It might come as a shock to people not familiar with the French system to realise that members of family have a legal duty of care to each other which can have financial implications, particularly where ageing parents are involved.
What it is
To quote the government website for elderly people “The ‘obligation alimentaire’ is the duty to provide material aid to people in one’s family, when the latter are in need. This duty is interpreted as supporting them either in kind or materially. The amount of help varies depending on the resources of the person in need and those that have the duty of care towards them.”
Who is involved
The duty extends to those in “direct line”, that is parents, grand-parents, children, grand-children. Parents- and children-in-law are also covered, unless the couple in question divorce or die.
It applies equally to parents helping their children as to children helping their parents, and notably the people with the duty of support may be made to contribute to the cost of keeping a family member in a home, or with a host family.
The obligation of care between spouses is defined as a duty of help (devoir de secours) rather than an “obligation alimentaire” and it also applies to civil partners in a PACS.
If a parent has been negligent towards his/her child, e.g. in cases of violence or neglect, the child can ask to be discharged of his/her duty. Children who have been removed by the courts from the family environment for at least 36 months before the age of 13 do not have to contribute, unless a judge rules otherwise.
Relatives living abroad
According to the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ website, France has signed various international treaties that enable it to seek debt recovery for support and maintenance payments from abroad and has created an office to deal with such cases. It is mainly aimed at parents seeking child support payments from absent partners, but can be used for other “obligés alimentaires” with a duty of support.
How actively this is being pursued is difficult to judge, but a couple of cases have been reported. The footballer Benaglia was asked to pay towards his grandmother’s care in 2012, and earlier a family living in England was surprised to receive a letter asking them to provide details of their financial circumstances, as the father and step-mother of one of them were in a home in France. The parents died within 2 months of entering the home and the council did not pursue it, so we do not know how it would have turned out.
How it is calculated
Ideally the people with the duty to provide support will agree among themselves how much they will each contribute. There is no actual legal amount and only a family court judge can fix the individual contributions of each family member according to their family and financial situation, so if the family members don’t agree they can ask the courts to judge for them.
Calculation of contributions towards state housing aid
Where an elderly person living in a home or with a host family cannot cover the cost from their own resources, he/she can apply for financial aid known as the ASH (aide sociale à l’hébergement) to make up the difference. The départemental council can seek a contribution from relatives with a duty of care to cover this aid.
Each département has its own regulations for social welfare help and is at liberty to be more lenient than national regulations (e.g. by not making grandchildren pay towards their grandparents’ care). However they all have to take into account the make up and resources of the household. They may also look at the amount of rent, home ownership, and if the relatives are already paying towards another relative’s care. The rules for the Pyrénées-Orientales can be downloaded from the council’s website.
What actually happens
The council will carry out an assessment of the person asking for help. This will include their financial situation and details of their parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. If the person’s resources are such that they would be eligible for aid, the council will contact the relatives and ask for information to allow them to be assessed for their ability to contribute. They will then decide whether they should be asked to do so, and issue a demand for payment if so. You can contest the decision by appealing it with the president of the council, and then the high court if you are still not happy.
The good news is that payments made towards the care of a relative are tax-deductible as “pension alimentaire”. Conversely however, if you are in receipt of help from a relative you have to declare it on your tax return as it is counted as taxable revenue.