18 June 2009

Civil Unions Popular With French Straight Couples

French civil unions legislation was enacted to give gay couples many benefits of a status similar to marriage, but the French civil unions were available to both same sex and opposite sex couples and are not a marriage in all but name. They have been popular with opposite sex couples (hat tip to the Will, Trust and Estates Profs blog), for both sustantive and symbolic reasons.

[T]he popularity of the PACS among heterosexual couples is largely explained by the growth of free unions, in which unmarried couples live together. Setting up such households has become a declaration of independence from religion and crusty social traditions -- and so common that more than half the babies in France, including those of PACSed couples, are born out of wedlock.

Moreover, the social stigma once associated with having children outside marriage has largely disappeared. Justice Minister Rachida Dati gave birth to a daughter last month, attracting attention not because she was unmarried but because she refused to reveal who the father was. Ségolène Royal, the unsuccessful Socialist Party presidential candidate in 2007, was an unmarried mother of four.

The relaxation of marriage-related social strictures marks a significant departure from long-established French family traditions, particularly among political figures. As late as the 1980s, then-President François Mitterrand maintained a tight silence -- largely respected by the news media -- about the daughter he had fathered with a longtime mistress.

But even though their arrangements are now socially accepted, unmarried couples living together have found they face financial and administrative disadvantages compared with their married friends. Joint income tax returns can lower the annual bill considerably. Inheritance laws make transferring property to someone who is not a legal spouse more expensive and more difficult. Dealing with the French administration can be an ordeal without legal documents attesting to a place of residence and a social status. . . .

But PACS unions are also seen as more appealing than marriage because they can be dissolved without costly divorce procedures. If one or both of the partners declares in writing to the court that he or she wants out, the PACS is ended, with neither partner having claim to the other's property or to alimony. . . .

[G]overnment statistics show, one-sixth of PACSed couples that end their unions do so because they want to get married.

One wonders if the fact that the dominant in France Roman Catholic Church does not permit divorce and imposes clerical sanctions upon those who do end marriages may lead to a preference for civil unions.

A "yours is yours," "mine is mine," property regime with greatly reduced alimony rights can be created in most U.S. states within a marriage with a pre-nup or post-nup, and indeed, is probably the most common type of marital agreement.

But, in practice, it is uncommon for married couples to enter into such agreements unless one or both individuals is much more affluent or likely to be soon, than the other member of the couple, or if one or both members of the couple have at least modest wealth and one or both of the spouses with assets have children from a prior relationship. Even then, marital agreements are probably not a majority practice (although there is no centralized registry of marital agreements to provide exact figures).

One can't change the grounds for divorce in any U.S. state, but in the vast majority of U.S. states (New York State is the principal exception) "no fault" divorce allows either member of a marriage couple to dissolve their marriage more or less at will, and if push comes to shove, a member of a couple who is unable to get divorced in the couple's current state could move to another state and obtain a legally valid divorce there.

In some ways, civil unions in France are the opposite of the covenant marriage concept in the U.S. Instead of creating legal relationships harder to end than conventional marriage, they create easier to terminate relationships. But, PACS are much more popular than covenant marriages.

The number of PACS celebrated in France, both gay and heterosexual unions, has grown from 6,000 in its first year of operation in 1999 to more than 140,000 in 2008, according to official statistics. For every two marriages in France, a PACS is celebrated, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSed couples, and the number is rising steadily. . . . Perhaps more important as an indication of how French people live, the number of heterosexual men and women entering into a PACS agreement has grown from 42 percent of the total initially to 92 percent last year.

Thus, about a third of combined PACS and marriages in France are PACS.

In contrast, covenant marriage has been not very popular where it exists in the United States, accounting for just 1-3% of all marriages in the three U.S. states (all in the South) where it exists.

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