In recent decades more and more British people have set off in search of the good life abroad, many settling in nearby continental countries in search of a more relaxed way of life or somewhere pleasant to retire. It’s a thought many of us have had on holiday: if only we could live here! Sunshine, great food and wine, and a minimum of grey skies and drizzle: who wouldn’t want that?
Spain is well known for its large communities of British expatriates, and parts of Portugal, France and Italy are almost as popular.
Turkey, once an exotic novelty, is now an increasingly popular destination too: according to a new legal study from Queen Mary, University of London, there were 15,502 property-owning Brits living in Turkey in September last year, making them the largest group of foreign residents owning property in the country.
Turkey is not a straightforward choice for the sun-seeking British settler. The majority of the population is Muslim and the cultural influences are distinct from those found in more familiar European countries like Spain and France. Turkey is not a member of the EU and many British people will find the Turkish language a challenge too: it is unrelated to, and quite unlike, other European languages.
The Queen Mary study, called The Legal Adaption of British Settlers in Turkey, examined the legal and social experiences of Britons, primarily retired over-50s, living in Mugla, a popular tourist resort.
The authors – Drs Prakash Shah and Derya Bayir of Queen Mary’s School of Law– report the Britons struggling to grasp a legal system which they see as complex, slow and excessively bureaucratic. According to the authors, this perception is largely down to an inability to speak Turkish, a problem which also means many settlers lose access to Turkish citizenship and various related rights.
To quote Dr Shah: “Often British settlers are excluded from accessing their full legal rights because of their cultural and linguistic differences, and because they have come from a different legal environment.”
Some British settlers sensibly respond to such difficulties by turning to the familiarities of British law for such measures as marriage – they “make a considered choice to formalise legal relationships in a jurisdiction in which one feels more secure”, to quote Shah and Bayir. One of their respondents – a divorced British woman now married to a Turkish man – told the authors:
“We did not marry in Turkey. I refused. I understand English law. If divorcing I do not understand Turkish law enough and when doing something like that I have to understand it.”
After their British marriage the couple in question did, however, undergo a Muslim marriage ritual with a local imam. The authors dub this: “the tying in of the couple to a local Turkish Muslim and religious and customary order, revealing a form of legal pluralism at a transnational level”.
Navigating your way through the complexities of divorce law can be difficult and stressful at the best of times, but doing so while living in a culturally distinct country like Turkey poses all sorts of additional difficulties, especially if you do not speak the language.
For example, Britons who have married a Turk and invested in the purchase of property could face significant financial problems. Dr Shah notes: “If the pair divorce, where the British spouse provided some or all the purchase price, court action might not produce a result which favours them, meaning life savings can be lost.” Differences in property law mean that owners may not have full title to their property in spite of their investment. Not a pleasant outcome.
So what can you do? If you have settled – or plan to settle in Turkey– what is the best way to protect your interests in the event of a relationship ending? If two English people living in Turkey decide to divorce, with one – or both – partners wishing to remain in the country, Turkish courts would apply English law. But not of course, if one partner is a Turkish national.
Our recommendation would always be take informed legal advice and draw up a clear prenuptial – or postnuptial – agreement while in the UK. In the agreement, set out exactly what will happen if the marriage fails – who will get what, for example, property proceeds or investments. If there are any children, or are likely to be, the agreement should include reference to these and clearly lay out access or residency arrangements – allowing, for example, the wife to return uncontested to the UK.
Such an agreement is really the best way to protect your interests in the event of a relationship ending in a country where you do not understand – or have only a partial grasp of – the language and legal system. Sadly, there is no guarantee that a legal agreement drawn up in the UK will be honoured in Turkey, which is, of course, not bound by the EU’s international legal agreements. But a pre- or postnup will at least provide some measure of security.
Your heart and life savings are on the line.