Belgium’s cohabiting and child custody customs

Posted on April 18, 2013 by


by Robert Whiston  FRSA    April 18th 2013

Despite Brussels acting as the public face of the EU and a modern capital city, Belgium is nevertheless beset with problems – tribulations mirrored in family matters.

Not only is it a single state which is culturally separating but has reached such a point of political divide that reconciliation seems unlikely.

gravity_lessonsBelgium straddles – like a carton character – a chasm that is slowly inching apart.

Modern Belgium is a conundrum that would confound even the dapper and fastidious Hercule Poirot. It is a relatively new state, formed in 1830 by consolidation, but it is culturally separating and ghettoising along ethnic lines.

In the south are the Walloons or French speakers with Flemish or Dutch speakers in the north  (approx. 40% and 60% of the population respectively).

In their daily lives and interests they have little connection with one another .They live in parallel universes with the Flemish wanting union with Holland – but Holland playing the reluctant bride.

The picture of a country splitting apart also emerges when examining Belgium’s marital profile and aftermath. For example, the Belgium divorce rate is the highest in Western Europe exceeded only by the former Soviet countries of Latvia and Lithuania. Fully 58% of marriages end in divorce which compared with Anglo-Saxon countries is an elevated level (see Table B and C below). [1] And in custody awards the Walloons appear very different from Flemish speakers. Yet despite all this Belgium has managed to embark upon and achieve success with a radial alternative to the non-productive and sterile arguments over child custody issues.

This article deals mainly with the current Walloon data. Data from Flemish courts will only be available in the near future. However, the socio-political family magazine “Filiatio” in an article “Separation: what the Belgians want for their children” finds there is a significant difference in attitudes towards ‘shared or equal parenting’ as regards the Walloon versus Flemish population.[2]  (analysis of the Filiatio findings can be found below, at ‘Child custody’).

In the UK we are given the impression that cohabiting is the future and the only sensible way to go but rather than out-numbering marriage it accounts for only 11% of all UK households and in this regard Belgium is little different.

Marriage in Belgium

In a country of 10.4 million (July 2012 est.) there were 42,159 marriages in 2010 and 28,903 divorces (see Table B below).

Table A. Number of marriages and divorces  – Belgium  (2000 – 2010)           

Table_AThe levels of both marriage and divorce have been pretty consistent over the past decade with 2008 being the peak year for divorces at over 35,000.

Over 63% of all marriages are between never married before couples (shown below in blue Table C). In 33% of marriages, at least one of the couple has been divorce, and therefore for this person the current marriage is a remarriage.

In nearly half of marriages, the woman was aged under 30 years, compared with only 36% of men.

Curiously perhaps, many more Belgian men than women will later re-marry.

In the chart below you will note there are categories for divorced women marrying men of varying marital status (single, divorced etc), whereas in the UK it is comparatively rare for a divorced man with children to find a women willing to marry him (ref. ONS Population Trends).

The Belgian data displaying the 63% is clearly visible in the simple Bar Chart. (Table B below) but as a Pie Chart (Table C), it is perhaps more instructive of the proportional breakdown for the smaller minority components.

Table B.  First marriages and re-marriages as a proportion  of all marriages (Belgium 2010). (%)   (reparatition des marriages selon le type de marriage)


To put these figures into context, those in the population aged between 25 and 54 years old comprise 40.9% of the population (male = 2,158,216 and female = 2,113,058). The total overall median age is 42.6 years.


The modern advent of cohabitation (“menage commun”) across Europe has resulted in ambiguities and lack of precision in determining household numbers and their composition.

Its fashionability means that Official data held by National registers do not always properly reflect the composition of households. For instance, persons living under the same roof with a household common might be listed by some agencies, e.g. ONS in the UK, as a ‘married couple’ but this in not always customary in some other countries. Equally, adults who cohabit in actuality but are recorded officially as not being domiciled at the same address will appear separately in the categories of a single or isolated persons (personnes isolees).

Table C.  First marriages and re-marriages as a proportion of all marriages (Belgium, 2010). (%)   (reparatition des marriages selon le type de marriage)

Table_CThe upshot is that some of those listed as living alone or single are, in fact, one half of an on-going relationship.

In Britain this is called living apart together (LAT) and if one or both are Welfare recipients they represent a costly addition to the Exchequer.

The situation is further complicated when these two unmarried and cohabiting partners are a). the parents of the same child(ren) and/or b). parents of different children.

The OECD in their reports lists all marital status and that for Belgium is shown below in Table D. [3]

Table D.  Marital types by EU countries % (Belgium only) 2008.

