Belgium has a long history of family policies, which starts with the establishment of the first Ministry of Family in 1946. In addition to family benefits and the expansion of the pre-school education system, Belgian family support policies also include benefits and services for families provided by the social security system. Comparatively speaking, the child benefit packages of the Belgian system are perceived to be among the most generous in Europe. The country has been able to reach a high level of compliance with EU Family Protection policy and ensure the financial protection of all types of families. Belgium has one of the most comprehensive cash benefit systems for families, which offers immediate financial support with maximum flexibility for parents to directly cover extra expenses. Most of the family policies are developed and carried out by the regions (gewesten). The federal state, however, is responsible for the different benefits and cash systems. Childcare and parental leave systems are also laid out in the general federal rules. Despite the broad development of support and allowances for families, most of it is still based on the breadwinner model. Belgian family policies take into account the added stress and expense involved with having a large family, and compensate substantially for additional children. Belgium also offers a stellar maternity allowance for expecting mothers, offering them 1,223€ at the birth of their first child and 920€ for each subsequent child. This allowance also applies to families who adopt children.
However, regarding maternity leave policies, Belgium is still behind the Nordic countries. Women receive four weeks of paid maternity leave at 82 % of their salary and an additional 11 weeks at 75 % of their salary. Fathers are entitled to a paternity leave of ten working days, of which seven are paid by social security at 82 %. Nordic countries overall invest more in extended leave entitlements for mothers and fathers, as well as higher spending for primary education while spending much less on allowances for children later in life compared to Belgium.
Investments to facilitate the work-family balance are also included under family policy, but flexible work hours and flexible childcare arrangements are still not always developed to the extent necessary. Overall, women in Belgium are negatively affected by this the most, as they are still the main caregivers in the family, both for children as well as elderly parents. Building on the career-breaks scheme that was first launched in 1985, the Belgian government introduced a new ‘Time Credit’ scheme in 2002 to facilitate a work-life balance for employees. However, due to budget constraints the system was reformed in 2012 and it now allows employees in the private sector to take up to three years of leave from work, or significantly reduce their working hours, without breaking their employment contract or endangering social security rights.
Some of the aims of these family policies seem to be clear whereas others are more implicit. Overall, it is often suggested that there are a range of reasons why family polices are developed and carried out as they are in Belgium: stimulating and maintaining fertility levels, strengthening the ties between parent and child, the redistribution of welfare or fight against poverty, and support of the rights of the child.
Formal childcare is well established and attended by 48 % of children under three and 100 % of children between three and compulsory school age (which is above the EU Barcelona targets for childcare provision and the EU averages of 30 % and 83 %, respectively). In 2007, the parenting support programme in the Flanders region expanded to include anyone who cares for children and young people. In the recent debates on family policies, more and more emphasis has been placed not only on focusing on the nuclear family but paying (in light of the ageing population) sufficient attention to supporting intergenerational caregiving between family members. In addition, the diversification of family types and arrangements has put more attention on the need for policy makers to support all families as well as possible, especially since several child advocacy groups have warned about increased levels of poverty among children in Belgium.
In Belgium, each of the three communities is separately responsible for organising childcare. Since 1 April 2014, a new Flemish decree has regulated the childcare sector in that community. Whereas there used to be a multitude of initiatives, there are now only three major types of childcare: family-organised childcare (up to eight children), group childcare (at least nine children), and home childcare. To qualify for subsidies, a professional childcare provider must have a (quality) license from the policy agency Child and Family (Kind en Gezin). While this agency does not organise childcare services, it centrally regulates and supports the sector. The cost of childcare varies depending on the childcare facility. To ensure that childcare prices are adjusted according to income, independent childcare providers are incentivised to adopt an income-related pricing policy through grants. The amount each family pays also depends on the number of hours per day the child attends the care facility (100 % of the daily rate for more than five hours, 60 % for three to five hours, and 40 % for less than three hours. Childcare for school-age children costs 1.44€ per hour before and after school, 2.87-4.65€ per hour for less than three hours during school holidays, 4.30-7.00€ per hour for three to six hours during school holidays, and 8.55-13.99€ per hour for more than six hours during school holidays). Discounts are provided to families with multiple births or with more than one dependent child under the age of 12 in their care. The personal contribution is recalculated every three years, whenever another child is enrolled in childcare, or if there is a reduction in the family’s income. Since the decree went into effect, every town has a local office for childcare. The objectives of the decree are to ensure that the quality of care remains high, prices remain stable, and the number of care facilities continues to expand in the long run.
