Divorce in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Divorce in Canada

​​Marriages in Canada can be dissolved through annulment or divorce, both of which involve a judicial decree.
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Marriages in Canada can be dissolved through annulment or divorce, both of which involve a judicial decree. Remarriage to another person can occur only after a previous marriage has been legally terminated. Divorce rates have been rising steadily since the 1960s.

Federal Changes

Divorce law is under federal jurisdiction. In 1968, Canada's first unified divorce law was passed. At that time, divorce became easier to obtain, although considerable legal and other difficulties remained. Divorce could be obtained on the basis of a matrimonial offence (previously the only basis on which divorce was available) or on the basis of marriage breakdown. Before 1986, if marital breakdown was cited as the reason for divorce, a couple had to have lived three years apart before they could obtain a divorce.

In 1986 a revised Divorce Act (1985) was proclaimed in force. The revised act included a "no-fault" divorce and the sole reason for divorce now is marriage breakdown, which is defined as either living apart for at least one year or committing adultery or treating the other spouse with physical or mental cruelty. Recent statistics reported that almost 95 per cent of divorces were based on separation of spouses for a period of at least one year.

Divorce Rate Rising

The divorce rate has been steadily rising. Following the first major change in the divorce law in 1968, there was a sharp increase (from 54.8 divorces per 100 000 population in 1968, to 124.2 in 1969). Since that time the increase has continued at an accelerated pace with a second peak in the late 1980s following more revisions of the Divorce Act.

At the beginning of the 21st century a study showed that the lowest risk of divorce was during the first year of the marriage, but the risk then rose and peaked around the fourth anniversary, after which the risk slowly decreases. A substantial proportion of couples eventually divorce and the majority of couples who divorce will have been married for less than 15 years.

Marital Breakdown

Canadian divorce rates alone are not sufficient indicators of the breakdown of relationships, because they do not include judicial separations, divorces granted in other countries and desertions. Since divorce has become easier to obtain, the reasons for underestimating union dissolution have likely decreased, but the break-up of common-law unions is also not reflected in divorce rates, despite the increase in the number of these unions.

Reasons for the rise in the divorce rate, a phenomenon that has occurred in virtually all industrialized countries, are not entirely clear, but contributing factors probably include longer life expectancies, which increase the possibility of differences in the individual development of wives and husbands; the greater labour force participation of women and improved social security, which has meant that wives are less economically dependent on their husbands than in the past; the lessening of religious and social sanctions against divorce; and the movement towards a more individualistically-oriented ethic that stresses self-actualization over maintenance of the family unit. All of these factors suggest that an increased divorce rate may be an indication that expectations about the quality of marriage have risen and that many people prefer a divorce to an unhappy marriage.

Three significant factors are associated with the risk of a breakdown in marriages: the ages of the bride and groom, the length of the marriage and the strength of an individual's commitment to marriage.

Teens who marry face a marriage dissolution risk that is almost double that of people who marry between the ages of 25 and 29. People who wait until their mid-30s or later have a 43 per cent lower risk.

Commitment to marriage as a source of happiness for an individual was a key factor associated with marital collapse. People who believed that marriage was not very important to their happiness were three times more likely to dissolve their marriages. Also, Canadians who remarried were significantly less likely to report that being married was an important source of happiness for them.

Family Law

Family law comprises separation, divorce, custody, access, child and/or spousal support arrangements, protection orders and guardianship. There are also programs and services such as mediation and conciliation to resolve some family law disputes outside of the court.

Since 1978, all provinces have substantially changed their family laws, generally assigning equal responsibility to husbands and wives for all types of family responsibilities, including housework, child care and provision for the financial well-being of the family. As a consequence, in divorce settlements housework and child care are now generally recognized as contributions to a family's overall economic well-being through which a spouse may claim matrimonial assets.

Divorce cases involving support costs and children custody and access require more time in court; in 2010, 84 per cent of the cases remaining in the court system for more than four years included support arrangements.

Single-Parent Families

Lone-parent families result from divorce, separation, death or having a child outside of a union. Recent studies indicated that common-law families are five times more likely to experience a parental split than married parents. When there are dependent children involved, divorce usually leads to the formation of one-parent households.

In 2002, approximately one in four Canadian families with children (approximately 1.4 million families) were headed by one parent, a 58 per cent increase from 1986. About one-third of all lone parents were divorced, one-quarter were separated, and a fifth were widowed.

In 1986 figures for joint custody began to be recorded. In that year, joint custody was awarded for 1.2 per cent of the children involved but by 2002 the rate had increased to 41.8 per cent. Joint custody does not mean that the child spends 50 per cent of the time with each parent; rather, it may only mean that both parents have an equal right to make certain decisions about the child's life. In 2006, there were about four times as many female lone-parent families as male lone-parent families, however, from 2001 to 2006, male lone-parent families grew more rapidly (15 per cent) than did female lone-parent families (6.3 per cent). These changes were partially a result of greater acceptance of births outside marriage and a result of the changes in legislation.


Given that a high proportion of marriages end in divorce, a large number of people in their middle years again become available for marriage. The majority of people who divorce remarry, although men are more likely to remarry than women. In the 1990s, approximately one-third of all Canadian marriages involved at least one partner who was previously married, and by far the largest component came from divorced rather than widowed people. By the turn of the millennium, about 10 per cent of Canadians had married twice and approximately 1 per cent had married more than twice.

Families involving dependent children who have two parents who are still alive but not married to each other have become more common in Canada. Questions of overlapping and competing responsibilities and rights of step-parents versus biological non-residential parents are in the process of being socially defined.

Families in which at least one of the children in the household is from a previous relationship from one of the parents are often referred to as step-families. Blended and step-families have changed the composition of Canadian families. By 2001, 12 per cent of Canadian families were step-families that incorporated children from the parent's previous relationships. The term "blended family" is also used to describe a family that incorporates children of one or both spouses from previous unions and one or more children from the current union. Almost half of Canadian families are blended and more than 81 per cent of these families have children from the current union.

Contemporary Families

According to the General Social Survey, most Canadians marry once and fewer than 1 per cent marry more than twice. The demographic trends that have been noted for Canadian families (e.g., rising divorce rate and greater numbers of women in the labour force) are not restricted to Canada but are typical of all highly industrialized nations, although significant national differences remain. Another common trend among industrialized countries is a sharp decline in fertility rates. In Canada between 1960 and 1980, fertility rates dropped by more than 50 per cent in all age categories and by 2003 the birth rate was 10.6 per 1000 people. While the average number of children per woman was 3.9 in 1960, within 40 years that figure had dropped to 1.5.

Although marriage is defined as a partnership of equals, the economic consequences of a divorce tend to be more negative for women and children and neutral or positive for men. The increase in the number of divorces, and the consequent increase in remarriages, coupled with the increase in the proportion of women who give birth outside of marriage, has led to a discrepancy between marital and parental roles: an increasing proportion of the people who are parents together are not necessarily married to each other. This discrepancy has different consequences for men and women: most women continue to live together with most of their dependent biological children, while many men do not share a household with (all) their biological children. For children this means that they may have parents living in separate households, or that they may live with a step-parent. The availability of divorce and the marked increase in common-law relationships underlines the voluntary rather than compulsory character of marriage.

See also History of Marriage and Divorce.

Further Reading