In Texas, we do everything big, so why not divorce? In the land of McMansions, over-sized SUV’s and ten gallon cowboy hats, divorce proves to be as big and colorful as our very state. While I am familiar with other American states’ divorce law statutes and case law, I had never ventured past the continental US.
Recently, I had the privilege to visit Paris, France to interview international lawyer, Jonathon Wise Polier, who practices, among other disciplines, divorce law there. Mr. Polier hails from New York and has resided in Paris, France since 1991, when he went into private practice. His resume boasts a Ph.D. from Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, and a JD from Columbia Law School. Mr. Polier’s quiet, Parisian office, located just off of the posh Champs Elysseus was the setting of our fascinating conversation about just how different French divorce is from divorce here in the U.S.
In a nutshell, there is no smut, drama or Matlock maneuvering in French divorce court. Likewise, instead of surprise hearings and sensational trials, French divorce is fairly vanilla compared to its US counterpart. Since French divorce forbids cross examination, deposition, and sworn testimony, the trial court does not entertain trial antics in the same way that we do here in the States. This leads to lower attorneys’ fees, faster trials, and less “War of the Roses” vitriol between the parties.
- Procedure- In France, once a party files, the judge requests to speak with both parties (not in the presence of their attorneys) individually for ten minutes a person to determine whether the party can reconcile their differences. In Texas, the judges never meet parties alone and play no role in attempting to reconcile the parties’ relationship. Lawyers are always present for testimony in Texas divorces.
- Cost- In France, the cost of divorce is much lower. Because there are no contested hearing, no depositions, no cross-examination, there is less rhetoric about rabbit trials (i.e., cheating, addiction, mental health problems). Thus, less client funds are expended in French divorce. Across the ocean, and down south where we trade baguettes for nachos, Texas divorce can mean big money. Mr. Polier quoted that a large sum of money spent in divorce may be in the range of tens of thousands (of Euros) as a “big budget” case. However, commonly, a Texas divorce budget can average a cost of $30,000 even prior to going to trial, and by trial phase can rise to the level of over $100,000 US dollars.
- Timeline- In France, because much of the process is administrative, and not a witch hunt for the worst traits in a party, divorces are quicker. In Texas, with our contested hearings, depositions, discovery process, and other smut-gathering ventures, often the party who finds the most mud wins. Also, if a Texas divorce litigant has a large wallet, she can out-litigate the other side. While Texas boasts a divorce as quick as 61 days from filing, I would venture to say that if one takes a divorce with children and property with contested issues and compares the two side-by-side, the French divorce would more likely be complete prior to the Texas one simply because of the streamlined procedures.
- Evidence- France does not take a transcript of any of the lower court proceedings. Therefore, there are no court reporters at trial or hearing, and so if you want to appeal to a higher court, everything is tried de novo- or “start all over again.” In Texas, we have transcripts of all proceedings in district court, court reporters at depositions and at hearings if you request them, so that you do not have to reinvent the wheel upon appeal should you disagree with lower courts. Because there are no transcripts, there is no case law. That may seem like legal jargon, but case law provides fact-specific examples on how other lower courts should apply the law and it governs the gaps in the Texas Family Code. Without case law, our jobs as litigators would be difficult and the jobs of the judges would be highly discretionary with no record of what previous court precedent holds for guidance on how to apply to their cases.
- Parenting Plans- France’s default parenting plan looks and feels the same as Texas Standard Possession Order. The parenting plan is the most similar as we share alternating weekend access, division of holidays and breaks.
- Child Support- Guidelines are golden in Texas. We have a chart. We rarely if ever deviate from guideline child support unless dad is in the NFL or is the CEO of Coke. There is a specific list enumerated for why to deviate from guidelines such as disability of a child or special needs of children. Our French friends look at guidelines as mere suggestions and often deviate from them on a regular basis.
- Alimony- The French do not believe in alimony. It’s not like the tooth fairy. They understand it exists. However, alimony or spousal maintenance, as it exists in Texas, is nonexistent in France. Instead, the French provide a one-time lump sum property settlement that is supposed to take the place of alimony. Texas provides spousal maintenance according to many factors some of which include length in the marriage, difference in earning potential, and ability to cover the spouse’s minimum, reasonable needs in the future.
- Abandonment- In France, if I had a divorce law website, it would have a flashing 32-point font banner warning, “Do not leave your marital home.” The French take abandonment pretty seriously and this can color a divorce settlement based on whether husband leaves wife high and dry. This archaic rule sometimes forces French couples to cohabitate during the divorce despite high levels of acrimony and conflict. In Texas, the judge does not care whether husband leaves wife in the marital residence. The focus is for ongoing support, ensuring that wife or husband- can afford to reside and maintain the marital residence during the pendency of the divorce until the home can be sold or divided accordingly.
- Venue- The French Napoleonic Rule for where to bring a suit is much like the US Native American Rule: if you can claim a remote percentage of lineage as a Frenchman, you may bring a suit in France. This can result is some bizarre scenarios where the son of a Frenchman residing in New York and living his entire married live in New York may make an argument to sue for divorce in France and may rightly do so. In Texas, if you reside here for six months in a county for 60 days, you can sue for divorce. You could never be hailed into a foreign state where you owned no property or have never resided against your will.
In short – my French divorce education taught me that all of the aspects of the Texas divorce that make my job so interesting are bereft from the French divorce model. The legal maneuverings that we are afforded in Texas allow us to make discoveries about finances, lifestyle, and personal idiosyncrasies that may become public. These very things add fuel to the fire and burn through so much of the litigation dollars; by contrast, French divorce is a low-drama transaction.
Is this a better way?
On some levels, I believe that we can learn from the French. By far, it seems that Paris – the City of Love and Light – does not support the soul-crushing, aggressive model of litigation model that leaves no stone unturned on a hunt for dollars and custody.