International Divorce: The Complete Guide for United States Expats

Perhaps you met the love of your life in another country during a summer abroad. Maybe your spouse was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to work in a dreamy European country instead of the dreary city you currently call home. No matter what the reason, many expats find their marriage traveling beyond the borders of their home country.

At first, it can seem like a whirlwind romance with fairytale surroundings, but things can quickly change. What happens when the romance of an international move wears off, and the marriage begins to dissolve?

An international divorce is fraught with complications that many couples initially underestimate. The international laws regarding divorce can vary wildly based on your home country and your country of residence. You will ultimately be held accountable to both sets of laws, which is where things can become increasingly complex for your legal counsel.

It will require the help of a highly skilled and experienced international divorce attorney to untangle the legal complications that can ensue with one of these complicated splits.

International divorce provides unique complications

Getting divorced in the United States is already complicated. However, when you are facing an international divorce, the complexity substantially increases.

If you are a US citizen getting divorced abroad, you will be facing at least two sets of laws:
1.  The laws in the country in which you are getting divorced
2.  The laws in the US

You may have international custody issues, and you may have trouble tracking down hidden assets. The whole process is much more difficult.

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Choosing the Right Country to File For Divorce

Most couples who live abroad are eligible to file for divorce in more than one country. Their home country may be able to maintain jurisdiction, but the country they live and keep residence in may also qualify. Couples will have to choose where to file, but they need to consider all of the smaller details before haphazardly making a final decision.

Other countries will have different laws regarding divorce, so you will need to investigate the specifics of local, state, and country laws regarding divorce to determine which area offers the most favorable terms for you. You may have to consider inevitable trade-offs between the two countries who could claim jurisdiction. For example, one may provide better child support, but the other could give you a more significant share of the marital assets.

Many individuals and couples could be surprised to learn that some countries will not honor documents created in the United States, including prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements. England is one such country that disregards these crucial documents during an international divorce. This simple change could have substantial consequences if you were aiming to protect assets acquired before your marriage.

You may immediately lose half of everything you earned up to the point of your marital union. This can eliminate a huge nest egg that you needed to use to start your single life over again.

On the other hand, this law could be beneficial for the spouse who would receive some of those assets. If you are not the spouse who earned those assets, you may obtain a higher financial settlement by filing for divorce in a country that does not honor those agreements.

The discovery laws will vary across borders as well, with some countries requiring full disclosure and other demanding very little. Individuals who believe their spouse may be hiding assets will want to investigate these laws closely. Some countries, including many in Europe, ask spouses to present their assets to each other and the court. You will have to trust that your spouse is completely honest in this scenario, as there is no discovery process that allows you to find your spouse’s hidden assets.

You should look for a country that offers the most protection under discovery laws and requires real or full disclosure with a penalty for non-compliance. This decision can help you to avoid being shortchanged in a settlement and jeopardizing your entire financial future.

You will also need to consider whether the divorce decree and settlement order issued at the time of finalization will be honored or enforced in your home country. Particularly if you plan to transition back to this place at the end of the divorce, you need to know that the agreements can be upheld long-term.

Choosing an International Divorce Lawyer

When it comes to international divorce, you will need more than one attorney. In a “simple” international divorce, you will need an international divorce lawyer based in the local country (or countries) in which you are getting divorced. Also, you will need a US-based lawyer to handle any issues related to American issues you may be facing.

For example, say you are living in Spain with your spouse—who is a native of Spain, but has assets in New York. Then your spouse wants a divorce.

You will need a Spanish lawyer to handle the Spain-related elements of the case, as well as a New York attorney to handle the issues there. Preferably, you will have an international divorce lawyer in New York, who has experience handling cross-border divorce cases.

Here is where the complexity arises: You will be operating under the Spanish divorce process during many of the issues in your divorce. At the same time, you may also have to determine if decisions you make in Spain affect issues you deal with in the US.

Why Choose International Divorce?

With such an extensive list of potential issues that could arise from an international divorce, why would someone intentionally choose to endure these unique challenges? If you do not already live abroad, this type of divorce is typically used to benefit the spouse who initially files. Known as an ex parte divorce, many individuals will opt to live abroad, due to the more favorable policies. Specific laws vary, depending on the country.

One of the main reasons to select an international divorce is to speed up the process from start to finish. Some countries require just one spouse to be present for the hearings, and they can issue a divorce decree within the span of a few days. Couples who cannot wait another moment to start their newly single lives often love the speed that an international divorce can potentially offer.

Another country may also be able to grant more favorable judgments, regarding alimony, child support, or custody arrangements. Be warned that the United States is not obligated to honor or recognize international divorces that are not properly completed. You may have to prove that pursuing an international divorce was not intended to cause harm to your spouse—financially, emotionally, or relationally. Prior to making this move, you will want to consult with a US divorce attorney.

In many cases, you may be required to follow certain steps, in order to have your divorce acknowledged back in the United States. For example, you may be required to actually establish residency in the country of your choosing, instead of simply taking an extended vacation. You will also be required to prove that your spouse had enough notice of the hearing in advance, in order to ensure that they had an opportunity to speak on their own behalf.

Before you head back to the states, you need to ensure that you receive copies of your foreign divorce decree and translated versions, if applicable.

Can You Serve a Spouse Who Lives in Another Country?

Whether you are stateside or abroad, one of the primary requirements when filing for divorce is to personally serve your spouse with the divorce papers and notices of the impending hearings. When you and your spouse reside in different countries, it can present a terrible challenge for the spouse who files. Therefore, you must properly serve your spouse with the papers, in order to ensure that the split will be recognized by the United States in the future.

