© 2009  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the February 4, 2009 issue of the National Post.
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A Gold Digger Without a Leg to Stand On

A Montreal woman is suing her former lover—the father of her three children—for spousal support, even though the two of them were never legally married and Quebec law does not grant so-called “common law” spouses any entitlement to alimony or property equalization.

The man is reportedly a billionaire. The woman is seeking a $50 million lump sum, plus $56,000 monthly.  She already receives $35,000 monthly in child support, plus the use of a $2.4 million house and several servants.  

The rhetoric of the woman and her lawyers is astonishingly arrogant.  They speak and act as if the man on other side of this case didn’t even exist—as if they were fighting a grievance against the federal and provincial governments, rather than against a sentient human being.

“I never thought I would have to go before a judge to ask for my money or my rights,” said the woman.  My money?  My rights?  She makes it sound as though the money is simply hanging out there on a tree somewhere and it’s just plain perverse that the Quebec government won’t pluck it and hand it to her. 

In reality, the money she’s after is somebody else’s, and always was. She wanted its owner to marry her, but he refused.  Marriage was “not my cup of tea,” he testified at the trial.  He had seen friends get divorced and he didn’t want to be forced to divide his assets as they had.  He deliberately avoided acquiring the legal status that would allow this.  He relied on the law of Quebec as it stood during their years together.  Had he thought he would be jeopardizing his assets merely by cohabiting with her, he would have acted differently—either by not cohabiting at all, or by insisting on the protection of a written contract.

The woman is seeking to change the law retroactively—in effect, to use the courts to mug the guy and take the money he never consented to give her.  If her claim is allowed, he won’t get to re-live his life over again and prevent the incursion. If there are any rights that cry out to be respected in this case, they are the rights of citizens to certainty in the law—the right not to be waylaid in a sneak attack. 

“The law is unconstitutional because it’s discriminatory,” argue the woman’s lawyers. But the anti-discrimination section of Canada’s constitution is intended to protect people from laws which differentiate on the grounds of irrelevant personal characteristics such as race or sex—characteristics that people are born with and have no choice over. Marital status simply isn’t comparable. It’s something people choose and consciously control.  When the woman found her dreamboat balking at marriage, she had to decide:  was she in it for love or for money?  If the latter, she should have kept looking until she found someone willing to share his money voluntarily.

She claims she thought cohabiting was just the same as being married. Tough luck.  Her mistake.  At some point during her ten years of jet-setting, could she not have found ten minutes to ask a lawyer, “Is there some reason why my boyfriend is refusing to put a ring on my finger?”

Her lawyers argue that millions of other Quebecers are similarly mistaken. But ignorance of the law has never been a reason to give one person’s property to someone else.  The law doesn’t allow an unwitting buyer of stolen property to keep it.  It gets returned to its lawful owner.  Meanwhile, after this highly publicized case, there shouldn’t be many Quebecers who remain ignorant on this point.

The woman’s lawyers suggest that the court draw a new line:  couples who have cohabited for three years (or one year if they have children) would get the same rights as consensually married couples.  But this doesn’t end discrimination.  It merely discriminates against a different group:  namely, those who have cohabited only 2 years and 364 days (or 364 days with kids). Why should a single additional day of cohabitation confer such enormous financial consequences?  When will this group bring its constitutional challenge?

Currently, Quebec law contains that most desirable of all legal tests:  the bright line between consent and no consent. Blurring that line would be a backward step.

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       February 8, 2009