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Legal framework for common-law couples: First public opinion survey in Québec

March 28, 2024 | Alexandra Madoyan

Update : March 28, 2024

Researchers investigate the wishes of Québecers regarding official recognition of common-law unions.

What are Québecers’ expectations concerning the legal framework of common-law unions? That was the question researchers Hélène Belleau and Maude Pugliese of Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) and their colleague Carmen Lavallée of Université de Sherbrooke were interested in.

More than 2,500 people—women, men, married couples, and common-law partners—responded to a major survey conducted in 2022. The results, the first on the subject in the province, were published in a report titled, “Un cadre juridique pour les unions libres au Québec ? Ce qu’en pense la population” (A legal framework for common-law unions in Québec? What the public thinks).

Professor Hélène Belleau, who also holds the chair on finance, inequalities, and society, in partnership with Chambre de la sécurité financière, emphasized the unique nature of the study.

“Through this survey, we were able to demonstrate for the first time that there is a real consensus in favour of similar legal treatment for married and common-law couples in Québec. This goes against conventional wisdom on the subject.”

Hélène Belleau, sociologist and specialist in the family, couples and the social use of money

More than 70% of respondents felt that common-law couples should be treated the same way as married couples under the law after a few years of living together. That was true for both men and women, for people having gone through a divorce as well as for those having experienced a separation. Level of legal knowledge did not influence the data either.

“We found that survey respondents overwhelmingly support the most universalizing proposals: Beyond the presence of children, they support a comprehensive legal framework for common-law partners,” said Professor Belleau.

“This survey also contradicts the widely held view that people living in common-law relationships do so primarily because they reject the legal structure prescribed for married couples,” added Carmen Lavallée, full professor and director of the Master of Laws program in the Faculty of Law at Université de Sherbrooke.

Unregulated common-law unions, a Québec paradox

According to the latest Statistics Canada census conducted in 2021, Québec has the highest proportion of common-law couples in the country. “In many regions of Quebec, more than 50% of couples live in a common-law relationship, and more than 80% of children are born out of wedlock,” said Professor Belleau.

Yet Québec is the only province in Canada without a legal framework for protecting individuals in the event of separation or the death of a partner.

Maude Pugliese INRS

“With regard to death, another study by our team published in 2023 showed that 65% of unmarried couples between the ages of 25 and 50 do not have a will and would therefore leave nothing to their partner in the event of their death, too often without even knowing it. This can lead to real financial tragedies—for example, a deceased spouse’s share of the house reverts to their family, putting the surviving spouse in the position of having to buy it back.”

Professor Maude Pugliese, specialist in finances and inequalities in families and the Canada Research Chair in Family Financial Experiences and Wealth Inequality.

Gender inequalities exacerbated by lack of legislation

In a previous study on the financial vulnerability of women in a relationship (in French), Hélène Belleau already noted the negative consequences for women of this lack of regulation. To illustrate this, her research team developed a risk map of common-law unions (in French) by region.

Verdict: Depending on the family situation, the number of years of living together, the division of expenses, or the presence of children, women are more likely to lose out in the absence of clear laws.

The results of the new INRS report, combined with previous data in this area, provide valuable insights to advance the discussion on legal recognition of common-law couples.