During an amicable divorce, your spouse may opt to waive their rights to being served. Mailing or faxing any notices would be acceptable under these circumstances. However, you need to ensure that the waiver is signed and filed with the court system, in order to protect yourself and your spouse. Therefore, it may be best to allow your international divorce attorney to handle this document.

Alternatively, you could hire a foreign process server. These professionals can deliver the documents to your spouse. However, hiring this type of server may be extremely challenging and expensive. Depending on the country, you may run into difficulty with the language barrier. In addition, you will need the exact address of your spouse, in order to tell the foreign process server where to find them.

Is your spouse a little more secretive? If you cannot locate your spouse in another country, you may be able to ask for the court’s permission, in order to publish the notice in a local newspaper. Once permission is granted, you will only need to know the general area where they reside, instead of a specific address.

Note that you are going to have to know where your spouse lives, in order to obtain an international divorce.

Hidden Assets Are More Common

When facing divorce in multiple jurisdictions, it is easier for a spouse to hide or obfuscate assets. For example, when in Europe, hiding assets in another country is no more difficult than taking a 1-2 hour flight. South America and Asia pose their own unique challenges. In any country that you suspect may house hidden assets, you will need international divorce lawyers and investigators with local knowledge.

To uncover hidden assets, you will need to take a careful look at all financial documents signed during the course of your marriage. A divorce attorney can request these records, or have your spouse court-ordered to deliver them if they refuse to comply. You should aim to collect any documentation that is pertinent to identifying their real income level, including tax returns, bank statements, mortgage documents, investment information, and loan applications.

At the very least, make sure to get a copy of credit card statements and bank statements, particularly if your spouse makes it a point to hide them from you. If they have these items mailed to another address to prevent them from falling into your hands, it is a pretty safe bet that they have something to hide.

When scanning these documents for information, you should search for any income that might be unaccounted for—as well as large purchases that do not make sense, based on your marital belongings.

Has your spouse sent large amounts of money to friends or family members? Perhaps you uncover a safety deposit box in someone else’s name. Involving a third party and hiding large assets during a divorce are common tricks employed by crafty spouses. The other party may not even be aware that they are involved in this ruse.

Be wary of a spouse who consistently pays for all things in cash, including their own business. This not-so-subtle method obscures exactly where those funds are going.

Consider how often your spouse travels outside the country. What specific areas do they typically reside in? If they tend to frequent the same spots over and over again, it could be a red flag that these areas house hidden assets, which need your spouse’s attention. If you hire a forensic accountant who is well-versed in international divorce, all of this information may be potentially required to help you track down these assets.

Get Financial Help

Under normal circumstances, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) can be helpful for structuring the most financially advantageous settlement. When dealing with assets listed across the world, a CDFA with international experience is a must. Simple items (such as understanding currency transactions and the valuation of assets) and other unique elements (such asdealing with cross-border real estate and investments) add unique complications to the process.

Furthermore, you will need to make sure you have a local accountant, who can help negotiate and approximate any potential tax consequences of financial decisions you make. With international and local tax rules, there are plenty of complexities. If you are not careful, you could be paying the price further down the line.

A forensic accountant can be a significant team member, if you truly believe that your spouse has hidden assets. Without uncovering the details, you may be missing out on many things that you are entitled to during the settlement or litigation.

Tracking down hidden assets on your own can be a costly, time-consuming, and potentially fruitless endeavor. Without hiring a forensic accountant, you may be forgoing your right to a share significant assets.

Consult All Attorneys before Signing a Divorce Settlement

Here is one of the biggest challenges when negotiating an international divorce: The issues you agree upon in one country do not necessarily have legal standing in the US. In addition, issues decided in the US do not necessarily have legal standing outside our borders.

Therefore, you can end up in this position: You think you have resolved a key element in your divorce, only to find out that what you agreed to does not apply in the other country.

Before you sign settlement agreements or other issues, be sure to consult with your entire team and determine the most important issues.

How much does international divorce cost?

There is no question that an international divorce is bound to be even more expensive than a typical domestic split. More complicated legal and financial issues are at stake, and you will need more assistance crafting a favorable settlement. Most couples will have to hire an entire team of professionals to help untangle their financial needs, such as:

1. An international divorce lawyer
2. A US-based divorce lawyer
4. An international accountant
5. A local accountant
6. Other support

An average divorce attorney abroad can cost roughly 2,000 euros including your court fees. To determine the real cost, you will have to be extremely familiar with the currency exchange rates at any given time. This cost does not cover your United States-based attorney.

A domestic attorney will also have to join your team of professionals to ensure that your divorce and subsequent agreements will hold up stateside. You may need to consult them on issues regarding marital assets located in the United States such as real estate, stock market investments, and retirement savings accounts.

If you and your spouse cannot agree on where to file and which court has jurisdiction over the divorce, you could rack up tons of lawyer’s fees. After all, this means that you will need one international lawyer and one domestic lawyer for each spouse. By the end of the divorce, you could quickly tally your costs into the six-digits.

An agreeable and amicable split may have significant cost savings comparatively. International divorces that have few assets to divide and fewer arguments may cost as little as $2,500 to $5,000 total. Do not forget that you will need to add travel expenses if you plan to file in an area where you do not reside. Plane tickets, hotel accommodations, and meal expenses can all add up quickly in addition to your attorney’s fees.

Conclusion: Get Help

International divorce can be extremely costly, but it is imperative to have it done correctly to ensure your documents will be upheld across the globe. A wise investment with a team of professionals now can help to create a firmer and brighter financial future for you moving forward.

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