In Wallonia, the Office of Birth and Childhood (Office de la Naissance et de l’Enfance, or ONE) is responsible for supporting, improving, and monitoring the childcare provision. Each childcare facility that provides regular care for children up to the age of six must receive a permit from ONE, and therefore must meet the conditions as outlined in the quality code. The majority of the facilities are subsidised by ONE and are assigned subsidised personnel by the regions. In Wallonia, childcare takes many forms. There are recognised collective facilities such as kindergartens and parent nurseries, as well as collective care facilities which are not subsidised, such as those located in children’s homes. There are also family-based care providers, including conventional childminders, independent childminders, co-childminders, specialised childcare facilities, and occasional facilities. Childcare providers in the bilingual Brussels-Capital region can choose between applying for a license from Child and Family or from ONE.
In the German region, the Service for Child and Family (Dienst für Kind und Familie, or DKF) has multiple responsibilities. Its core responsibility is, however, the organisation and monitoring of all childcare facilities. Any individual or organisation that provides childcare must be recognised by DKF and must work under its supervision. Many of these initiatives are subsidised by the German-speaking community. Furthermore, the DKF is the initiator of new projects on childcare and supports new initiatives. The DKF also performs direct quality control of all independent childminders.
Parental leave (including maternity protection)
In Belgium, parenthood is protected in a number of ways:
- In recruitment and during the employment relationship the employer must treat men and women equally. Employers are not permitted to discriminate against mothers.
- From the moment the employer is informed of the pregnancy, the employer is not permitted to end the employment contract because of the pregnancy. This dismissal protection is in place until one month after the postnatal leave.
- Pregnant employees and women who are breastfeeding cannot work overtime, and cannot be obliged to perform night work for a period of eight weeks before the expected delivery date and four weeks immediately after returning from maternity leave.
- The employer is obliged to carry out a health and safety assessment for all employees.
- Pregnant employees are entitled to paid maternity leave. The period of maternity protection has two parts. The prenatal rest period may last a maximum of six weeks before the anticipated delivery date (eight weeks in the case of a multiple birth). Only one week is obligatory, while five weeks are optional (six weeks in case of a multiple birth), and the weeks not taken before the birth may be taken after the birth. The postnatal rest period may last up to nine weeks after the birth. This period may be supplemented by up to five (or seven) unused weeks of the prenatal rest period. In the case of a multiple birth, the nine-week postnatal rest period may be extended by up to two additional weeks.
The amount of the maternity benefit depends on the mother’s work status. If the mother is an employee with a contract, she receives 82 % of her non-capped gross salary for the first 30 days of maternity leave and 75 % of her capped gross salary from the 31st day onwards (maximum of 98.70€ a day). If the mother is an employee who is incapable of working and has no employment contract, she receives 79.5 % of her capped lost salary during the first 30 days of maternity leave and then 75 % of her capped lost salary beginning on the 31st day of maternity leave. If a mother is unemployed, she receives 60 % as a basic allowance and 19 % as an additional allowance during the first 30 days of maternity leave. Subsequently, she receives 60 % as a basic allowance and 13 % as an additional allowance from the 31st day of maternity leave onwards (both are a maximum of 133€ a day).
Fathers and co-mothers have a comparable right to paternity or co-maternity leave. Regardless of the father’s or the co-mother’s employment status, he or she has the right to be absent from work for ten days following the childbirth. In the Walloon region, civil servants have the right to take 15 days following the child’s birth. The days taken may be freely chosen by the employee within four months of the date of delivery, and should not be taken all at once. These regulations apply to the parents of children born from 1 April 2009 onwards. During the first three days of paternity leave, the employee retains his full wages, which are covered by his employer. During the next seven days, he receives no salary but is entitled to a payment (82 % of his gross salary) from the health insurance fund (a maximum of 107.90€ a day). Since 30 July 2011, employees who take paternity leave are protected against dismissal.
