Eric & Lola ruling: SCOC rules common law couples have fewer rights
Published Friday, January 25, 2013 9:56AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 7:04PM EST
MONTREAL--Quebecers who live with their spouse without being married do not have the right to alimony or any portion of their partner's assets once they break up.
That's the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, ending a long-standing debate on whether or not non-married couples were the victims of discrimination compared to married couples.
The woman Quebec has come to know as "Lola" spent years with her multi-millionaire boyfriend "Eric" and they had several children together--the pair cannot be identified in order to protect the identity of their three children.
When the relationship soured, the Brazilian native discovered she was not entilted to anything beyond child support.
She went all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that Quebec laws discriminated against non-married couples, but the top court disagreed and upheld Quebec's laws which provide rights strictly to married couples.
In a narrow 5-4 decision, chief justice Beverley McLaughlin writes: "Those who choose to marry choose the protections--but also the responsibilities--associated with that status."
"Those who choose not to marry avoid these state-imposed responsibilities and protections"
In short, Lola cannot get any spousal support and she cannot get any portion of her ex's substantial assets.
The decision was not unanimous.
Three dissenting judges feel Quebec's Civil code does violate Charter provisions, and they argue it would authorize spousal support while denying a split of the couple's assets.
Justice Rosalie Abella, for her part, would find all of Quebec's provisions unconstitutional.
Confirmation of status quo
One-third of couples in Quebec live in common-law relationships, more than in any other province, and more than half of all children in Quebec are born out of wedlock. Yet Quebec is the only province without any provisions for spousal support when a relationship ends.
Lola discovered that the hard way when her relationship ended in 2002, and despite getting substantial support for her three children, was surprised to learn that she would face a much lower standard of living once her children turned 18.
Lola lost her bid in 2010 in Quebec Superior Court when the judge ruled that recognizing all couples as "married" would infringe on their freedom to choose not to marry.
Quebec's Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, arguing that the province's Civil Code discriminates against common-law spouses because it deprives them of a right that is guaranteed to married couples.
Eric decided to go along with that ruling and gave his former partner a $2.5 million home, although he did not provide the $50 million lump sum payment she was asking for--a fraction of his annual income.
A court ruling in 2006 compelled him to also give her a car and to pay for a chauffeur, a cook and two nannies. He also buys plane tickets for the children and nannies for two trips a year, as well as a daily allowance of up to $1,000 for the holidays.
"Eric" said he felt like he was being dragged into a fight between the provincial government and his ex, but his lawyer, Pierre Bienvenu, said he was satisfied with the verdict.
"Those aspects of the debate that were legal, that did raise constitutional questions have been heard, fully debated, and we received today the judgement of the highest court in the land. Will it go back in the political arena? Most likely," said Bienvenu.
It was the choice of the province of Quebec to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, saying it wanted more clarity on the matter.
Lawyers representing the province argued that adults are responsible enough to decide if they want to assume legal obligations, but Lola's lawyers say most Quebecers are unaware that in the event of a breakup they can be left with nothing.
They were vindicated by Friday's ruling demonstrating that adult couples are free to opt out of the responsibility of being married.
After Friday's ruling, Quebec Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud said the door was open to changing the province's family rules. The minister called for a "general reflection" by society before Quebec decides what to do with the civil code.
Ruling confirms discrimination
The ruling confirming the status quo, that couples can opt out of the rights and responsibilities of getting married, will not affect child support payments.
However, as in all cases, Lola's child support payments will end when her children turn 18, and the decision means she will not be eligible for spousal support.
Her lawyer, Guy Pratte, said most people are not aware of their lack of rights in Quebec and suggests people either get married, or prepare some other type of cohabitation contract.
"The court has, in a very slim majority, decided that the measure was not unreasonable even though it was discriminatory. Everyone in Quebec should take note of that," said Pratte.
He said Lola devoted her life to raising children and felt entitled, as divorced people do, to a share of assets.