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Conjugal Interdependence in Quebec: From Legal Rules to Social Representations About Spousal Support and Property Division on Conjugal Breakdown1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2013

Hélène Belleau
Affiliation:
Professor, INRS Urbanisation Culture et Société,Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Pascale Cornut St-Pierre
Affiliation:
PhD student, École de droit de Sciences Po,Paris, France

Abstract

In the present article, we examine the extent to which legal norms related to family matters are in line with the diverse social representations of current conjugal life, more particularly as concerns the economic interdependence of the couple during or subsequent to their union. Two Quebec legal measures compel attention: the division of the family patrimony and the obligation of support payable to the former partner. The present analysis is based on an empirical study involving couples living together in Quebec. Whereas current legal discourse concerning unmarried cohabitation appears focused on spousal support, our survey has brought out two elements that could challenge the current legal approach. When it comes to social representations, we find that the awarding of support to the partner is highly controversial. The majority of our respondents also believe that the family patrimony should be shared equally, whether or not the couple is married, and more especially when there are children, the property of the household being deemed to be the fruit of a joint and family-oriented effort.

Résumé

Les changements récents dans les relations conjugales, tels l’accroissement des couples vivant en union libre, l’instabilité des unions et les recompositions familiales successives, poussent les auteures à s’interroger sur l’adéquation du droit à ces réalités contemporaines. Cet article examine comment les normes juridiques en matière familiale s’articulent aux diverses représentations sociales de la vie conjugale contemporaine, particulièrement en ce qui concerne l’interdépendance économique des conjoints, pendant et au terme de l’union. Deux mesures du droit québécois retiennent en particulier l’attention, à savoir le partage du patrimoine familial et la pension alimentaire à l’ex-conjoint.

Cette analyse s’appuie sur une étude empirique réalisée auprès de personnes vivant en couple au Québec. Tandis que le droit semble davantage enclin à trouver des solutions aux ruptures hors mariage du côté de l’obligation alimentaire, notre enquête révèle deux éléments susceptibles de remettre en question l’approche juridique actuelle. Dans les représentations sociales, d’une part, l’octroi d’une pension alimentaire au conjoint s’avère très controversée, car elle contribue au maintien d’une interdépendance au-delà de l’union et suppose que les conjoints qualifient leur union de relation inégalitaire. Une majorité de répondants, d’autre part, considèrent que le patrimoine familial devrait être partagé à parts égales que les conjoints soient mariés ou non, particulièrement en présence d’enfants, les biens qui le composent étant perçus comme le fruit d’un effort commun destiné à la famille.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © Canadian Law and Society Association / Association Canadienne Droit et Société 2013 

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References

1 This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We are indebted to Alain Roy and Robert Leckey for comments on earlier versions and to Geoffrey Vitale for the translation.

2 Guy Rocher, “Les représentations sociales: perspectives dialectiques” (2002) 41:1 Social Science Information 83 at 92 (translation).

3 In Quebec, unmarried cohabitants are known as de facto spouses.

4 For lack of space, we are deliberately ignoring other measures that concern married couples under Quebec law, specifically the protection of the family residence, the compensatory allowance, and the partnership of acquests, though their detailed examination would have been relevant here. See Conseil du statut de la femme, Le partage des biens familiaux en cas de divorce (Québec: Government of Québec, 1986) at 30 et seq; Anne Revillard, “Protection humiliante ou source de droits? Prestation compensatoire, pensions alimentaires et luttes féministes” (2011) 2 Jurisprudence: Revue critique 217 at 224–25.

5 Quebec (AG) v A, 2013 SCC 5, rev’g Droit de la famille–102866, 2010 QCCA 1978, [2010] RJQ 2259.

6 The Court, in fact, needed to draw a conclusion concerning a constitutional claim that the protection provided to married spouses under the Civil Code of Québec discriminated against de facto spouses, thus infringing on the right to equality as guaranteed by s 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

7 Hélène Belleau & Pascale Cornut St-Pierre, “Pour que droit et familles fassent bon ménage: Étude sur la conscience du droit en matière conjugale” (2012) 25:1 Nouvelles Pratiques Sociales (forthcoming publication).

8 The limitations of this survey include the size of the sample, which does not allow us to draw conclusions as to the possible differences among respondents based on gender, age, social classes, etc.

9 Roy, Alain, “L’évolution de la politique législative de l’union de fait au Québec” in Belleau, Hélène & Martial, Agnès, eds, Aimer et compter? Droits et pratiques des solidarités conjugales dans les nouvelles trajectoires familiales (Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2011) 113.

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10 Civil union allows persons of the same sex or different sexes to make a public reciprocal commitment similar to that made by couples when marrying. When it was enacted, marriage was restricted to different-sex partners. The form and legal consequences of a civil union are very similar to those of a marriage. See arts 521.1 to 521.19 CCQ.

11 Belleau, Hélène, Quand l’amour et l’État rendent aveugles: le mythe du mariage automatique (Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2011).

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12 Lefebvre, Brigitte, “L’évolution de la notion de conjoint en droit québécois” in Lafond, Pierre-Claude and Lefebvre, Brigitte, eds, L’union civile: Nouveaux modèles de conjugalité et de parentalité au 21e siècle (Cowansville: Éditions Yvon Blais, 2003) 3.

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13 See Théry, Irène, Couple, filiation et parenté aujourd’hui: Le droit face aux mutations de la famille et de la vie privée (Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1998).

