Expat Divorce in England – Forum Shopping

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Expats and Divorce

A lot of British people live abroad, for example because they are married to a foreign spouse or to work in another country. Popular places for British expats are Hong Kong, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the remaining United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and other African countries, the USA, China and of course Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. In Europe there are large numbers of British expatriates in Spain, Greece, Italy and Turkey. Other British people live in British Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, and the Turks and Caicos Islands as well as in the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Many British people live in Germany, whether through the army or RAF or for other reasons.

In some of those countries where expats live divorce is not possible, or difficult or there is no or inadequate provision for maintenance. Sometimes the assets are in the UK, such as a house (which may be rented out) and pensions, which the foreign court may not be able to deal with even if it wanted to, for example in France.

Unless there is a full agreement about the financial arrangements, it may be that the outcomes of a financial court dispute may be very different in the country where you live and in England and Wales. Therefore you should get detailed advice from a specialist in international family law both in the country where you live as well as in England and Wales before you decide where to start a divorce as a British expat. It is important that you act fast because in some cases if your spouse decides to start a divorce, you are stuck with the courts in that country. We cannot advise on Scots or Northern Irish law and if your only connection to the UK is with Scotland or Northern Ireland, you will need to seek advice from a specialist in the respective jurisdiction.

Can I start a divorce in England and Wales as an expatriate?

Jurisdiction for divorce (the power of the court to hear a case) on divorce is governed by EU law (“Brussels II”). So whether you can divorce in England or Wales depends if any of the ground for jurisdiction apply to you. If both of you live abroad, you are probably “habitually resident” there. If you are only abroad for a very short period of time, you may not actually live there (say a 3 month work placement or an extended holiday), but if you have moved abroad even if you have strong connections to England, you are probably habitually resident where you live. If you are travelling around the world, you may not be habitually resident anywhere or anywhere outside England (for example if you are working on a ship). It is a question of fact. Most grounds for jurisdiction rely on one or both of you being habitually resident in England or Wales, so if you are not, you cannot use any of those.

If you are both English or Welsh, you may be “domiciled” in England or Wales and you could then start a divorce based on the ground for jurisdiction of joint domicile. Domicile is not the same as “residence” or “Domizil” in Germany or “domicile” in France (which signifies where you live), but relates to the country with which you are most closely connected. This is something you either inherit from your father or mother or acquire by choice. The concept is complex and you will need to discuss this with a specialist in international family law in England or Wales. We may need to ask you a variety of questions about your and your family’s history (and that of your spouse).

What is more, in other countries which also have a concept of domicile (for example Scotland or the US) the concept is ever so slightly different in each country. So get advice from an English lawyer.

If you are a same-sex couple and in a civil partnership or married and you registered your civil partnership in England or Wales or married here, you may even be able to start a civil partnership dissolution or a divorce here even if you have no other connecting factor with England or Wales. This is because so many countries do not have equal marriage or any partnership law for same-sex couples and you could then never dissolve your marriage or civil partnership. If this applies to you, contact us and we can check out whether this is an option for you.

What if I move back to England?

If you move back to England and Wales, you have to live here for either 6 months (if you are domiciled here) or a year before you can start a divorce based on habitual residence. So again, have your domicile situation checked out. Even if you have lived abroad for a long time but come back to England or Wales for good, you may automatically revert to your English or Welsh domicile of origin, so you only have to wait 6 months. You should in that case make sure your solicitor is ready to start the divorce on the day the 6 months have run up if you want to secure England as the forum for your divorce.

If your husband or wife has moved back to the UK and you are left behind abroad – even if they let you think that the marriage is still fine – be aware that they may just be waiting for the time to be up for them to start the divorce here. Unfortunately, we have come across this before. If it happens to you, your spouse will be the one in the driving seat.

What is “forum shopping”?

Forum shopping is a term, often used pejoratively, for what someone does when they compare in which country they would do better with their divorce or financial court order. There is nothing wrong with this because if you do not check out which country is best for you, the chances are your husband or wife will do it and get there first. So get advice as soon as you can and make sure your lawyer can act on it.

Is it always a question on who starts the divorce first?

It can be! Within the EU (except Denmark), in whichever Member State a divorce is started first, those courts decide on whether they have jurisdiction to hear it under EU law and if so, the divorce stays there. If no other EU country is concerned, you may have a chance to argue before the English court that England is the right country for your divorce even if your spouse started a divorce elsewhere first.

Conversely, even if you start a divorce in England first, in a non-European case your spouse can (under current case law) argue in the English courts that the other country is the right place for the divorce and the English courts may then not deal with your divorce, but stay the case in favour of the other country. This is called the doctrine of “forum conveniens”.

