THE recent case of French footballer Karim Benzema being asked to support his grandmother has put the spotlight on the so-called obligation alimentaire - a duty of financial support which applies not only to parents towards offspring in France but also vice versa if the children are adults.
As with French inheritance law, which obliges parents to leave portions of property to their children in their wills, this is a case where French law lays down strict rules where English law leaves matters to the consciences of those involved.
The principle is that family members who are well enough off must financially help others in need. This applies to “descendants” (children, grand-children etc) and ascendants (parents, grandparents etc). Married people also have an obligation towards their in-laws (this ceases should the marriage end by death or divorce).
Being “needy” is defined as being unable to get by on one’s own income, for essentials like food, clothing, heating, accommodation and healthcare, as well as hospital costs of the dying and funeral costs. It may, for example, include retirement home fees for those who cannot look after themselves. The obligation can be fulfilled by providing lodging and food, or, more often, through monthly payments.
Where the debtor does not agree voluntarily, the needy person applies to the juge des affaires familiales at a tribunal de grande instance (high-level court) covering the place where he or she, or the debtor, is living.
Usually the applicant summons the debtor to attend court via a huissier (bailiff). The applicant must prove their need and relationship to the debtor and attest that he or she has sufficient means. The debtor will have to show their means and responsibilities.
Third parties incurring costs looking after the needy person, such as councils making grants towards care home fees, can take similar action.
The amount to be paid will depend on the debtor’s means. Where there are several possible debtors an applicant is not obliged to seek support from them all. However where a person is the only child who supports their parent, for example, they may ask that this be taken into account when it comes to sharing inheritance.
Where a debtor fails to pay their pension alimentaire, French law provides for tough measures to enforce it, including the seizing of goods or part of a salary or pension.
As a general rule, this money can be listed on the income tax declaration as a deductible expense, and should be declared as income by the recipient.
Notaire François Trémosa, of the Group Monassier in Toulouse, said when parents and children do not live in the same country, the Hague Convention of October 2, 1973 on the law applicable to maintenance obligations applies (signatories include the USA and the EU).
If a parent lives in Britain but their children are in France, he or she could apply through th French courts, he said. It is possible a parent in France could seek support from children living elsewhere, but it would be complex and costly to enforce this abroad, Mr Trémosa said.
The Paris bar states a bid to claim from someone abroad may be made through the Service des Affaires Civiles et de l’Entreaide Judiciaire of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.