Is your expat marriage getting rocky? In a three-part exclusive series for INSPIRELLE, EL provides valuable tips on “le divorce” in France.
Le Divorce: What You Need to Know Before You Split Up in France
France is the world’s top honeymoon spot. So, marrying someone in France means everlasting romance, right? Not right. Half of the marriages fail here too. So, don’t be caught off-guard!
Divorce is a major trauma in anyone’s life, but it’s harder outside your own country. You may have taken a major leap of faith, giving up your job, old friends, and close family to enter wedded bliss French-style. You may not fully command the language, or know local divorce laws and customs. That can leave you on the back foot when your marriage fails.
There are as many types of divorce as there are couples. Sometimes, everyone is on their best behavior, and assets and children are shared fairly. In more difficult cases, there can be all-out war that drains bank accounts, drags on for years, and destines the kids to years of therapy.
One British woman in her seventies, who’s been divorced twice, said she’s still working into old age just to make ends meet. Her view?
“The moment any man asks you for a divorce, they’re the enemy. The best advice I could give young women today is to stay financially independent.”
Of course, this isn’t always easy when there are children involved.
Anticipate the worst-case scenario
To avoid a dark scenario, it’s best to consider early on anything that would jeopardize your independent future. Should you acquire French nationality? Work on your language skills? Get a job or a higher degree?
One expat divorce counselor advises to protect yourself.
“Get a nest egg, an account that no one knows about. Feed it regularly so you have some cash in case you need to leave, and pay a lawyer. Nothing stops your partner emptying a joint account.”
If ever you move out, you usually need a steady job to be able to rent an apartment. Otherwise, you need lead time to apply for social housing.
What happens to the children in a French divorce
In terms of children, shared custody is now the trend in France. Alternatively, one parent can have custody: I know one French father whose American wife left him with four young boys. If you have custody, you will most often pay the lion’s share for the kids’ education and upkeep. The idea is that the other parent also has to set up a family household – but sometimes they don’t. Then the custodial parent suddenly has full financial charge of the children, and even child support payments, or the pensions, don’t cover expenses. One friend got 50 euros a month per child.
If you want to leave the country with the children to go back to live near your family, this is only likely if your partner agrees. Mothers can be stuck in France with their careers stalled, to allow the French fathers access to the children. This can have far-reaching consequences for their earning power and retirement benefits. In addition, in France, you will pay income tax on child support payments you receive, where in the USA or the UK, you do not.
France is known as more favorable to men than women in divorce. If you can do “forum shopping” and launch your divorce elsewhere, this may be advisable.
For a deeper look into your rights on divorce in France with recommendations for lawyers, consult this link.
Splitting up the assets
Your rights to assets are determined by your marriage contract or régime matrimonial. There are three: séparation de biens, which means each partner keeps what they’ve earned; communauté réduite aux acquêts, which means you share everything except what you had before the marriage, any inheritance or lawsuit damages; and communauté universelle, which means everything is shared. If there’s no contract, it’s considered communauté réduite aux acquêts by default.
Even if you did not fully understand the legal language of the contract you signed in French, and while under the spell of love, you’re stuck with it.
Some stay-at-home moms entering a divorce find out too late that they are married under a séparation contract. This means the breadwinner keeps assets they earned, although judges can ask the richer party to even the score somewhat by paying a prestation compensatoire. This is not a maintenance payment. It is, rather, a small compensation for the disparity of assets or income.
Under the communauté réduit aux auquêts, the prestation compensatoire may be a small nod to your limited career options in France, or your decision to stay home with the kids. Once you are divorced you have to provide for yourself.
As lawyers will tell you bluntly, “Judges are not generous in France.”