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Marriage, separation and divorce for expats

Falling in and out of love is all a part of life but few expats think about dealing with the legal consequences along the way.

Love, marriage and unfortunately divorce all need careful consideration when more expats are falling for partners from different backgrounds and cultures.

Laws concerning marriage and divorce are very different across the world and it is impossible to offer more than some general tips for expats to bear in mind.


Getting married overseas

To find out if your marriage is recognised by an overseas government – or if an overseas ceremony is a legal marriage in the UK – contact the appropriate authority in the country where the union takes place and the one in the place you intend to live.

One important step is couples need to post notice of their impending marriage in the country where the ceremony will take place.

The documents needed will vary from place to place, so contact the local authorities early in the planning to find out what to do and when.

Some countries will want an expat to swear an affidavit in front of a consular official to confirm they are free to marry.

British nationals will have to live in the country where the ceremony will take place for at least three days and post a notice at the British embassy in that country for seven days to allow objections.

Civil partners may find legal recognition of their status limited outside the Europe, North America and a few other countries.

Providing the correct process is followed in the country where the union takes place, the marriage should be legal in the UK.


Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements

Many countries allow couples to draft pre- or post-nuptial agreements that outline how deal with the division of property and assets in the event of a divorce.

Many couples believe this gives them some certainty of the financial outcome of a relationship breakdown.

The agreements are especially popular with couples where one or both partners have accumulated significant wealth before meeting the other. They view keeping this wealth on divorce as only fair.

Not all such agreements drafted in one country and then followed in another are legally binding.

Expats considering pre- or post-nups should take advice from a professional lawyer.


Separation and divorce for expats

Relationship breakdowns are traumatic at any time, but divorce and separation for expats is even more so as legal processes in more than one country add time, cost and uncertainty.

The natural inclination is for both parties to want a quick, stress-free and final split.

But expat divorce and separation can involve couples from different nationalities and cultures, the welfare of children and how to fairly divide property, cash and other assets which may be in two or more countries.

Resolving the issues can be expensive and may seem unfair to one or both partners. The outcome can depend on how the couple decide on several factors.


Choosing where to divorce

More than one country may be available for expats to divorce. The best way to go is to look at the outcome in each place and to discuss which would be best with a professional lawyer.

The questions to ask include:

  • Where do you live?
  • Where does your partner live?
  • Where were you born?
  • Where was your partner born?
  • Where are you both domiciled?

Domicile is a more complicated issue than simply where both of you live and relies on other factors, such as the nationalities of parents.

Once you and your partner have a list of possible countries where you can file for divorce, next draft a list of experienced and qualified lawyers for each jurisdiction.

You may need two lawyers – one for the place where you live and another for the place where the divorce takes place.

Choosing this place can impact on the outcome for both parties – and some may favour the fortunes of one partner over the other.

A good place to start searching for a lawyer is the International Academy of Family Lawyers. If you are British, the Law Society should help.

For expats deciding to settle their separation and divorce in the European Union, rules are in place to help enforce decisions across borders of the 27 states.

In general, courts can make orders about dividing property and assets in other countries but have no legal jurisdiction to enforce them.


Separation and divorce in different cultures

Religion and culture are an added issue for couples of different nationalities and backgrounds.

Islamic law treats divorce in a very different way from the more relaxed process in the UK and Europe.

In the United Arab Emirates, expat couples may have the chance to opt for a Western-style divorce rather than a traditional Islamic one.

 Divorce in Pakistan and Bangladesh can come under Talaq law, while India has special rules for Hindu divorce.

Again, professional advice is required as divorces under one country's laws may not be recognised in another.

For instance, a Talaq divorce in Pakistan or Bangladesh will only be recognised in the UK if some strict rules are observed.


Unmarried couples

Divorce laws treat unmarried couples very differently from spouses.

In most jurisdictions, each partner is treated as an individual and has no call on financial support from the other.

Unmarried status also leads to difficulties over deciding what happens to the family home, how pensions and investments are split and who looks after the children.


Get a good lawyer

The thread running through marriage, separation and divorce is making sure partners have investigated the legal implications of making or breaking a relationship in full.

It’s easy to overlook different legal approaches in different countries and making a mistake can have a significant legal, emotional and financial outcome.

Always consult a professional lawyer and do not forget a lawyer qualified in one place is not necessarily the best representative in another country.

Women and same-sex partners will find that their rights are not recognised in some legal systems and cultures.

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