In addition, a full- or part-time employee who has worked for an employer for at least 12 months (over a period of 15 months) is entitled to take parental leave of up to four months to care for a child up to age 12, or up to age 21 if the child is disabled. A full-time employee is also entitled to work a half-time schedule over a period of eight months or an 80 % schedule over a period of 20 months (also known as 20 % leave). This leave should not be taken all at once. It can also be divided into blocks of a minimum of one month for full-time leave, a minimum of two months for half-time leave, and a minimum of five months for 20 % leave. Employees who take parental leave are also protected against dismissal.
Employees who have worked for an employer for at least two years have the right to take a break from work. They can take up to one year off, full-time; two years off, half-time; or take one day off a week for five years (20 % time). This right to time off is dependent upon one’s age, civil status, and years of employment. Employees can earn a maximum of 641€ per month for a full-time break.
Belgian citizens are entitled to family benefits if they are employees, public sector officials, or self-employed. They are also entitled to family benefits if they are unemployed, disabled, or pensioners. For the self-employed, special provisions may apply, but from 1 July 2014 the regime is harmonised with that of employees. On 1 July 2014, the authority for family allowances was transferred from the federal level to the communities and regions. However, for families nothing will effectively change until 2016. The benefits foreigners receive depend on their residency status in Belgium.
Family benefits are granted until 31 August in the calendar year during which the child reaches the age of 18. To be eligible to receive family benefits between ages 18 and 25, the child must either be enrolled in a course of study or be in training. In addition, the child must reside in Belgium, in a member country of the EEA, or in a country with which Belgium has a social security agreement.
For employees, public sector officials, and the self-employed, family allowances include family benefits, the age-related supplementary allowance, the birth/adoption grant, and the annual age supplement awarded in August at the start of the new school year. For unemployed individuals, disabled employees (after six months), and pensioners, these allowances are means-tested against the income of the household in which the children live. There is also provision for a supplement for a disabled child up to age 21 and an orphan’s allowance.
When families have a child, they receive a one-time birth grant. Families receive 1,233.11€ for their first child and for each child of a multiple birth, and 920.25€ for each subsequent birth.
The standard monthly child benefit payments each family receives are 90.28€ for the first child, 167.05€ for the second child, and 249.41€ for the third child and each subsequent child. Orphans receive a monthly payment of 346.82€. For parents without an income and who do not receive social security benefits, each family receives 136.24€ for the first child, 195.54€ for the second child, and 254.38€ for the third child and each subsequent child.
Through the age allowance, monthly child benefit payments are increased when the eldest child in the family turns ages six, 12, and 18. In a family with multiple children, the family receives an additional 15.73€ while the eldest child is age six to 11, and an additional 31.36€ for each of the other children. The family then receives an additional 23.95€ while the eldest child is ages 12 to 17, and an additional 47.92€ for each of the other children. While the eldest child is age 18 or older, the family receives an additional 27.60€, and an additional 60.93€ for each of the other children. If a child is disabled and was born before 1 July 1996, the family receives an additional 52.89€ for the eldest child, and an additional 60.93€ for each of the other children.
Since 2008, the annual age allowance has replaced the family school bonus. This allowance is only granted to families who are entitled to receive child benefits in July. Families with children who receive a social supplement or an increased orphan benefit receive 27.60€ for children up to age five, 58.59€ for children ages six to 11, 82.02€ for children ages 12 to 17, and 110.42€ for children ages 18 to 24. Families with children who are not eligible to receive a social supplement or an increased orphan benefit receive 20€ for children up to five years of age, 43€ for children ages six to 11, 60€ for children ages 12 to 17, and 80€ for children ages 18 to 24.
Additional benefits are available to families with a child under age 21 who has a disorder. The amount each family receives depends on the seriousness of the child’s disorder and the consequences it has for the family environment. There are a total of nine categories, and the amounts range from 79.17€ to 527.80€.
There are also additional benefits for specific family situations. For example, there are monthly supplements for families in which one of the parents is long-term unemployed or retired. These families receive an additional 45.96€ for the first child and an additional 28.49€ for the second child. Families in one of these situations headed by a single parent receive an additional 22.97€ for the third child and subsequent children. All other families in one of these situations receive an extra 5€ for the third child and subsequent children. Families with children in which one of the parents is a disabled employee receive an additional 98.88€ for the first child, an additional 28.49€ for the second child, and an additional 5€ for the third child and subsequent children (or an additional 22.97€ for the third child and subsequent children if the family is headed by a single parent). Finally, families headed by a single parent who receive no other social supplements receive an additional 45.96€ for the first child, an additional 28.49€ for the second child, and an additional 22.97€ for the third child and subsequent children.
