Are married and unmarried couples legally the same? Not exactly.

In Quebec, unmarried partners – often called common-law partners – have fewer legal protections.

For lots of people, that comes as a surprise. Here's an explanation of key differences.

Never Considered Married
You can live with someone for three years, five years or longer, but you are never considered to be married. This is true even if you have children with your partner.

Fewer Protections

When married couples divorce, they usually have a right to share the value of certain property. This includes the family home, if they own it. It also includes things like family furniture and money saved in a retirement plan during marriage.

Common-law couples don't split this property: each person keeps what he or she bought, even if they bought it during the relationship. If they bought something together, the person keeping it must pay the other person half its value.

Financial Support on Separation
When married couples divorce, each person can ask the other for financial support.

Common-law couples have no right to support payments for themselves. (They can ask for payments for their children. More on this later on.)

If a married person dies without a will, the surviving spouse automatically inherits a share of the dead person's property.

But the rule is different with common-law partners: they don't inherit from each other if one dies without a will. So it's important to make a will if you live common-law!

Children: a Special Rule
Children are a special case. The law says that married and common-law couples have the same rights and responsibilities towards their children.

So, when common-law parents split up, they must both provide financially for the children to the best of their abilities. Also, one parent can ask for financial help from the other for the children's needs.

Some Other Exceptions
Here's where it gets more confusing: outside the family law rules explained above, a few other areas of law treat common-law and married couples the same.

Here are some examples:

  • income taxes
  • pension plans
  • insurance plans
But even in these cases, there is no standard definition of common-law. Some laws mention a length of time, others make having children a key factor. So you might have benefits as common-law partners under one law or plan, but not another.

In a Common-Law Relationship? How to Protect Yourself
You can agree in advance on how to handle important issues in case of a break-up. You can do this in a written agreement called contract. It can be a good idea to get legal advice if you want to make this kind of contract.

Éducaloi is a non-profit organization that explains the law to Quebecers in easy-to-understand language.

Important! This article is meant as legal information, not legal advice. If you need advice about a specific situation, consult a lawyer or notary.

The information is up to date to November 18, 2015. It deals with Quebec law only.