Marriage: a matter for the rich?

At some point in a relationship, almost all couples have a very big (and sometimes difficult) decision to make: should we get married? Many articles concerning the correlation between marriage and income have appeared in various newspapers, including La Presse, The Gazette and The National Post. In these articles, we explore the fact that people with higher income seem to marry more than those with a mid to lower income. Does family income actually have such an impact on the decision to marry?

A study conducted by The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada suggests that 86% of high income households include a married couple or common-law spouse[1], whereas those of the middle class include only 49%. Households with the lowest incomes in the country include only 12% of married couples or common-law spouses.

Does that mean that people with a lower income don’t get married? According to an article in The Gazette[2], people with lower incomes also do get married, often at a much younger age than those with higher incomes, but usually get divorced at the age where those with higher incomes begin to marry. Eli J. Finkel tells us in his article The all-or-nothing marriage, published February 24th 2014 in the National Post, that a marriage requires an investment in time and resources in order for it to work. It goes without saying that these are investments that are difficult for someone to make when they are struggling to meet life’s everyday needs (rent, electricity, heating, food, etc.).

Marriage certainly has an economic benefit, primarily because it involves two people to share the work and bear the expenses of the family. Sharing current expenses allows a couple to save more for retirement, among other things, which would reduce poverty among seniors. The Régie des rentes du Québec concurs by providing a certain benefit to spouses (both married and unmarried) via the surviving spouse’s pension. The federal government’s projected income splitting policy will also favour couples with higher incomes. Married couples seem to have a tendency to have a higher standard of living than those living alone. It is often perceived that married couples are happier and live longer than a person on his own. However, as most of these arguments are not specific to married couples and could just as easily apply to couples in general, they do not, on their own, account for the disparity established by the study conducted by The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

The same article published in The Gazette highlights certain trends that could explain this disparity. Among these trends, it should be noted that people with higher incomes are more likely to marry high income earners (birds of a feather flock together). Expenditure requirements for the wedding can be staggering and require a certain amount of savings. We also note that more women are pursuing a post-secondary education, which would delay the marriage until after graduation. A convincing argument is that society has changed its view of the “ideal” time to get married. There seems to be a growing tendency to wait until all the pieces of the economic puzzle are in place before getting married, which would complicate the situation for lower income groups.

Does this reflect the particular situation of the province of Québec? The Supreme Court’s decision in the Eric and Lola case excludes the possibility for unmarried spouses to avail themselves of the provisions on family patrimony as well as spousal support upon separation, unless they willingly submit themselves to those provisions by contract. These provisions open only to married spouses fail to treat unmarried spouses in Québec the same way as the common law spouses of the rest of Canada. As much as unmarried spouses may feel disadvantaged by this fact, married spouses cannot avoid the application of these provisions. During a divorce between two people with a significant difference in income, the spouse with the highest income may feel like they are losing, while the division of family assets will not have as much of an impact when the spouses have similar incomes.

What should be retained from all this? A person’s income will definitely influence the answer given to the question: Should we get married?


This article has been prepared for Assistenza International.  It does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion.  Consult a lawyer or notary concerning your own legal situation.  No reproduction or other use is permitted.

[1] Common-law spouse does not refer to the unmarried partners (“conjoints de fait”) in Québec who are commonly referred to as common-law spouses, even though they do not have the same rights and obligations as married spouses, unlike the common-law spouses in the rest of Canada.

[2] « For love and for money : the income gap in marriage », by Misty Harris, published February 26th 2014 in The Gazette