Quebec grants common-law alimony rights

Graeme Hamilton, National Post

Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010

MONTREAL – With her rent-free $2.5-million mansion, two nannies, a chef and a chauffeur, Lola seems an unlikely champion of downtrodden single mothers.

But the 35-year-old woman Wednesday won what is being hailed as a major legal victory for common-law spouses, who under Quebec’s Civil Code have enjoyed no right to alimony in the event of a break-up.

The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled unconstitutional a clause of the Civil Code that blocked common-law spouses from seeking alimony after the end of a relationship. The three-judge panel found that the provision discriminates against common-law spouses, perpetuating a prejudice that such relationships are “less durable and serious” than those sanctioned by marriage.

Guy Pratte, a lawyer representing Lola (that is a pseudonym; under Quebec family law, the former couple cannot be identified), said the decision represents important progress: “It recognizes that families in Quebec are protected when it comes to alimony, whether the couple is married or not. It puts Quebec couples in tune with those in other provinces.”

The court suspended application of the decision for one year to give the provincial government time to adapt its legislation. The ruling will have broad implications in Quebec, which has the highest proportion of unmarried couples in the country. Figures from 2006 cited by the court show 35% of Quebec couples live common-law, compared with 18% in the rest of the country, and 60% of children in Quebec are born to unmarried parents. Quebec is the only province that does not recognize the right of common-law spouses to sue for alimony.

A Quebec federation representing single-parent families called the ruling “a major advance” for the rights of common-law spouses and their children. “It was time to bring an end to this injustice,” the federation said in a statement. “With this ruling, the Court of Appeal finally recognizes the urgency of reforming family law in Quebec.”

Lola brought the issue to the fore with a lawsuit against her billionaire ex, known as Éric, seeking a $50-million lump-sum payment, in addition to monthly payments of $56,000 per month.

They had been together nearly 10 years and had three children before their 2002 split. The Civil Code does provide for child support even when parents are not married, and Éric has agreed to pay $411,000 a year in support, in addition to covering the cost of their schooling, riding courses and other household expenses. Éric also provides Lola with a $2.5-million home, although he remains the property’s owner.

Quebec Superior Court ruled last year that Lola had no right to alimony. Justice Carole Hallée found that the distinction made in the law between common-law and married couples was intended to preserve the freedom of choice of people who prefer not to assume the legal responsibilities of marriage.

The Court of Appeal did not give Lola complete victory, rejecting her bid for a share of Eric’s property. It will be up to Superior Court to determine the appropriate level of alimony.

Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier called the ruling “very important” but did not indicate whether the government would appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In a brief statement, Éric said he will respect the court’s decision and made an appeal to the media to respect his private life and those of his children.