International divorce: splitting up overseas

Divorce|September 6th 2014

It’s easy to see the appeal of moving abroad. Getting away from the rains of England and settling in the sun is a very tempting prospect for a lot of people. Job opportunities and rates of pay may be considerably higher or the value of your income may stretch further in a foreign country.

Millions of Brits have set up homes in other nations, concentrating only on the upside, and rarely giving much thought to the legal system which operates in their new country. They blithely assume it will be the same, probably not knowing too much about what happens in England either.

To me, a lawyer who has witnessed a great deal (and my firm has probably handled over 13,000 cases in the last thirty odd years), I’d go nowhere before I had a sensible, legal answer to one question: what happens if the marriage breaks down and you’re living abroad?

Take heart: it probably won’t, but you never know. 42 per cent of married couples do divorce. So what would happen if it occurred while you are abroad but your family and friends are back home? What would the likely outcome be? Could you return home with the children? Would the financial settlement still be the same? How would it all work out in reality? People don’t consider something so upsetting when they’re planning a life in paradise but, if one spouse wants out, what happens next?

Divorce law is different in every country. There is no other system in the world which operates the same as it does in England and Wales. Even getting a divorce is different, the process is different and the reasons for divorce are different. So it is vital to understand what you would be getting yourself in for if your marriage should break down while you live abroad.

In England, first of all proceedings are, unsurprisingly, conducted in English. Don’t underestimate this. Legal jargon is difficult enough, without it being in a different language.

It is possible in England and Wales for one parent to leave the country with permission of the court, to return home with the children. In other countries it will almost never legally happen and a mother could be literally “stuck” – or she leaves her children in the foreign country and returns home alone.

Finances are handled very differently too and so are the outcomes. In England and Wales, there is no strict division, rather a fair and reasonable settlement applies including both income and capital. In other countries there may be a simple clean break, with no ongoing income requirement. There are very strict disclosure requirements in England and the procedure is strictly timetabled. This may not be the case in other countries where it could drag on for much longer, at greater expense, and you never get to the bottom of what you are both truly worth. Going through a divorce in another country could easily leave you vulnerable and ruin your the life you originally planned when you left England.

If you are living abroad and feel like a divorce is imminent, timing is always and absolutely the key. Wherever proceedings are first issued within the EU is where they will be heard. Don’t act quickly enough, and it could be very costly. In non EU countries, the courts have a choice about where the case will be heard.

This is where taking legal advice, preferably before you go, is essential. It would also be wise to enter into a post nuptial agreement which is enforceable in both countries. Often it will be necessary for an English lawyer to work with the foreign lawyer to obtain the best outcome. As a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (IAML) this is straightforward for me and my firm. The IAML is represented in most countries in the world.

I am asked questions on this subject, and other areas of divorce law, on a regular basis. The most frequently asked questions from our readers inspired me to produce a series of divorce advice videos like the one on this page. If you have a question, maybe they will help or write to me on my blog and I will do my best to reply.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Andrea White says:

    Dear Marylin Stowe

    This is not a comment – unless one on a weird cross-border divorce settlement – more a quest for help…
    I am going through a nine-year divorce process (both parties English and married in England in 1997) in France and have been granted a High Court divorce judgement (June 2012) which states that the divorce is pronounced under French law, but the financial settlement should be done according to English Law and the Hague Convent mentioning Brussels II. An English Barrister’s opinion presented to the Court recommended a 50/50 split of all assets.

    I declined to sign a wrongly worded document of the ‘splitting of the assets’ produced by an English-speaking Notaire in Feb 2012 because she had shoe-horned what should have been the financial settlement under English law into a handy French marital regime – which document I declined to sign – knowing that the settlement document had been mis-handled and was incorrect and gave everything to my ex-husband and nothing to me.

    To compound this mistake -but at NO STAGE has either party been asked to make a full and frank disclosure of assets – so I am wondering how this Notaire expected me to sign this documents with dealt only with our vehicles and houses here. All to be given to my ex-husband and nothing to me – which is quite shocking. What about salaries, pensions, off-shore accounts, savings, bonds etc?

    By my refusing to sign this ill-conceived document ‘the couple could not agree’ so it had to be referred to Court as a case of ‘difficulty’. I find this impossible to comprehend as I had had NO input whatsoever into this document, it was factually WRONG, and totally in opposition to the High Court Judge decision so I reject that ‘the couple could not agree’. No financial disclosures have EVER been made and my ex has successfully evaded all questions relating to his (considerable) wealth. I have now been summons to Court by my ex-husband to decide the settlement within the next couple of months. This action has followed a three and a half year silence whilst my ex-husband hid himself and our assets abroad.

    I have two questions:

    1. Where can I find the specific information required to help my Avocat present my case correctly for settlement under English law but in a French Court? I have trawled the EU commission’s document but NOTHING is obtainable that way. I need a step-by-step guide as how things WOULD be done correctly and fairly in England – where can I find this?

    2. Under English law what is the situation regarding the ‘pot’ for sharing. I know WHAT should be shared but aren’t assets supposed to ‘frozen’ until things are sorted out? If not, what are my rights to protect myself and my half of the assets?

    There are houses and goods here which were all bought during our marriage with money either earned or profits of sales of conjugal English homes. There has been a delay of 3.5 years since divorce was pronounced and the error was made. I have no financial support, just living on my savings now and am aged 68 – he is 70.

    My problem is to know what OUR rights are. Does he have the right to bar me from properties that he put in his name (which were bought during our marriage with money that was made during our marriage) when he is thousands of miles away and I live within 100 metres of three of them ?
    CAN I be accused of theft of building materials and tools (bought during our marriage and from the joint account) for restoring these houses – when all I have done is USE some of them?
    Does he have the right to demand to live in any or all of the other three houses in joint names, just because he wants to? Does he have the right to pursue me through the Court using OUR money to fight me? Aren’t things supposed to frozen until they are sorted out?

    Please help me find the specific answers. I understand that you can’t give me legal advice specifically, but I have NO money now to fight him and I need guidelines of English Law to help my Avocat achieve a ‘fair and equitable’ settlement for me in a French Court of Law…where do these guidelines exist ? I am on legal Aid, and my Lawyer is very good, but I have to help him and not waste his time and effort, and of course I have to protect my future – which at this moment looks horribly bleak.

    Many thanks AW

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