Table_DAcross the EU cohabitation – as indicated by extra-marital births – is very common with 37.3% of all birth  in the 27 countries of the EU being of that variety in 2009. Specific countries however ranged widely from 8.08% in Greece to a high of 64.3% in Iceland (see Table E)


Belge_table_eFalling between the cracks

Fashionable though cohabiting is said to be it does put children at risk. Whereas children of a marred couple have a very good chance of having their custody noted in official circles, the adults in a cohabiting relationship have no such obligation placed on them. Consequently children of cohabiting couples fall through the net and are totally off the official radar screen.

The ‘invisibility’ of these children to the machinery of government and child care agencies has already has been commented upon before on this group blog site.

Does Belgium not care about these children ?

Is Belgium content to abandon them to whatever fate befalls their parents


In 2008 the Concentra Newspapers carried the story that for every 100 marriages in Belgium there were 71 divorces and that made it highest divorce rate of Europe. [4]  In 2010 Belge_Table_fthe family / sociological journal Filiatio put the divorce ratio at 58%. [5]

As with all matters numerical, the style of presentation can give a wholly different slant, as the following “Crude divorce rates” (Table F) for the year, 2010/2011 demonstrate: [6]

Child custody

With all this basic data readily to hand one would have expected child custody figures to be equally accessible but they are not. There is no unified or national system for capturing such data in Belgium. Each province / region appears to operate independently of the central state. One therefore has to arrive at the figures by circuitous routes.

There is adequate information available on the obligations to pay maintenance to the other spouse and all aspects of parental responsibility but nothing on numbers of children involved.

One would have thought that academic papers, such as “Cross-regional divorce risks in Belgium[7] would have made either some detailed or passing reference to the position of children after divorce but there is nothing.

Instead we are obliged to turn to surveys to give us any real insight in to Belgium’s custody arrangements. Assuming we are all acquainted with the 2006 changes that made ‘alternating residence’ possible and the default position in many instances then it is not surprising to learn that the new egalitarian style of custody awards (the ‘joint accommodation’ format), is said to have doubled.

Geographical divergence

Responses to the new law reforms of 2006 have revealed a distinct north south difference reflecting the two language areas.

For instance, in the Filiatio survey people were asked which did they think was the best option for child custody ?

  1. egalitarian accommodation (ie shared or equal parenting)
  2. or a regular 5 day v 9 day split between both parents
  3. or the conventional 1 or 2 weekends [a month] with the other parent

Their preferences are shown below (see Table G).


Overall 69.5% of respondees considered the egalitarian accommodation pr shared parenting. in the Flemish areas this response rose to over 81.2%, but in the French-speaking south the result was much lower at 54.5%

Taking both language communities as a whole, the Belgium average was 15.2% for those in favour of  “1 or 2 weekends with the other parent,”  

Just over 10% (10.1%) of respondents were undecided about the ‘5 v 9 day’ alternative.

Curiously, a similar geographical north south divide was apparent in the 1987 UK report by the Law Commission  in its “Supplement to Working Paper No. 96” (*see In the case of the UK Law Commission’s survey by J. A. Priest and J. C. Whybrow, there was no language divide but there was a heavy industry, e.g. ship building,  divide.

Survey results

Lacking the normal Depts. and infrastructure some countries take for granted it was in fact the Brussels League for Mental Health which sponsored the survey which looked at 1,800 custody judgments in the judicial districts of Brussels and Charleroi (in the south of Belgium). Three different years were examined 2004 (before the legislative change), and 2007 and 2010.[8]

The survey revealed that the average percentage of egalitarian custody arrangements i.e. shared parenting had doubled, from less than 10% in 2004 to almost 20% in 2010.

In Belgium there are two forms of divorce consensual and conflict (In Flemish, it is EOT meaning “Echtscheiding door Onderlinge Toestemming” [divorce by mutual consent] and EOO meaning “Echtscheiding op grond van Onherstelbare Ontwrichting” [divorce due to irretrievable breakdown).

Perhaps surprisingly the survey found that it was actually the parents (28.4%), who valued the option of shared parenting and of reaching an agreement.

However, where the couple remained in a conflict or in contradictory position, and judges were involved to settle the arrangements the shared parenting choice was halved to 12.8% of cases.

Levels of agreement

The statistical study also showed that although the number of shared parenting orders (‘egalitarian accommodation’) increased after 2004 they thereafter remained stable through till 2007.

In 36.4% of instances agreements were concluded between parents (consensual) and 37.7% by a judge. This reflects the two types of divorce variants available in Belgium namely a). consensual and b). conflict or contradictory,  with the 37.7% representing the rate percentage where a fathers gets ‘one or two weekend per month.’

