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Marriage and protecting the ones you love

February is often associated with Valentine’s day, a romantic time of the year for couples, so this month I decided to explore the holy grail of romantics, that is to say, marriage.

As in all aspects of life, the differences between the UK and France are numerous!

In Britain, depending on one’s faith, or lack of, one would typically get married in a church, or in a registry office. In France most couples do both! (Just to be clear on the small-print; before being married in a church, couples must first be officially married in the local mairie)

Indeed, it is within the formalities of marriage, that things get even more bemusing to the uninitiated. This is because in France there are various marriage regimes, which are effectively marriage contracts, in the legal sense. Furthermore, it is rather important to choose wisely, as the chosen regime will govern how a couple’s assets are owned, hence affecting how assets are eventually dispersed in the years to follow, including, one hopes many wonderful years later, inheritance.

In the broadest sense, the three principal marriage regimes in France can be explained as follows:

Séparation des Biens

This is literally translated as “separation of assets”, which is fairly self-explanatory.

Communauté Réduite aux Acquêts

This is the default marriage regime in France. In short it means that everything purchased by the spouses after the marriage is owned by the community, i.e., jointly by the two spouses, even if only one of the two pays.

Communauté Universelle

Everything owned before and bought during the marriage is owned within the community, i.e., jointly by the two spouses

I would suggest that most British couples, in their minds at least, would consider themselves married within a universal community, i.e., all is shared, and very often all is inherited by the surviving spouse. But here’s the issue; in France, the vast majority of couples married in the UK are considered to be married under the Séparation des Biens marriage contract.

Why is that a problem, you may ask? Of course, every case is different, but let us consider one relatively common example.

Mr and Mrs Smith, who have two grown up children, were married in the UK and lived there for many years before moving to France. They would like the surviving spouse to receive all assets on first death. However, being married under the separation of assets regime means that French inheritance law takes charge.

Inheritance law is another notable difference from the UK, where you can generally leave all your worldly goods to the neighbour’s dog, should you so wish! In France, however, the children have an absolute right to inherit a minimum percentage of the deceased’s estate as follows:

1 child                   –              half

2 children            –              two thirds

3 children or more –        three quarters

If we go back to our example; on the passing of Mr Smith, the two children would have a right to two thirds of Mr Smith’s estate, which may prove problematic to Mrs. Smith.

A key part of financial planning is making sure that your loved ones will be taken care of, both during and after your lifetime. In the UK, taxes notwithstanding, this is relatively easy, as you would simply write a will, allocating funds to whom you so wish. In France, inheritance planning can be more complicated.

In certain circumstances it is possible to change one’s marriage regime (contract). Furthermore, as in the UK, there are ways in France to plan for the future in a tax efficient way, offering as much protection as possible to all your loved ones, be they from a first or second marriage.

Life today can be complicated, and everybody’s situation is different. Advice given to your neighbour, for example, may be totally inappropriate for you. That is why, when looking at long term financial planning, it is vital to take advice personalised to your own specific family set-up.

Once secure in the knowledge that your nearest and dearest are fully protected, love is free to rule the day.

This article was first published in the Connexion in February 2022