Which law will be used by the courts?

English courts always use English law on divorce and for the financial settlement. The courts in other countries may use their own law or English law (say, because you are both English) or some other law (say, because when you married you first lived in another country). Some countries, such as Germany, provide for different law to be used for different aspects each, such as the divorce, spouse maintenance, child maintenance, pensions and the division of the assets.

In the EU there are rules on some of these issues, but not on others. As for the law on divorce, only some EU countries decided on having an EU law apply to them. It is therefore important that you get advice form someone in the country where you live who is an expert on international family law and can advise you on applicable law before you can then ask what the likely outcome would be.

You should also consider that even if a foreign court was to apply English law, they may not be very good at it. Some countries have similar laws, or their law comes from the same historical development, such as France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, who all derive their family law from the Code Napoléon. However, English law is based on case law and reported precedents and not just the Acts of Parliament. It is therefore likely that a foreign court will decide a case on English law very differently to what an English court would do.

How will the English court decide on the financial settlement?

In England the courts have a discretion about what to do and will look at all the circumstances of the case before deciding on a fair financial outcome. In particular they will look at all financial aspects together, such as maintenance, pensions, assets and income and not deal with it piecemeal as a lot of other countries do. This could be an advantage or disadvantage to you. More details of how the English courts approach financial applications are in our section on finances.

Can an English financial order be enforced abroad?

This is an important issue to consider before you decide where to start a divorce. If you both live abroad and the only asset is a house there, it may be very difficult to enforce an English court order for the house to be sold.

First consider where the assets are. If a main asset is a UK pension and you are close to retirement age, you need to consider that the foreign court will not be able to make an enforceable order to share the pension. So that may indicate that you want to start your divorce in England. If you are renting out your UK house while you live abroad, an English court order for a transfer or sale of that property would be enforceable, while a foreign one may not be.

If the assets are divided between countries, the English court can offset them against each other.

  • So it could, for example, give you the house in England (to sell, trade down and free capital to invest and live on, say) because it would be very difficult to enforce a maintenance order against your spouse where they live.
  • In a different case, where there is a house abroad and a pension in the UK, the English court may give you the whole pension because an order to sell the house would be difficult to enforce.
  • In another case where there are assets in the UK and a pension abroad (or your spouse has a pension from an international organisation, such as an EU pension, a European Patent Agency pension or a UN pension), the English court could decide to give you assets worth the same as your spouses pensions to off-set for the fact that the pensions cannot be shared.

In other countries the courts may not be able to look at these aspects together and will just divide the assets and then throw their hands up when it comes to a foreign or international pension.

Maintenance is usually easier to enforce, although this depends on each individual combination of countries. There are a wide variety of international treaties and conventions on the recognition and enforcement of maintenance orders and an expert lawyer will need to check for you which applies to you. It is easier within the EU. However, in practice it can take years before you get any money into your account and in the end it depends on the courts in the other country on whether they will take action and how they will pursue the non-payer of maintenance.

What if it is too late and my husband or wife has started a divorce in the country where they live?

It may not be too late after all. English law has a provision which allows you to come to the English courts for financial provision after a divorce abroad. You have to get permission from the court first and the procedure is complicated. In some cases it may be obvious that the foreign court has left something out (say a pension or a house in England), in others it will be difficult to show that the provision you got from the other court was inadequate and not just a little different.

You will need to consider the case carefully with an expert in international family law. In any event, it is better if you do not let it come to this and have the divorce in the country best suited to you in the first place.

How can I instruct a solicitor in England if I live abroad?

We have many clients who live abroad and some who we have never met. Ideally, if possible, it would be good to meet physically for a first meeting. If you live in Europe and can get an affordable return flight for a day mid-week, for example, or you will be travelling through London shortly, we can arrange a meeting around that. If it is not possible to meet at all, Skype is a good way to have a first meeting instead. We may exceptionally be able to meet you abroad, but would need to charge for travel time, which may be prohibitively expensive. If all else fails, a telephone conversation may have to do. We would arrange a day and time in the same way as for a meeting at our office.

The one thing we cannot do over the telephone or by Skype is to check your ID and proof of address. You will need to find a local lawyer to do that for us and details about this can be found on our page on Instructions.

We would also ask you to pay money on account of costs before the meeting, telephone or Skype call and we can discuss that depending on your case when you get in touch to arrange it. We take debit and credit cards.

After the first meeting, we can probably deal with everything via email, which the vast majority of our clients, whether they live in London, elsewhere in England or abroad, prefer anyway.

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6 May 2016 by Andrea Woelke