Arranging child custody between separated or divorced parents

In France, in the event of a separation or divorce, both parents continue to have rights and obligations towards their children, known as “autorité parentale”. It is very rare that these rights are withdrawn from a parent, even in cases involving domestic abuse, unfortunately.

Verified by Maître Elodie Ramos on 31/01/2024

Know the facts

The rights and responsibilities of parents towards their children and the decisions that arise from these are known as parental authority or “autorité parentale”:

  • When it is shared, it is known as joint parental authority or “autorité parentale conjointe”.
  • Where a single parent has exclusive parental authority, it is known as “autorité parentale exclusive”.

In the event of separation or if the parents divorce, a decision must be taken regarding the place of residence of the children, often referred to as child custody or “garde d’enfants”.

  • When children live equally with both parents, it is known as alternating residence or “résidence alternée”.
  • When children live mainly with one parent, that parent’s home is referred to as their usual residence or “résidence habituelle”.
  • In France, by law, parental authority is automatically shared by the parents and known as “autorité parentale conjointe”.

    This means that:

    • both parents have the same rights and responsibilities towards their children
    • important decisions regarding the children must be made by mutual agreement.
  • In very rare cases, the judge may decide to withdraw parental authority from one of the parents. The other parent then has exclusive parental authority or “autorité parentale exclusive”.

    This may occur in the most extreme cases of domestic violence or if the parent shows absolutely no interest in the child, but this is not automatic.

  • With “résidence alternée”, children spend an equal amount of time living at each parent’s home.

    The “résidence alternée” arrangements may vary between families. For example: each parent has the children at their home every other week. This arrangement is preferred by judges in France today, when it is possible.

  • With “résidence habituelle”, the children live in the home of one of their parents only.

    The other parent can generally continue to see their children and have them to stay at their home on a regular or ad hoc basis. They have rights to visits and overnight stays or “droit de visite et d’hébergement”.

    The most common arrangement is every other weekend and half of the school holidays.

    The time spent with the other parent may be restricted or extended depending on the arrangement decided. For example:

    • it may be extended to Wednesdays and more weekends
    • it may be limited to holidays if the other parent lives far away
    • it may be limited to visits without overnight stays.

    If a parent is deemed abusive by the justice system, the judge may decide to:

    • suspend their right to visits and overnight stays or “droit de visite et d’hébergement
    • arrange their visits in a meeting place bringing together professionals such as social workers and psychologists, known as visits with mediation or “visites médiatisées
    • arrange visits in the presence of another person known as a third party or “tiers”.

The procedure

  • If you separate or divorce amicably, you can decide together how to arrange custody of the children. This is referred to as “modalités d’exercice de l’autorité parentale”. This includes, in particular:

    • where the children live
    • the right to visits and overnight stays or “droit de visite et d’hébergement” of one parent when the children have their usual residence or “résidence habituelle” with the other
    • the payment of financial contributions for costs related to the child, known as “contribution à l’entretien et l’éducation des enfants”, or "pension alimentaire" (maintenance allowance).

    It is then recommended to send a joint request or “requête conjointe” to the family court judge or “Juge aux affaires familiales (JAF)” to confirm your agreement. The procedure is generally quick as it doesn't involve court proceedings.

    You can write the application yourself or get help from your lawyer.

    • The “requête conjointe” is in the form of a simple letter that has to be signed by you and the other parent. You can write it based on this form.
    • It should include:
      • surnames, first names, occupation, residence, nationality, date and place of birth of the parents
      • the court where the application is being made
      • details of the “modalités d’exercice de l’autorité parentale”, decided by mutual agreement.
    • It must be submitted in person at the administrative office known as the “greffe” (clerk) of the “Juge aux affaires familiales” for the children’s place of residence. To find their contact details, you can use this directory by entering your postcode and selecting the “tribunal judiciaire”.
  • If the parents do not agree about the child custody arrangements or “modalités d’exercice de l’autorité parentale”, they will be determined by a judge.

    • If you are in contentious divorce proceedings, the child custody arrangements will be determined by the judge as part of these proceedings.
    • If you are separated and not married, or not ready to initiate divorce proceedings, you need to hire a lawyer and send an application to the family judge or “Juge aux affaires familiales” via your lawyer to determine child custody arrangements.
    • If you are already divorced and would like to change child custody arrangements, you have to send a new application to the “Juge aux affaires familiales” via your lawyer.

    The judge will take several criteria into account when deciding on the child custody arrangements to put in place.

