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New book spells out differences between common-law and marriage

In Quebec, many common-law couples believe they have the same legal rights as married couples. But they're wrong.

BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | MAR 28 2012

Over one third of Québec couples live in common-law relationships – one of the highest proportions in the world. However, most mistakenly believe that they have the same legal rights as married couples, which can often lead to problems following a break-up.

This is what Hélène Belleau, sociologist and professor at the Centre Urbanisation Culture Société of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, discovered when conducting a survey among common-law couples with children. She hopes that her book entitled Le mythe du mariage automatique will help people better understand the major differences between the two types of relationships. Dr. Belleau explains that “the automatic marriage myth refers to the wide-spread idea that, after a few years of conjugal living, being in a common-law relationship is just like being married.”

According to Dr. Belleau, the confusion surrounding common-law status stems from its conflicting interpretations in the area of taxation and in the law. In fact, after one year of living together, Québec couples are considered common-law spouses. They must declare themselves as such and file their tax returns accordingly. As such, in terms of taxation, married and common-law couples are equivalent. Many are under the false impression that this equality is recognized in the Québec civil code. But Dr. Belleau points out that “the notion of common-law relationships is practically non-existent in the civil code. In the case of a separation, the code does not cover how assets are to be divided. Neither party is protected.”

Dr. Belleau is convinced that this misunderstanding of the law is largely responsible for the significant increase in common-law relationships in Québec. According to her, the problem is not that some couples are choosing this type of partnership, but rather that their decision is not fully informed. Interestingly, some couples interviewed in the survey later decided to get married!

The government could certainly better inform the public, but for Dr. Belleau the root of the problem remains the lack of consistency in Québec law. “If we believe families should benefit from legal protection, then there is no reason to differentiate between married and common-law couples.”

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