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14 Voléry, Ingrid, “Le ‘couple relationnel’ à l’épreuve des partages financiers: séparation conjugale, entretien de l’enfant et inégalités sexuées” in Belleau, Hélène & Martial, Agnès, eds, Aimer et compter? Droits et pratiques des solidarités conjugales dans les nouvelles trajectoires familiales (Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2011) 203.

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15 Conseil du Statut de la femme, Portrait statistique. Égalité femmes/hommes. Ou en sommes-nous au Québec (Québec, 2010) 22.

16 Ibid., 24.

17 Charlott Nyman & Lars Evertsson, “Difficultés liées à la négociation dans la recherche sur la famille: un regard sur l’organisation financière des couples suédois” (2005) 2 Enfances, Familles, Générations 18.

18 Art 396, for example, lays down that each spouse will contribute to the household according to their respective means; and art 397 supposes that the responsibility for the expenses incurred for the current needs of the family are binding on both spouses, independently of who actually contracted them.

19 Save for the property possessed “individually” by each spouse; for the composition of the partnership of acquests, see arts 448 et seq CCQ.

20 With respect to “Separation as to Property,” see arts 485 et seq CCQ; regarding commingling of goods, note should be taken especially of art 487 CCQ.

21 With respect to family patrimony, see arts 414 et seq CCQ. Even though the term “patrimony” conjures the image of property rights with regard to family goods, in reality, the regime of the family patrimony merely gives rise to a personal claim (debt) between the spouses, rather than to a real right (proprietary interest).

22 Art 415 CCQ describes the composition of the family patrimony as follows: “the family patrimony is composed of the following property owned by one or the other of the spouses: the residences of the family or the rights which confer use of them, the movable property with which they are furnished or decorated and which serves for the use of the household, the motor vehicles used for family travel and the benefits accrued during the marriage under a retirement plan.” The valuation date for the property making up the family patrimony signals the importance to the legislative drafters of conjugal cohabitation: whilst the default rule makes the valuation date the earlier of two events—the death of one spouse or the institution of formal proceedings (for separation from bed and board, for divorce, or for nullity of the marriage)—the court may on application by a spouse decide that the valuation date is the date when the spouses ceased living together (art 417 CCQ).

23 MT v J-YT, 2008 SCC 50 at para 25.

24 Arts 585 and 587 CCQ. These articles normally apply to married or civil union spouses who are separated de facto or de jure; should they be divorced, the provisions of the Divorce Act will be applied.

25 Divorce Act, RSC 1985, c 3 (2d Supp.) s 15.2(6)(a): the spousal support order is intended, among other things, to “recognize any economic advantages or disadvantages to the spouses arising from the marriage or its breakdown.” Note, too, that, while the Civil Code provides that support is ordinarily to be payable as a pension and only exceptionally as a lump sum (art 589 CCQ), the Divorce Act considers payment by lump sum on an equal footing with periodic sums (s 15.2(1)).

26 Divorce Act, s 15.2(6)(d). At the end of the 1980s, subsequent to the Supreme Court Pelech trilogy (Richardson v Richardson, [1987] 1 SCR 857; Pelech v Pelech, [1987] 1 SCR 801; Caron v Caron, [1987] 1 SCR 892), a wave of divorce-related jurisprudence strongly stressed the requirement for financial independence, arguing in favour of a clean break, with the economic ties between former spouses being speedily severed. However, the Moge decision (Moge v Moge, [1992] 3 SCR 813) made it clear that the objective of achieving economic independence was merely one of several, and that the achievement of financial autonomy was sometimes impossible, especially in the case of traditional marriages where the spouse had not worked outside the home. Quite recently, Abella and Rothstein JJ affirmed, in LMP v LS, [2011] 3 SCR 775 at para 27: “Neither does the Divorce Act impose a duty upon ex-spouses to become self-sufficient.”

27 An Act to Amend the Civil Code and Other Legislation to Promote Economic Equality Between Spouses, LQ 1989, c 55.

28 To illustrate the importance of the concept of cohabitation, we might mention the Divorce Act which, when dealing with the question of spousal support, indicates that one should take into account “the length of time the spouses cohabited,” rather than the duration of the marriage. Divorce Act, supra note 30, s 15.2(4)(a).

29 Interpretation Act, RSQ c I-16, s 61.1 at para 2.

30 Carbonnier, Jean, Droit civil: introduction. Les personnes, la famille, l’enfant, le couple, vol. 1 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, Collection Quadrige, 2004) at 233.

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31 Lynn Jamieson, “Intimacy transformed? A Critical Look at the ‘Pure Relationship’” (1999) 33:3 Sociology 477.

32 Carole B Burgoyne & Alan Lewis, “Distributive Justice in Marriage: Equality or Equity” (1994) 4 Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 101.

33 It is interesting to draw a parallel with the hostile reaction by a number of Quebec jurists to the enactment of the family patrimony. See Morin, Christine, L’émergence des limites à la liberté de tester en droit québécois: étude socio-juridique de la production du droit (Cowansville: Yvon Blais, 2009) at 389.

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34 Robert Leckey, “Unjust Enrichment and De facto Spouses” 114 R du N [forthcoming in 2012], http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2170401.

35 Belleau & Cornut St-Pierre, supra note 7.

36 Katharine K Baker, “Marriage and Parenthood as Status and Rights: The Growing, Problematic and Possibly Constitutional Trend to Disaggregate Family Status from Family Rights” (2010) 71:1 Ohio St LJ 127 at 185–86.

37 Supra note 6.

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