    • The arrangement that was in place up until the ruling. For example, if the parents choose to alternate where the children live each week up until the ruling, it is highly likely that the judge will retain this arrangement. You should therefore pay close attention to the arrangements you put in place while you are waiting for the judge’s ruling, and seek advice from your lawyer.
    • How your children say they feel about the situation and their interests.
    • The distance between each parent’s home and school.
    • The ability of each of the parents to meet their obligations and respect the rights of the other parent.
    • The result of assessments of the children’s social and family situation, if an expert has carried these out.
    • Information that has been collected in any social investigations.
    • Physical or psychological pressure or abuse exerted by one parent on the other.

Common concerns

  • There are solutions.

    The judge can allocate you a maintenance allowance or “contribution à l’entretien et l’éducation de l’enfant”, commonly known as “pension alimentaire”. This is a sum of money that the other parent will have to pay you every month to contribute to the costs associated with the children.

    You can also receive state financial assistance to help you pay for your children’s maintenance and education costs.

    Learn more about how to rebuild financially here.

  • If the family judge, known as the “Juge aux affaires familiales (JAF)”, asks you to participate in a meeting known as family mediation or “médiation familiale“ in the presence of your ex-partner, you can request to attend this meeting alone.

    If there has been domestic abuse, “médiation” is prohibited by law.

  • In the event of separation, the law generally requires each parent to maintain personal relationships with their children.

    However, the law sets out solutions in the case of domestic abuse. Unfortunately in practice, the withdrawal of parental authority remains rare in France, even in the case of domestic abuse. You will need to prepare your application carefully with your lawyer.

    The solutions may be as follows.

    • The “Juge aux affaires familiales” may decide to grant you exclusive exercise of parental authority or “autorité parentale”. This decision may be amended subsequently.
    • The criminal judge may decide to withdraw parental authority or “autorité parentale” from the perpetrator of abuse as a punishment. This decision may not be amended subsequently.
    • The other parent can see and have their children to stay overnight under certain conditions. This decision may be amended subsequently.
    • The right to visits and overnight stays or “droit de visite et d’hébergement” of the parent who has perpetrated the abuse is exercised in a mediated meeting space and is known as “droit de visite médiatisé”.
    • Arrangements are made for the children to be picked up and dropped off with the assistance of a trusted person as part of a “Mesure d’Accompagnement Protégé”.
  • Even if your children live with you, you must notify the other parent of your change of address.

    You must observe a period of one month between the time you notify them and your move.

    If your move will change how often the other parent can see the children, you will need to have the child custody arrangements or “modalités d’exercice de l’autorité parentale” amended. You can start by trying to agree on new child custody arrangements with the other parent.

    If you reach an agreement, it is recommended that you send a joint application known as a “requête conjointe” to the “Juge aux affaires familiales” for approval.

    In the event of disagreement, you can send an application to the “Juge aux affaires familiales” via your lawyer so that they can rule on a new “modalités d’exercice de l’autorité parentale”.

  • You can find more information about this on this page.

Find support

In France, there are many services that can support you, give you advice, and assist you with procedures and paperwork. Most of them are free of charge.

  • The “Centres d'Information sur les Droits des Femmes et des Familles (CIDFF)” helps the general public, especially women, in many areas such as: legal rights, health, employment searches, training, business creation, and even childcare.

    • These services are free of charge.
    • They will be able to inform you of your rights and the steps to take. Some centres can assist you with procedures and paperwork.
    • Languages available: mainly French.
    • Contact: you will find the contact details of the “CIDFF” in your area in this directory.
  • Femmes Informations Juridiques Internationales Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (FIJI)” is an organization specializing in international family law.

    • This service is free.
    • Their team of lawyers will be able to answer your questions and provide you with advice concerning your separation, divorce and/or child custody matters. This is an information service only: they cannot represent you in legal proceedings, you will have to contact a lawyer for this.
    • Languages available: French, English.
    • Contact: by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone on 04 78 03 33 63 from Monday to Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
  • A lawyer's role is to defend your rights before, during and after legal proceedings.

    • Be careful to choose a good lawyer.
    • Lawyers have fees that you will need to pay.
    • If you have limited resources, you could be eligible for state financial assistance to pay these fees. This is called "aide juridictionnelle".
    • If you have not had a lawyer recommended to you by a professional or a person you trust, you can look for one on this directory which lists all the lawyers in France. You can search by languages spoken and legal specialisation.

While the utmost care has gone into providing you with the most accurate and up to date information, this page is not intended to replace legal or professional advice. Laws and procedures change regularly so it is important to consult qualified professionals.

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