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Jon Kovecses and Eva Redwanly
Jon Kovecses and Eva Redwanly

For Quebec's common law couples, an uncertain future

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Here in New York, debate over same-sex marriage has existed for the last few years. But just across the border in Quebec, the big issue is that a lot of couples never marry at all. One third of Quebecois couples have de facto, or common law, partnerships. They live together, join their finances and have families without getting married. That's different than in the U.S., where common law relationships are fairly rare. And now, a case now making its way through the courts may change the rules for millions of unmarried Quebecois couples. Sarah Harris has more.

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Sarah Harris
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Jon Kovecses and his partner, Eva Redwanly, stretch 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 defacto marriage, or common law partnership. Getting a legal marriage isn’t that important to them.

“I guess I’m like most women. I’d like to get married for the dress and the party but it’s not necessarily a proof of love for me,” said Redwanly.

“I think it is important for me but not legally speaking," Kovecses added.

 If they break up, Redwanly and Kovecses won’t owe each other anything. Or at least they won’t under current Quebec law, which states 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 marriage 50/50. If they have children, they’ll have to pay child support. But there’s nothing like alimony or spousal support. So Redwanly and Kovecses 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 is a Brazilian model, and Eric’s 10-year common law spouse. Those aren’t their real names -- Canadian law prevents the publication of their names to ensure their privacy. 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.

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

No one really knows what a new law would look like, or what sorts of financial obligations common law partners may have to each other. That’s up to the legislature.

The case also represents another profound change in Quebecois marriage culture, which has been in flux over the past 50 years. Quebec was Catholic until the 1960s, when the Quiet Revolution, a widespread rejection of the church, prompted a lot of Quebeckers to stop attending mass -- and to stop getting married.

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

“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."

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

“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.”

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

“But the problem is the outcomes are never equal. They just aren’t," Goldwater continued. "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? Cmon!” 

Of course, plenty of people in Quebec still do get married. LaPlante says there’s been a slight rise in marriages since 2003. In some cases, it’s because people want to celebrate.

 “You’ve got less and less religious marriages, you’ve got less and less marriages by clerk courts, and you’ve got more and more marriages by friends, relatives, and these marriages, their main characteristic is that you control totally the ceremony. So the only rational explanation if you look at the numbers since 2003 is that people are marrying because of the party!” LaPlante exclaimed. 

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. Quebec could also follow the lead of other Canadian provinces that have give common law couples some protections.

Back at the park, Redwanly and Kovecses say they’re not really thinking about contracts.  

“Any kind of commitment on paper doesn’t mean anything to me," Redwanly said. "I just believe in our love and our path together right now.” 

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

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