What do I mean by "expat divorce"?
A possible definition might be a relationship breakdown where one or both spouses were originally from the UK, but are now (or were until recently) living and working abroad, or have retired outwith the UK. This is an area in which we have considerable experience at Morton Fraser, having acted for spouses based all over the world, from Australia to the UAE.
There are various unique aspects to expat divorces, from an emotional, practical and legal point of view. This blog deals with the first two points, leaving the legal complexities for the next instalment.
Some of our clients have found that moving abroad has placed such a stress of their relationship that it results in a breakdown. When you think about it, that's perhaps not surprising.
Moving to a different country can mean moving away from family and friends - in fact, away from everything that's familiar. It may mean living in a very different environment, with all of the culture shock which this can bring.
Some people thrive on the novelty and challenge this brings - but others don't. This is particularly common when one spouse is benefitting from the move more than the other. Although the couple may have made a joint decision, most often it is to further the career of one of the partners. That working partner may find they are satisfied and fulfilled with their new assignment and very happy with the general expat lifestyle. The other spouse, who is sometimes unable to work due to visa restrictions, may find it more difficult to settle abroad and so become lonely and isolated, feeling the loss of family support acutely.
Of course, the converse is also possible - the non-working spouse finds they love the relaxed and wealthy expat lifestyle, while the employed spouse finds that work expectations in this new culture involve longer hours and increased stress.
Relationship breakdowns which occur after a lengthy period based abroad bring their own emotional challenges. A non-working expat may not have lived in the UK for many years, and may have come to regard the expat lifestyle as part of their identity. However, if that person's social circle abroad is based on the other spouse's work and colleagues, a separation can have a huge impact. There's a difficult decision to make - stay abroad, in a country where friends and networks have been built up over many years, or return to a now-unfamiliar UK?
There are a number of practical issues involved in separation abroad. To mention just a few:
- Will a separation or a subsequent divorce impact upon your ability to remain in the country? Depending upon the particular country and circumstances, a separation may trigger a change in visa status. Do you need to apply for a new visa? Are you able to do so?
- Similarly, will separation or divorce affect your ability to remain in employment in the country?
- If you are in a new relationship, could that cause difficulties with the civil or criminal law in your place of residence? For example, in some countries governed by Islamic law, adultery (a sexual relationship with someone who is not your spouse) can result in imprisonment or other criminal sanctions.
- If the children's school fees are paid by your spouse's employer, will that payment continue after the divorce?
- Who can you turn to for support and advice? You may be unfamiliar with the legal system, or even the language of the country. There are various expat forums that may help, but in my view, there is no substitute for taking good quality legal advice, so that you can make fully informed choices.
It can also be very helpful if your UK lawyer can liaise with a local lawyer - at Morton Fraser, we have dealings with specialist family lawyers throughout the world, through our membership of both Interlaw, and the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
For legal pointers on financial matters, watch out for the next blog instalment…