Divorce Options for Expats in France

Moving overseas to start a new life is a dream for many couples. Spain, France and Australia are among the most popular destinations for Brits relocating abroad. However, the dream can turn into a nightmare if a marriage starts to crumble when you are far from home.

Latest statistics for England & Wales estimate that 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce. This is traumatic for anyone but when you are in a less familiar country where you may not speak the language well, anxiety levels can soar even higher.

If you are living in France, for instance, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the friendly local solicitor just down the road, the powers of the English courts and their ability to dispense swift and fair justice, will seem very far away. The thought of going to a French lawyer, what with the language problems, the strange laws and customs, may fill you with dread. But, donít panic, the solution may not be as difficult as you think.

Under EU law you can obtain a divorce in France, once you have become 'habitually resident', (which is open to interpretation by a Judge). In all cases, the parties must be represented by an Advocat and the parties themselves must appear before a Judge in the first instance. The Judge at the first hearing has a duty to try and reconcile the spouses and can summon them to attend mediation, he also has the power to regulate the use of the family home and this is all before a divorce petition can even be issued.

Having read that you probably wish that you could do it all in England instead, but you probably also think that, because you are not currently a UK resident, you cannot use the English courts if the worst comes to the worst.

The good news is that in most circumstances you can, on the basis that you are 'domiciled' in the UK. Domicile is a somewhat obscure legal concept but means, basically, that England is legally your 'home country' and that gives the English courts the jurisdiction to grant you a divorce for instance.

Not only that, but if you opt for an English divorce and everything is agreed and straight-forward:

  • Neither party has to appear in court at any stage

  • The whole case only takes around 16 weeks or so

  • The court does not need to deal with matrimonial property or finances in order to grant a divorce

  • The court does not need to finalise arrangements for the children, in order to finalise the divorce

In short, an English divorce these days is quick and inexpensive. However, there are very few firms in the UK able to deal this type of case, as much specialist knowledge is required, including such things as the EU Council Regulations on Divorce, and some other 'gems' from Brussels, especially, 'Brussels II' and the very recent 'Brussels IIa' all dealing with 'Euro' aspects of cross-border divorce procedure, recognition of court orders between member states, and other things that you do not need to worry about once you have found a specialist in this type of work. Some of the firms that do this highly specialised type of work will give you a fixed-fee quote for the case, so you know exactly what it is going to cost, and won't get any nasty surprises at the end of the case!

Finally, a word about matrimonial assets. You may be wondering, given the 'bullet' points above, how the matrimonial assets would be dealt with by an English court? Firstly, the divorce courts do not deal with any of the matrimonial assets during the divorce case itself, and will not do so until after Decree Nisi has been pronounced and even then only when the parties cannot reach agreement. Any financial or property disputes are then dealt with as an entirely separate case (called a financial remedy case) but only if one party makes an application to the court.

Financial Remedy applications should be avoided if at all possible, as they can take several months to their conclusion, the parties have to attend at least two court hearings, and they
can be very expensive. By the time the average party has paid the court fees, solicitor's fees, barrister's fees, property valuers fees, actuary's fees, forensic accountant's fees and more (all plus vat) he or she will need to have a very understanding bank manager. So, most divorce solicitors will strongly advise you to agree, agree, agree even if it means a compromise.

Once agreement has been reached, the court will issue what is known as a Final Order by Consent without the need for any court hearings. Your lawyer can give you advice and guidance on what constitutes a fair settlement to help you negotiate an agreement with your spouse.

This article was written by Susan Harwood, a specialist divorce and family lawyer with Woolly & Co, Solicitors, who deals with divorce and family law matters for English ex-pats all over the world. Susan will provide a half hour free telephone appointment to all ex-pats living in France, via telephone, Skype or email: susan.harwood@family-lawfirm.co.uk