Marriage isn’t as common in France as it is in other countries because many couples live together in civil unions (pacte civil de solidarité) that afford them some of the same rights as married couples. Even so, there were about 237,000 marriages and about 133,000 divorces in 2011, according to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies and France’s Ministry of Justice.
In France the division of ‘who owns what’ during a marriage is laid out right from the start. Before getting married, most French couples will decide whether to share financial gains and losses made during the marriage — and they sign off on that in front of a notary, a lawyer with a special appointment. This document doesn’t list any assets — that’s all discussed during a divorce.
“They are basically standard documents without a lot of financial detail,” said Jill Schofield-Thommeret, partner at Douma, Schofield & Sibenaler based in Paris.
Couples can sign a contrat de mariage (marriage contract) before they tie the knot. It’s a simple form that outlines the couple’s choice between four marital regimes:
--COMMUNAUTÉ LÉGALE (legal community property): The marital estate is limited to property acquired and debts incurred after the marriage, but does not include inheritances or gifts. This is also the default if a couple doesn’t sign a marriage contract.
--COMMUNAUTÉ UNIVERSELLE (universal community): Everything from before and after the marriage, including accounts, assets and liabilities, becomes community or shared property
--SÉPARATION DE BIENS (separation of assets): Everything is kept separate during the marriage. Although spouses don’t benefit from one another’s success, they also don’t pay the consequences of one another’s bad luck.
--PARTICIPATION AUX ACQUÊTS (participation in acquired assets): Similar to séparation de biens during the marriage, but in a divorce, the value of the acquired assets is shared. The less-well-off spouse receives half the appreciation of the other spouse’s enrichment. Spouses do not share in each other’s losses — the worst-case scenario is that one spouse receives nothing from the other.
“A pre-nup says whether you’re in one system versus the other, then the spouse will redress the less-well-off spouse,” said Alain Cornec, partner at Villard Cornec et Associés based in Paris.
About 90% of couples choose the default communauté légale option, while only 6% to 8% of couples choose séparation de biens and only 2% to 3% choose participation aux acquêts. Couples can change their marital regime after their second anniversary or two years after the last change. Those remarrying almost always choose to keep assets separate, the lawyers said.
These marital agreements are always upheld. A couple’s assets and spousal support are discussed during the divorce proceedings rather than before the marriage. “In a community of property [regime], if you hide your common assets at divorce or succession and the other spouse can prove it later, you lose 100% of the asset,” Cornec said.
The country’s civil code requires spousal support if needed. The court will grant the less-well-off spouse some level of compensatory support, designed to help the spouse get back on his or her feet and to try to offset the consequences of divorce, said Cornec. “Once set, it cannot be revised unless you’re in a hardship situation.”
The French have generous state benefits, with much of a person’s retirement coming from the state system. Depending on the length of the marriage, an ex-spouse will receive a portion of the other’s pension.