American Women marrying French Men in France : mutual duties of marriage ; matrimonial property and inheritance

France is more and more attractive for American people : food, wine, fashion… and men !! What about the consequences of marrying a French guy in France ?


Before getting engaged, there are a few things an American woman needs to know about French Family law, from the requirements related to the celebration, up to inheritance.




To get married in France is quite simple, but there are a few particularities.


To be valid, all marriages must be performed by a French legal authority, in practice the mayor. Religious ceremonies are possible but they have to take place after the civil one.


You cannot marry anywhere you want. You live in Paris, and want to get married on Tahiti island ? That’s not possible! At least one of the future spouses must have resided in the town for 40 days continuously prior to the marriage. French law also requires the posting of marriage banns at the city hall (mairie).



Matrimonial property

Before getting married, you can sign a prenuptial agreement to organize the way the two spouses will handle their respective incomes.


Three standard prenuptial agreements can be proposed by the notaire, who is a kind of public officer. The future spouses can opt for :


  1. Universal community (communauté universelle)

With this regime, all present and future incomes and assets are common property. All present and future debts are also common.


  1. Separation of assets (séparations de biens)

Under this regime, there is no common property. Any asset registered in one spouse’s name is considered to be owned by that spouse. Any asset registered in joint names are considered to be owned equally.


  1. Participation to assets (Participation aux acquêts)

This obsolete hybrid regime works as a separation of assets regime during the time of marriage. At the time of dissolution, the unfortuned spouse gets half of the difference between the two spouses’ respective assets.


If no prenupt was signed, we talk about legal community (commaunauté légale réduite aux acquêts).


Under this system, every asset which was acquired during the time of marriage is reputed to be owned by both spouses, except assets acquired by inheritance or donation which always remain the property of the beneficiary spouse.


Be careful ! Every usual debt contracted during the time of marriage is also reputed to be common and can be recovered indefferently on one of the spouses’ account. Think twice before getting married to an extravagant guy.


As to the assets acquired before marriage, they will remain individual property.



Duties of marriage

At the city hall, the mayor will read that pursuant to Article 212 of the French civil code, “spouses owe each other respect, fidelity, support and assistance”.


When he says support, he means moral and financial support.


In France, spousal support issues are never affected by prenuptial agreements.


During the time of marriage and until a definitive divorce decree, the wealthier spouse has to financially support the other spouse.


If your husband earns much more money than you do, he has to give you a monthly amount of money. Of course, the contrary is true. Depending on cases, the amount of spousal support can be up to half the salary of the debtor !


If divorce occurs, this will result in what we call a prestation compensatoire which is a capital sum awarded by the judge to one spouse when there are significant differences between the two spouses’ incomes and/ or estates. This prestation compensatoire has nothing to do with the division of matrimonial property, which takes place after the divorce before a notaire.


The other duties of marriage raise less difficulties.


The duty of respect was recently added in the civil code in reaction to the too many cases of domestic violence.


As to the duty of fidelity, recent case law let us think that it is becoming obsolete. For instance, the supreme court (Cour de cassation) ruled that a donation to a lover is valid as there is no illegal motive.




Eventually, the most important protection you get from getting married resides in the many protective rights granted to the surviving spouse.


Yet, being married to a French guy is not enough to enjoy these rights.


French inheritance law applies to the whole estate of the deceased if he dies in France and if all immovable property, i.e. apartments, houses or rural fields, are located in France.


In case you have at least one child with the deceased, you can inherit either the usufruct of the deceased’s property (i.e. the right to use the property or enjoy the income from it) or the ownership of one quarter, at your choice.


If the deceased spouse has children other than those from the union, you have no choice but to accept ownership of one quarter of the deceased spouse’s property.


In addition, unless the deceased spouse has expressed a wish to the contrary in a notarized will, you are entitled to live in the accommodation that was the marital home and use the furniture it contains that are part of the estate until your own death. During the first year from the date of the death, this right can be exercised for free!


Furthermore, the law favors the surviving spouse when allocating the couple’s main residence and the movables furnishing it during the division of an estate.


Finally, if you encounter financial difficulties, you may, within one year of the death, claim an allowance from the other heirs.


As a conclusion, French marriage may suffer from a lack of flexibility with prenups, for instance, but the default protective rights can guarantee real support when, sadly, a tragic event occurs.





EC Regulation n°1259/2010 “Rome III”

On December the 20th, 2010 the European Union Council adopted the Rome III Regulation implementing enhanced cooperation in the area of the law applicable to divorce and legal separation.
This Regulation will only apply to 14 states for divorce petitions brought after June the 21st, 2012: Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Hungary, Malta, Austria, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia. Other EU Member States may join at any time.
Pursuant to Article 5 of the regulation, spouses can agree to designate the law applicable to divorce and legal separation provided that it is one of the following laws:
  • (a) the law of the State where the spouses are habitually resident at the time the agreement is concluded, or
  • (b) the law of the State where the spouses were last habitually resident, insofar as one of them still resides there at the time the agreement is concluded, or
  • (c) the law of the State of nationality of either spouse at the time the agreement is concluded, or
  • (d) the law of the forum.