Families also receive tax reductions when they have children. The children living in the same household with their parents cannot have a yearly income that exceeds 3,120€ in the case of cohabitating parents, 4,500€ in the case of single parents, or 5,720€ in the case of single parents with children with a disabilities. The amount of parents’ taxable wage decreases by 1,510€ when they have one dependent child; 3,880€ for two dependent children; 8,700€ for three dependent children; 14,060€ for four dependent children; and families receive a supplement of 5,370€ for each subsequent child. If one has a child with a disability, then this is counted as two children. If parents have children younger than the age of three or one is a single parent, they will receive an additional reduction.
Belgian law states different conditions to be allowed to marry. The main conditions for marriage are the following:
- The minimum age for marriage is 18 years (introduced 19 January 1990 in the law on the lowering of the age of civil majority to eighteen years, Wet tot verlaging van de leeftijd van burgerlijke meerderjarigheid tot achttien jaar). The juvenile court can abolish this age restriction in the case of serious reasons/considerations.
- Both partners voluntarily agree with the marriage.
- The law does not allow marriages between people with a close blood tie or affinity. The King can, for important reasons, abolish the prohibition on marriages between relatives. Such a request has to be addressed to the Minister of Justice.
- Someone who is already married is not allowed to enter into another marriage. This prohibition also applies to foreigners who marry in Belgium even if the national law of their country of origin allows polygamy. In Belgium bigamy is a criminal act.
As of June 2003, Belgium allows two people of the same gender to formally marry (Wet tot openstelling van het huwelijk voor personen van hetzelfde geslacht en tot wijziging van een aantal bepalingen van het Burgerlijk Wetboek).
The law of 1976 on the mutual rights and duties of spouses and the matrimonial (capital) regime is still the basis of the current marital property law. However, the law was updated several times (e.g. in the laws of 1.4.1987, 19.1.1990, 9.7.1998, 29.4.2001, 28.1.2003, 13.2.2003, 22.4.2003, 16.7.2004, 18.7.2008). The marital property law distinguishes different regimes, of which three are the most important, namely the system on the separation of goods, the system of community property, and the system of the separation of goods with community of acquisition (also referred to as the legal system wettelijk stelsel). The latter will be automatically applied according to the law on the marriage, unless the couple specifies a marriage contract.
In line with the Code Civil (1804), divorce could be granted based on three reasons: namely (i) adultery, (ii) violence, abuse, or serious insults, and/or (iii) after joint agreement. Over the years both the reasons and the formalities for the different reasons for divorce have been systemically eased. The first fundamental change came in 1974, with the introduction of a new reason for divorce, namely a ‘de facto separation’ for more than ten years.
Furthermore, the period of de facto separation was further reduced to five years (1982) and then to two years in 2000. Also, the limiting rule that the divorce could not be proclaimed when the material condition of the minor children from the marriage would worsen was abolished in 2002. The second fundamental change was introduced with the divorce laws (Echtscheidingswetten) of 1994 and 1997. Because of these new laws the existing divorce procedures were substantially simplified, also due to the abolition of a range of procedural hurdles.
As of 2001, the legislature introduced the option to have mediation in legal proceedings. With the law of 21 February 2005, the general principles of the mediation are explained and the federal mediation commission was installed as the central agency that watches over the development and the quality of mediation.
In 2007, more fundamental changes followed with regard to the divorce procedure. A systematic easing of the reasons for and formalities of divorce were introduced, in order to achieve a real right to divorce (the ‘guiltless divorce’ was introduced). The procedural hurdles were further reduced while at the same time the responsibilities that partners have towards each other after marriage were limited. After these reforms in 2007, two main reasons for divorce remain: On the one hand, there is divorce following joint agreement, in which the previously existing rules regarding the ages of the partners and the length of the marriage were abolished. On the other hand, divorce can be applied for following the irreparable disruption of a marriage. This divorce will be proclaimed guiltless and can be demanded by one of the married partners based on concrete evidence that the marriage is indeed disrupted irreparably. In addition, divorce can be demanded based on a de facto separation of a minimum of one year when one partner demands divorce, compared to six months when both partners demand divorce. Finally, a third option exists in which divorce can be demanded even without evidence of irreparable disruption or de factor divorce, in the case that both partners file for divorce twice, including the official reflection period.
