A British woman who claims her ex-husband took thousands of euros from her bank account believes people should be made aware of France’s “Dickensian” marriage laws.
Patricia Rolfe, 74, left Gers to return to England in December 2016 following the breakdown of her marriage.
As they were still on “fairly good terms”, she says she asked her husband to help transfer a small amount of money from her French account to the UK – she is not fluent in French and her husband worked in a bank – and so she gave him her bank details.
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Court found husband not guilty of stealing
The problems arose later when they sold their house in France.
“The money was split equally, and he told me he’d taken money from my personal account to put into dollar, euro and sterling accounts in case there was a crash in one currency.
“He didn’t ask for my permission.”
She claims he later returned most of the money, minus €20,000, which she has still not been able to recover after a court in Auch (Gers) recently found her husband not guilty of stealing.
She also says he took back an additional €10,000, representing the monthly maintenance payments he had been making to her since their separation.
She has not asked for this second sum of money to be returned.
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Stealing from a spouse is not a crime
“I have emails where he told me how he did it. None of that was any good,” she said.
Now Ms Rolfe wishes to warn other foreign residents of a little-known rule in France (Article 311-12 of the Penal Code), which states that stealing from your spouse is not a criminal offence.
Judge must formalise separation
There is an exception when people are separated but only under certain conditions, said Marie-Pierre Lazard, an English-speaking lawyer practising family law in Nice.
“When you get divorced, the first step is an audience d’orientation, where the judge will take a certain number of provisional decisions, and will authorise the partners to live separately.
“Theft begins at this point,” she said.
The exception does not apply to partners who have decided to live apart without having this confirmed by a decision from a judge.
This can create problems when the divorce does not go to court.
It is also possible to confirm you are living apart by legally establishing a séparation de corps (legal separation). This is extremely rare, however.
There is also an exception when the theft involves objects or documents that are essential for daily life, such as a residency card or bank card.
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‘I did not think he would take my money’
Ms Lazard highlighted the importance of prevention.
“It’s important not to delegate the management of finances to the other person, to know about everything and to have copies, take photos, make inventories.
“You also need to choose a marriage regime that will protect you.”
Ms Rolfe said she is not planning to appeal against the decision.
“I wouldn’t be divorced until that case was heard, and it could be two to four years, as they have a long backlog, so I’ve virtually surrendered. I can’t continue with all this stress.”
She added: “I realise how silly it was to give him my account details, but we’d been together 27 years. I didn’t think he’d take my money and keep it.”
Ms Lazard, however, says that “just because nothing can be done in a criminal court does not mean there is no civil solution”.
All money must be accounted for after divorce finalised
Michel Guillaud, president of consumer protection group France Conso Banque, said people often bring claims to the wrong judge at the wrong time.
After the divorce comes the ‘liquidation’ of the marriage, where the value of everything that is owned is counted and divided in two.
“You need to wait until the divorce is official and carefully prepare for the liquidation,” Mr Guillaud said.
“If it turns out one spouse has at some point taken out excessive amounts of money, without justification in relation to the marriage regime, this money must be accounted for as part of the liquidation.”
This process can take several years.
Others have questioned the responsibility of banks
Helen Dockett, 66, says that while they were married, her ex-husband transferred thousands of euros from her personal account to the account they shared for their gîte business based in Cantal, and from there into his own account.
“He withheld all bank statements and communications from me,” she said. “I expected to have nearly Є30,000 in my savings account when I decided to separate from him, and he very delightedly told me that he had successfully emptied all bank accounts, leaving me penniless.”
She believes her bank should have alerted her to what was going on.
Mr Guillaud said: “If it is a joint account, the bank cannot prevent one of the account holders from taking money. The same applies with power of attorney. It is up to the account holder to revoke this.
“Not sending account statements does not make the bank responsible, especially as in 90% of cases these can be viewed online. It is up to the individual to be vigilant.”
Read more: How to open a joint bank account and how they work in France
Power of attorney
A procuration (power of attorney) is required to withdraw money from an account belonging solely to a spouse.
“For a procuration to be valid, it must be done in a branch, and not without the person’s knowledge.
“If you have a doubt, you can ask for a copy, as there have been people who have forged their spouse’s signature.”
Read more: What is the French equivalent to a ‘lasting power of attorney’?
What happens to a joint account during a divorce?
You can separate a joint bank account through a process called désolidarisation.
It is generally recommended to do this as soon as possible, without waiting for the divorce to be finalised.
You can do this by sending a registered letter with a delivery receipt to your bank.
If both parties agree to this, it will either be closed or transformed into an individual account.
If, however, only one person wants to close the account, it will remain open, but transactions will require both parties’ signatures.
Either way, it is important to take action to prevent an ex-partner being able to empty the account.
Lawyer Marie-Pierre Lazard said: “A spouse who tries to spend or hide money, or to avoid saying how much they own, is something you find in many divorce proceedings.”
If during the marriage you gave power of attorney to your spouse to undertake transactions using your personal bank account, this will have to be revoked, again by writing to your bank.
The power of attorney is not automatically cancelled in the event of a divorce.
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