MONTREAL - In a decision that could affect more than one million Quebecers, the province's top court has paved the way for common-law spouses to obtain alimony when they split from their partner.

The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled on Wednesday that a provision in the Civil Code dealing with alimony discriminates against common-law spouses.

The court was ruling on one specific case involving an unmarried woman who was denied the right to alimony from her wealthy ex, who is a prominent businessman.

His lawyers argued successfully in Quebec Superior Court he did not owe her alimony because they were never legally married.

The appeals court has given the government one year to replace the provision in the Civil Code.

Justice Julie Dutil wrote in Wednesday's judgment that 1.2 million Quebecers were involved in common-law relationships in 2006. That represented about one-third of all couples in the province.

In a statement released by his lawyers, the defendant said "he had been drawn against his will into a debate on the constitutionality of Quebec law regarding spouses."

He said he has always respected the law and "will continue to do so if the law is amended to comply with a final ruling on this issue."

In Quebec City, Jean-Marc Fournier, the provincial justice minister, said the government would study the decision before making any comment.

"We have to see what the consequences are on unmarried couples but also on married couples," Fournier said.

"The consequences are much more vast than on this just one case. We're talking about the Civil Code. "It would be premature to give a position today."

Common-law couples have varying rights depending on where they live in Canada. In some provinces, they have alimony and property rights.

But despite the fact that one-third of all Quebec couples are unmarried, it remains the only province that does not recognize common-law unions.

Superior Court Justice Carole Hallee ruled in July 2009 that the couple's relationship could not be called a marriage under the wording of federal or provincial legislation.

She said Quebec deliberately chose to not subject live-in couples to the same obligations as those faced by married couples, especially with regard to spousal support and the sharing of assets.

The couple, who met in her home country in South America when she was in her late teens and he was in his early 30s, lived together for seven years before they split up in 2001.

The wealthy defendant testified he told the woman during their relationship he didn't believe in the institution of marriage.

The woman was seeking a monthly payment of $56,000 for herself, a share of the family estate and a lump sum payment of $50 million.

The 51-year-old businessman argued he bought her a $2.5-million home and paid many of her other bills, which totalled more than $200,000 in 2008.

A court ruling from 2006 forced him to give her a car and to pay for a chauffeur, a cook and two nannies. He also buys plane tickets for the children and nannies for two trips a year as well as a daily allowance of up to $1,000 for the holidays.

Hallee upheld the $34,000 a month she received in child support.

The two cannot be identified because the identity of their three children is protected under provincial family law.