Léa Cimelli

We interviewed Léa Cimelli, an economist, and post-doctoral fellow at INED since November 2023, who studies gender-specific economic effects of union dissolution after the age of 50, notably in France. She is also a member of the French team working on the international GINCO Project (Gender and Health Inequalities in the CONSTANCES Cohort). 

(Interview conducted in February 2024)

After divorce or spouse’s death, what mechanisms come into play in France to offset the ensuing loss of economic resources?

Divorce and widowhood each have multiple consequences. I’ve focused exclusively on income, to understand better how that aspect of life is affected by those events.

The two situations share the fact that one household member is no longer there, meaning that the household loses that person’s income but also has one less set of expenses.

However, the two situations differ in France when it comes to “replacement income” as organized by the state in the case of spouse’s death, private transfers (alimony payments, in the case of divorce) and public transfers (different types of welfare benefits) because the legislation regarding divorce is very different from the legislation for widowhood. 

In divorce, private attorneys and/or the courts handle the matters of alimony payments and divorce settlement terms, involving transfers between the former spouses.

In the case of spouse’s death, the French retirement system comes into play in connection with the widowhood allowance (specifically for young widows whose husbands were covered by France’s “general” retirement program) and the survivor’s pension (for widowsover 55 if covered by the general retirement program).

The state intervenes by organizing various transfers according to the type of union dissolution, and this impacts the standard of living of the people involved. In general, standard of living falls after a divorce and rises, on average, after a spouse becomes a widow or widower.

What are the risks involved for men and women in these two types of dissolution?

For both divorce and widowhood we find the same gender-specific impact on standard of living: men do better than women, on average after these union dissolutions. When men divorce after age 50, their standard of living dips 5% on average, while women’s falls an average of 24%. Moreover, after spouse’s death, men’s standard of living rises higher than women’s: slightly over 10% for them, slightly under 5% for women.

To evaluate those risks, three characteristics are used: gender, type of dissolution, and age.

The main risks are as follows: wide variation in living standard; sudden adverse change in economic situation, particularly for women and especially women over 50; a risk of serious economic instability, even poverty, particularly after a divorce and for young women widowed before age 55. In general, more risks are observed for women, particularly divorcees.

What are you currently working on?

I’m pursuing the analysis I developed in my PhD thesis by studying the PACS [PActe Civil de Solidarité: France’s civil union institution] and cohabiting unions. In neither of these cases is there framing legislation for union dissolution. And there is no legislation for compensatory settlements—though alimony payments come into play if the couple had children. And there are no provisions regarding a surviving partner’s pension.

I’m also studying divorce and widowhood in different national contexts. 

In Sweden, for example, I’m engaged in a project that compares the economic impacts of divorce in two different public policy and female labor market participation contexts. In the Swedish system, social benefits are highly individualized, whereas the French system considers people’s social trajectories (for example, the number of children a women has had). 

In the Netherlands I’m focusing on widowhood, and there my work is not explicitly comparative. The Netherlands collects highly detailed administrative data, together with data on wealth. France has less data on that dimension. It’s very interesting to explore the question of wealth, assets, property. And it can be done for the Netherlands but not for France.