How to divorce as an expat; a beginner’s guide

Sophie Capo-Bianco, solicitor at Expatriate Law, summarises the divorce process for British expats wishing to divorce using the English courts.

Once you have made the tough decision to get divorced, it is important to note that obtaining a divorce as an expat does not have to be difficult. Provided your spouse accepts service and cooperates with the proceedings, the process usually takes between four to six months.

What is the divorce process in England?

Once the divorce petition has been issued, the next step is for your spouse to acknowledge the divorce and state whether they intend to defend / contest it. Usually your spouse would be contacted and asked to accept service of the divorce petition to keep costs to a minimum. If your spouse does not cooperate, service of the petition on your spouse in the UAE may be attempted personally by your lawyer. Your spouse would be asked to complete short acknowledgment form and return it to the court in England. Once the petition has been acknowledged, you can then apply for the first part of the divorce known as the Decree Nisi. As soon as the Decree Nisi has been pronounced you must wait for 6 weeks and a day before you can apply for the Decree Absolute. Once you are granted the Decree Absolute, you are then officially divorced.

Do I need to attend court for my divorce?

A common question asked by many of our clients in Dubai is whether they need to fly back to England to attend a court hearing regarding their divorce. In short, the answer is no, provided that the divorce petition is not defended by one of the parties. If your spouse does contest / defend the divorce it is usually possible for the proceedings to be compromised meaning that following negotiations, you and your spouse agree the contents of the petition that you are both happy will proceed. In the event you cannot reach an agreement with your spouse (for example because jurisdiction (the place for the divorce) is disputed, then you may both need to attend court for the purposes of a hearing. Following evidence and legal argument, the Judge will decide if the divorce can proceed. Defended divorces (other than for a jurisdiction dispute) are rare due to the legal fees involved, and the delay caused to the divorce.  If a petition is not defended then obtaining a divorce is a paper based exercise which a Judge will deal with without the attendance of either party.

How do we decide how on a financial settlement?

When dealing with your divorce, it is also important to consider the matrimonial finances and how they should be split. Ideally, the aim is to try and reach a financial settlement with your spouse outside court. Unfortunately it is not always possible to achieve this and you may have to issue a court application, known as financial remedy proceedings, to resolve this.

If you issue financial remedy proceedings in England, you need to attend the court hearings and in particular the second hearing known as the Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) Hearing. The FDR is key because it is the first time that the judge will consider the merits of both parties’ arguments and give an indication of what he would order if it was the Final Hearing. It is important that both parties attend the FDR to maximise the chances of reaching a settlement. The FDR allows for lengthy negotiations (conducted by your solicitor or barrister not directly between you and your spouse). It is an excellent forum for reaching a settlement and for this reason, the majority of cases conclude at this stage.

If the case is not settled at the FDR then the matter will be set down for a contested final hearing, which can last for several days depending on the complexity of the case and the nature of the assets. At the Final Hearing, you will have to give oral evidence outlining your reasons for the settlement that you are seeking.  The conduct of both parties during the marriage will not usually be considered by the Judge at a final hearing. The Judge concentrates on the available assets and income, the needs of both parties and any children and how the assets and income can be used fairly to meet those needs.

The above advice is general; please contact a lawyer at Expatriate Law for an initial consultation. During the meeting (conducted at our offices, by telephone or Skype) you will receive advice tailored to your particular situation. You will come away from the meeting with clear advice as to whether you can divorce in England, what the process involves, how arrangements for your children can be made, and the likely financial outcome.