the Eric vs. Lola case. Eric is a Quebecois billionaire. Lola's a Brazilian model and Eric's 10-year common-law spouse. Those aren't their real names; Canadian law prevents the publication of their legal names to ensure their privacy.

Anyway, when they broke up and Lola didn't receive alimony payments, she sued both Eric and the government of Quebec, claiming that the lack of protection for common-law spouses is discriminatory and violates the Canadian Constitution.

Robert Leckey, professor of family law at McGill University, says the ruling could have wide-ranging repercussions for more ordinary couples.

ROBERT LECKEY: And if Lola wins, in part or in full, the implication could be that, you know, the million Quebec households where people are living together unmarried, the economics may shift. It may be that one is required to share some of one is resources with one's partner, and you can no longer walk away at the end of it.

HARRIS: Marriage is an outmoded institution in Quebec. The province was really Catholic until the 1960s, when the Quiet Revolution, a large-scale rejection of the church, prompted Quebeckers to stop attending mass and to stop getting married. Now, most people just live together.

Benoit LaPlante, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, says common-law partners use existing legal structures likes deeds and wills to give them protection the law doesn't provide.

BENOIT LAPLANTE: There is a strong support in Quebec, not always very conscious, but for a kind of set of rules in which having a relationship with someone is not creating a dependency or a liability.

HARRIS: That's in part why common-law unions are so popular. People see them as egalitarian. But Anne Goldwater, a celebrity lawyer who represented Lola for five years, says the law's equality is an illusion.

ANNE GOLDWATER: You fall in love. You think, especially in a place like Quebec that so jealously protects the equality of women, you really believe because it's part of the culture that men and women are equal and have equal opportunities. And that's true.

HARRIS: But Goldwater says traditional family structure and gender norms put women at a disadvantage when common-law couples separate.

GOLDWATER: But the problem is the outcomes are never equal. They just aren't. So a woman is still expected to take care of hearth and home and bear the children and have a career. And what? And walk away with nothing? Come on.

HARRIS: So, what will happen to Quebec's million common-law couples when the ruling comes down? If Eric wins, nothing. If Lola wins, well, they may want to renegotiate the terms of their relationships.

Back at the park, Jon and Eva say they're not really thinking about contracts.

REDWANLY: Any kind of commitment like on paper doesn't mean anything for me. I just believe in our love and our path together right now.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But depending on how the Supreme Court rules, Jon and Eva may be forced to decide what, legally, they want that love to mean.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Harris.

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