An international romance is the stuff of modern-day fairy tales, but what happens when it all goes wrong? GGI’s People and Lifestyle Editor advises on how to deal with your expat divorce.
Dealing with Your International Divorce
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. When GGI Marianne* moved to Europe as a newlywed, she did not think about her marriage ending. But like approximately 50% of all marriages, her marriage ended, and she found herself dealing with complex legal proceedings in a foreign country. As she explained, divorcing abroad is particularly difficult because “You only know one person, your husband.”
It can be daunting to have your relationship break down and to suddenly feel stuck far from home navigating a different culture, bureaucracy, and legal system. We talked to both legal experts and GGIs with first-hand experience to see what advice they had for women contemplating ending their international relationship.
Your Lawyer: Finding Mr (or Ms) Right
For as long as the process takes, one of the most important people in your life will be your lawyer. Finding a good lawyer is hard even under the best of circumstances. First and foremost, you must be able to communicate effectively with your lawyer. Even when a lawyer speaks your native language or if you are fluent in the local language, he or she still needs to be able to explain the proceedings and issues in a way you understand.
Lawyers are notoriously expensive, and fee calculation methods can vary from lawyer to lawyer even within the same country. For separation proceedings, a lawyer might charge on an hourly basis, or as a percentage of the value of the marital assets in dispute. A good lawyer will discuss their fees and, if her firm offers more than one way of calculating fees, will also tell you which option makes sense in your particular situation.
In some countries, you can use your partner’s lawyer. This can be a good strategy to lower your legal fees, but other GGIs stated it is usually better to have your own lawyer. Last, don’t be afraid to change lawyers if you are not satisfied with the service you are receiving. One GGI had a relatively simple divorce, and even then she went through three lawyers before finding “the one.”
Show Me the Money
If you have not been working during your stint abroad and you do not plan to move away, you should make sure you have a steady source of income and some money saved up before starting any divorce proceedings. Also, research the specifics of your bank accounts, as some GGIs warned that even when you have a joint account, your partner might be able to block access to the funds.
Before consulting a lawyer, take some time to look through old bank statements, pay stubs (yours and your partner’s), and tax returns to create a list of all the money going into and out of the household. When you finally talk to a lawyer, ask how a divorce will impact each of those items. For example, you might receive child benefits, childcare credits or vouchers, tax benefits, pension contributions and health insurance, all of which may be affected by a change in your marital status.
Broadly speaking, different countries usually take one of two approaches when it comes to division of assets: They either treat all property, even that individually owned before the marriage, as part of the marital estate, or they treat the property acquired before marriage separately from that acquired after the marriage. When discussing the value of the assets at stake, ask your lawyer about the court’s treatment of gifts and debts. For example, ask whether you are liable for your partner’s debts, or whether gifts from friends and family might be considered marital assets.
Immigration & Health Matters
Immigration rules vary widely country by country and sometimes change quickly, so our advice here is necessarily general. In short, if your residency status is tied to your marriage, you need to find out how it could change in the event of a separation. For those of you without EU citizenship living in the EU, keep in mind that long-term or indefinite residency in one European country does not mean you can move to another EU country without a visa.
Health insurance is mandatory in many countries in the EU. In the US, it may be an employee benefit from your job or your partner’s job. Ask the relevant authorities or health insurance companies about the impact of a divorce – including costs if you live in the US – on your coverage.
If your partner is moving away to another city or country, it is easier to start the separation process while you two are still in the same city. For example, if you live together in a rented flat, follow the procedure specified in your contract for moving out, and communicate with the landlord about how your deposit should be returned if your bank accounts are separate.
In cancelling utilities, such as telephone services, and for setting up mail forwarding, as well as dealing with some governmental authorities, you may both be required to sign paperwork. In such a case, a GGI in Germany recommends getting your ex’s power of attorney before moving, which will usually allow you to take care of these matters on your own.
It may also be useful to have proof that your ex has left, particularly if you live in a country, such as Germany or France, which requires individuals to notify the authorities when they move abroad.
Never do anything rash or erratic where children are concerned. Importantly, do not take your children out of the country without the proper authorisation or without having given any court-required notice, or you could be civilly and criminally liable for child kidnapping. Such actions will weaken your custody arguments for judges in most European countries and in North America.
Regardless of how your feel about your ex, most GGIs confirmed the impression of some of the legal experts we interviewed: courts and judges will always favour custody arrangements where both parents are involved in the children’s lives, so you will need to buckle down and deal with your ex at least until your children are old enough to do so on their own.
A GGI in the UK also advised getting creative when dealing with custody issues and informing the judge of differences in each country. For example, if you will be moving to a country with less holiday time than that of your ex and the judge requires your small child to be in your ex’s country for more time than you can afford, perhaps you can suggest that your ex come to your country for visitation (although you may have to pay for his tickets). As one legal expert stated, “It’s complicated with small children, but courts are open to reasonable suggestions.”
Practically speaking, if your ex is not living in the same country as you and the children and you are the main caregiver, make sure that you have a power of attorney or the required legal equivalent for making decisions related to your children, such as school enrollment, medical procedures, child benefits and childcare.
Marry Well, Divorce Better
Unless you or your children are in danger, plan your exit carefully. In the words of one Boy Gone International, “Don’t just rush into it . . . Take your time.” Think through the major issues discussed above before initiating any proceedings – indeed, before even talking to a lawyer. Also, start gathering any paperwork that you will need well ahead of time, especially if you do not have it with you. Relevant paperwork includes all financial and property statements, as well as any powers of attorneys you may need from your partner.
“This is a long and grueling process,” says a GGI in Germany, so in addition to an exit strategy, you will also need a strong support network to help you through it.
Breaking up is never easy, and it is even more complicated when you are far from home. Keeping a level head, informing yourself on the major issues, and preparing ahead of time are the best defenses in such a stressful situation. And once it is all over, you can begin preparing for your new life.
*name changed to protect confidentiality
Organizations that help foreign women in GGI cities:
www.frauenberatenfrauen.at, www.peregrina.at, www.lefoe.at