Last tango in Paris
The dangers of buying a French property on impulse.
Mr. and Mrs. Richandfamous – the RF’s to their friends – had pulled off quite a coup. During the hectic throes of a Weekend Super Saver across the Channel they fell in love with and bought a getaway-from-it-all house in sunny downtown France. “How did you buy?” gasped their amazed and slightly envious friends on hearing the news. “How?” answered RF. “Oh, jointly of course. Nothing simpler, old chap. That nice agent, the one who spoke such good English, said it was all just a question of form filling and that’s just what it proved to be. Nothing could be simpler. I just wish these English legal chappies could learn a little something from the French for a change.”
The problems started when Jeanne d’Arc, their friendly next door neighbour who kept an eye on the property and garden while the RF’s were away, rang to say that her farmer husband was upset to note that the RF’s had put up a fence slap bang across his ’servitude’ (grazing right) stopping his goats from pasturing on the RF’s lawn and it would have to come down… or else.
“Rubbish”, said RF, ” we’re going to build a swimming pool there, and the Notaire would have told us if there was a problem.”
A letter from the Notaire two days later pointed out – by reference to a few latinisms – that the Conveyance, which they had signed and approved and to which they were therefore bound, made express reference not only to the Jeanne d’Arc’s easement – which included a right to drive their combine harvester across the land, day or night and shoot for game in the copse – but also to the fact that any construction was prohibited on the land meaning not only that they could not install a swimming pool but that the fence – which was in breach of planning – would have to come down also.
On arrival at the property one winter’s morning the RF’s discovered:
…..that the fence had been removed by the Town Hall and the goats were breakfasting;
…..the Town Hall’s demolition bill for 10,000 € was outstanding, as were also bills from the water and electricity authorities – the latter threatening (forwarding address unknown) to cut off the supply unless immediate payment was made;
…..the roof was leaking badly and the wooden floors were soaked (they went to the local DIY store and asked for wood preservative. The slightly bewildered storekeeper directed them to the neighbouring chemist where préservatifs -contraceptives – of all kinds could be found);
…..Jeanne d’Arc wanted a down payment of 5,000 € under the terms of her ’contract of employment’ otherwise she would report them to the Social Security authorities who could prosecute.
A visit next day to the Notaire and the Mayor – both of whom were related by marriage to the d’Arcs – also confirmed that the RF’s proposals to convert the barn into residential quarters was quite out of the question. Worse still, the d’Arcs application to build a pigsty on the boundaries with the RF’s property had been approved by the planning authorities.
“But they will be building on our land” said RF. “Not so” said the Notaire, “if you care to read the Conveyance you will see that your vendors granted the d’Arcs an option to buy the land hatched red on the annexed plan.”
At threats of Agincourt and Crécy the Mayor wished the RF’s a very good day. The friendly estate agent – who was second cousin to the d’Arcs (on the maternal side) was nowhere to be found.
More haste, less sleep
It was some months later that Mrs. RF nearly choked on her G and T when the local French garage man told her all about the troubles his wife’s sister’s cousin had had when her husband died. Something to do with French succession law. A sleepless week and several depressing visits to English legal chappies later, she had her answer:
☛ She and RF had filled in the forms to buy in the standard French way, en indivision. That meant that they each owned 50 per cent. If RF died then she would find herself owning the dream house jointly with his three children by his two previous marriages. One of the kids was an inveterate gambler and would salivate at the thought of all the readies that a forced sale would yield. What Mrs. RF did not know even then was that the ’love child’ of RF’s inter-marriage liaison with his secretary would also qualify for a share. These problems could have been avoided if – at no expense to them – the RF’s had instructed the Notaire to insert a joint tenancy clause in the conveyance. After completion, it was too late.
☛ She and RF could each sign something called a donation entre époux, a gift between spouses, which would mean she could continue to enjoy the house after his death. But if she wanted to sell up and move her funds back to Bagshot it would cause more than a little work. RF’s youngest was still under age (three years old) and therefore Mrs. RF would have to go before a Judge to explain the proposal to sell.
☛ She and RF could each make a Will, leaving the other a life interest which would have much the same effect as a donation.
☛ Even if the children wanted to they could not renounce their interest in the house until after the death had occurred and, as many parents know, it’s not the child they are worried about but “you never know who they are going to take up with, do you?”.
☛ There was nothing they could do to change their method of ownership, unless they were prepared to accept the huge costs of transferring the house to a company that they could form for that purpose. Like a marriage contract, the form of ownership cannot be changed. Or at least, they could change a marriage contract, after two years and as long as it was “in the interests of the family”. Imagine the scene:
” Come along sir, tell me again why it is in the interests of the family?”
” Because I want to disinherit my children officer”
” Just step this way will you please sir.” etc etc.
Where there’s a Will
They were advised by an English legal chappy specialising in French law to make a French Will. Yet again they had choices:
☛ They could go and see a Notaire and tell him what they wanted to do. He would type it out for them. It would have the Notarial seal of approval.
☛ They could make a holograph Will, that is a home made Will. Mrs. RF would write out her wishes and … well, that was it. No-one else’s writing is allowed to appear on the paper or it will be invalidated. Witnesses are out.
☛ They would not forget the good old English Will. As long as it was made in accordance with the laws of England and did not conflict with French law, it would be enforced. As long, that is, as the Notaire knew exactly what was intended and there were none of those delightful cross-language ambiguities.
Any Will would only deal with the house. If they stayed domiciled in the UK then French law only applied to the house. But if they changed their mind later and fled the rat race to live in their little nest permanently, then French law would apply to all their world-wide estate.
At least by making a Will, Mrs. RF could avert the worst excesses of the effects of French law. She had yet to find out how she could have avoided them altogether by taking appropriate action before signing that simple form…
The strain was too much for RF. He died intoxicated – and without a French Will – on a Parisian dance floor after seeing the England rugby XV lose 46 – 0 to France. His travel insurance did not cover the costs of repatriating his body to the UK and the municipality had him cremated. Mrs RF had to pay thousands in French legal fees. Worst of all, the Judge explained that as her youngest was only three years old and domiciled in the UK, Mrs. RF would have to wait fifteen years until the property could be sold.
Latest reports are that the garden is overgrown but that the goats and pigs are doing very well.