So despite these advances in modern custody practices, the classic “alternate weekends at Dad’s house” (characterised by contradictory divorces), and which existed before the 2006 reform of the divorce Act, remained the most used hosting formula (at 37.7%)

Analysis by Filiatio [9] indicated that the majority model i.e. ”alternate weekends at Dad’s” of which more than one-third were agreed by judgments or the litigants, can be compared with the inverse formula “one weekend in two at the mother’s house” (which represented less than 10% of the solutions chosen by parents i.e. 9.3%). An almost equal number (9.9%). were imposed by judges. Thus, overall:

  • “. . . . the mother still takes first priority for parent education and the care of children responsibilies after parental separation.”

As if to underline this Filiatio refers to the provisional basis and final judgments.

  • ”Between the two phases, there is a significant displacement of the unequal “maternal” accommodation.”

This they conclude shows that judges consider that in an ‘emergency’, priority must be granted to the mother in matters relating to a child’s accommodation, i.e. custody order.

Interestingly, the Brussels League for Mental Health survey also focused on the unequal “extreme” custody orders, i.e. “accommodation.” This was defined as when one of the parents gets less than one weekend in two. (In monthly terms this would be only one, or two, weekends per month).

In that case:

  • a). the parent no longer has any contact with his or her child(ren)
  • b). he/she sees the child(ren) for just two days
  • c). he/she sees the child(ren) for just two afternoons
  • d). he/she sees the child(ren) for a few hours a month (e.g. on neutral premises).

If the judge opts for this solution twice more often than parents, it is the same way, regardless of sex. Remains that the number of extreme accommodation penalises four times more fathers than mothers, but the parents agree on this difference in the same way that judges dictate.


Annex 1

Just 51% of adults are now married ! !

This was the headlines carried in a Welsh newspaper (Western Mail) in 2009. [10] The opening lines, quoting the ONS, were as follows:

  • “MARRIED couples will soon be in a minority as more people choose to live together out-of-wedlock, new figures reveal. According to the Office for National Statistics, just over half of adults, 51%, were registered as married in 2007, compared with 58% in 1998. The number of married women aged between 18 and 49 dropped significantly, with fewer than half wed in 2007 compared to three- quarters in 1979.”

It would appear to sound the death knell of marriage as an institution and, indeed, the UK 2011 Census Analysis returns underlined this by pointing out that only 47% of people were married. This was a decrease from 51% in 2001. [11]

So is it what it appears at first glance ?

  • Firstly, it has to be said that the 51% held firm from 2001 to 2009.
  • Secondly, the wording speaks not of couples but of “adults”, i.e. the entire population of England & Wales.
  • Thirdly, the decline in marriage by 4%, as shown in Figure 1 below, sees a rise of 4% in “singles” – not cohabiting.
  • Table  H: Marital and civil partnership status of the resident adult population in England and Wales (2001 and 2011) ONS


  • Fourthly, the movement in the remaining 3 categories have altered very little over the years, and bearing in mind that some types of marital union were not possible in 2001 (civil partnerships were introduced in 2011), the increase in 2011 has to be viewed as a little exaggerated. The decline in widowhood (down to 7) offsets the rise in divorces (which rises to 9).

’Singles’ are no longer a discrete category as used to be the case. Singles are composed of those not interested in marriage, those waiting to be married; those deferring marriage; those who are widowed; those who are divorced; those genuinely single; and those who are actually in a cohabiting relationship. In the above Table some of these elements have been captured and others omitted.

Worries and headlines about falling marriage numbers are not confined to Britain:

Just 51% of US Adults Married Today, Compared To 72% Fifty Years Ago

The American Medical News Today journal ran the above headline on Dec 14th 2011. [12]  Quoting a report published by Pew Research (a well established US ), it reported that the proportion of American adults who were married was the lowest ever.

It found that the average age for getting married in the US was 26.5 for females and 28.7 for males – a slightly younger age than in much of Europe.

However, in the case of US trends there would appear to be significant differences when 1960 is compared with 2011 (and probably a similar acute trend is present in Europe over the same time interval).

In percentage terms marriage has markedly declined; never-married (i.e. singles) have almost doubled from 15 to 28 and the divorced categories has nearly trebled from 5 to 14.

                            Table I. Current Marital Status, 1960  – 2010 (%) (USA)



English Marriages and civil partnerships – The 2011 Census data show that of the 45.5 million adults usually resident in England and Wales 47% were married. This was a decrease from 51% in 2001.

Another 0.2% (105,000) of adults were in civil partnerships in 2011. However, this figure cannot be compared with 2001 as the state of civil partnership was only legally introduced in 2005.

The greatest increase between 2001 and 2011 was for single people, the proportion of whom saw a rise from 30% to 35%. [13]




[1] Filiatio journal  See also “Homes et femmes”

[5] L’égalité, une somme de contextes ?

[7] by Laurent Snoeckx, Jaap Dronkers, Dimitri Mortelmans, Peter Raeymaeckers, 12th Sept 2007

[8] See “Filiatio”, a bi-monthly magazine for parents and professionals in the family services.

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