Le Divorce in France: Part 1 – Hard Facts and Painful Truths

Le Divorce in France: Part 1 – Hard Facts and Painful Truths

© Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

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.

getting divorced
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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.

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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.

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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.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of INSPIRELLE’s series on Le Divorce: Getting a Lawyer (Beware)…

EL is an American writer and journalist, and mother of three. Her French husband's business pursuits brought them to France, where the children could be near his aging parents. He left her for another woman in 2011 and launched a challenging divorce. She volunteered to write frankly about potential consequences or hazards of a French divorce to help other expats.


  1. My French husband is psychologically abusive but if I divorce him I shall have nowhere to live. I have an adult son from previous marriage who is autistic. Where can I find low cost advice

    • Have you found any information or had good advice on this since posting your comment? First of all, I hope you are alright. My advice is that you go to the CCAS (Centre communale d’action sociale) which is a resource available to every person living within a community in France. You can contact them anonymously – this was my experience. You must explain clearly and succinctly your situation – nowhere to go, pschological abuse, and the situation with your son. It is their profession to put you in contact with the right agencies and/or associations that can help with advice, and can also give support of various levels. You will learn about your rights and about what possibilities are open to you for protecting yourself and your son from this person’s abuse. Depending on one’s financial situation, legal representation can be obtained at no cost.

      My experience began in 2019, prior to the covid lockdowns, etc. I was offered emergency lodging (I did not accept that), and was put in contact with an association (in the Alpes-Maritimes area of Antibes) that assists individuals and families in abusive situations. The counseling is at no cost, and it has been very useful in better understanding how I got into this situation, and why. I am still working my way through it. (I have been married for 30 years to a French husband, and we have an adult son.) This particular association also offer an Assistante sociale as well as Juriste to help you discover your rights, and to help you through the process should you decide to move forward with a legal process. There are associations like this throughout France. The CCAS will know where to direct you.

      These are French associations and services, so if you cannot speak for yourself, you must find someone to help you who does speak French well.

      None of this is easy, and with the concerns you have for your son, it must feel very daunting. Just go at it one step at a time – this is a process, both psychologically and in dealing with administrative agencies. A person is abusive for a reason – it is not just a natural state of being. Abuse is powerful if there is some sort of leverage to keep the “abused” in that state. I don’t know if an abusive person can or will change – it’s a cruel tactic to lord over someone who doesn’t know how to defend themselves. The abused person may hold on to the hope that something will change for the better. It is, in general, a slow, insidious situation that takes over our lives without our consent, yet with our participation. It takes time to either reverse the effect on us, or to remove one’s self from that schema. And that takes fortitude.

      I am not so strong, but I am slowly becoming aware of my strengths, and learning how to put them to use. I don’t yet have an idea of what the future may bring, but to continue to live in an unacceptable situation from fear of the unknown is a slow demise.

      I wish you well – I hope you will find the help you need, Val. Come back to this site if you have more to say.

      Again, I wish you well.


  2. Hi, I read your article with interest. After 20 years of marriage my elderly mother has been displaced from her home after all funds had been systematically drained from accounts etc.
    My findings show he was well prepared. False non factual information provided to court out weigh documents of proof and we really don’t know where to turn…
    A complicated case, and a penal suit started as it was too much trouble for the UK police… my advice never get divorced in France.


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