In 2013, the so-called family courts (familierechtbanken) were introduced in Belgium, which was the final step of the legislature’s aims for the simplification of family law and dispute resolution via the principle “one family, one dossier, one court” (één familie – één dossier – één rechtbank).
Parental authority (headship and residence arrangement)
Together with these evolutions in terms of divorce law, parental authority laws were also changed. For parenthood, the joint exercise of the parental headship was installed (1995), as was a law on the equal divided residence of a child whose parents are divorced (2006). The latter law on the preference for the equal residence of children and the forced execution of residence of the child has required judges to take seriously the week/week or any other equal division, compared to any other possible residence arrangements.
Parental duty to support in sustenance
With the introduction of a special service dedicated to maintenance claims (Dienst voor Alimentatievorderingen, DAVO) in 2003, the aim is, on the one hand, to assist with the execution of the lawful decision on the claim for alimony. On the other hand, the service aims to fight poverty via the payment of advances of the alimony. Following these developments in 2010, a law was introduced to objectively determine alimony for children.
Cohabitation and civil unions
In Belgium, partners can have different legal statuses that acknowledge their union/relationship. As of 1 January 2000 (Wet op het wettelijk samenwonen van 23.11.1998, BS 12.1.1999), the option exists to cohabit officially and be registered as such. This official registered (lawful) cohabitation allows minimal legal protection for those who cannot or do not wish to marry. If partners who are cohabiting wish to have more far-reaching legal protection than the law covers, they must register with a solicitor (notary) in order to draw up a ‘cohabitation contract’.
As of 18 May 2007, the inheritance law for legally cohabiting couples was also introduced, which implies that partners automatically inherit from each other. It is, however, a limited inheritance right. The partner who lives the longest is automatically given the usufruct (but not full ownership) of the house in which the couple lived and the furniture that was present. A testament is not required to arrange this.
There are important differences between marriage and legal cohabitation in Belgium. Marriage is contracted by an officer of the civil registry. Official cohabitation only requires a statement to be submitted to an officer of the civil registry and is only an option for those who are unmarried partners. Married couples are obliged to help each other and ‘provide the necessary’, in some cases also after the end of the marriage. This, however, does not apply to legally cohabiting couples, unless the partners have made a written agreement on this when they registered their cohabitation.
For marriage there exists a whole range of legal regulations on the effects of the capital and debts of the married partners that are provided by law. In the marriage contract, the partners can make different choices on this, which can be regulated in their marriage contract. For those who officially cohabitate, the legal rule applies that both partners contribute to the costs related to the cohabitation depending on their individual possibilities. All remaining finances (including savings) remain separate. In the cohabitation contract (samenwoningscontract) the partners can further specify and define the different costs that will be shared.
While married partners are obliged to live at the same address and must make all decisions regarding their owned property together (even when only one partner owns the house or when it is rented out to others), this does not apply to legal cohabiters. The latter, however, do have the same protection as married couples.
- Bulckmans, R., Mortelmans, D., Casman, M., & Simayis, C. “Families in beweging”. Staten Generaal van het gezin, Brussels (2007). Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Dimitri_Mortelmans/publication/236166925_Families_in_Beweging_een_Gezinsbeleid_op_Maat/links/00b7d53b93090a3b64000000.pdf?inViewer=0&pdfJsDownload=0&origin=publication_detail
- European Platform for Investing in Children. “Belgium: leader in pre-school education”. 2015. Available at: http://europa.eu/epic/countries/belgium/index_en.htm
- Locke, B. “Family support policy in Belgium”. GNRD news, 2014. Available at: http://gnrd.net/seemore.php?id=637#sthash.QtvVwnym.dpuf
- Stouten, J., Van Gent, M., & Gemmeke, M. ”Gezinsbeleid in een International Kader. Een vergelijking tussen tien landen – eindrapport“. Regioplan publicatienr. 1674, Regioplan (2008). Available at: http://www.expoo.be/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Eindrapport.pdf