Considerations in International Divorce

International Divorce can refer to any situation in which the family has a significant relationship with more than one country. Obviously, this definition is broad, and might apply to a wide variety of cases. It could be that the couple has different citizenships from one another (or from their children), or that one or both have different citizenships from the place they live, or even that one of the spouses has dual citizenship. It could be that the spouses live in different countries, or have assets located in more than one country, or plan to move or return to another country, or just moved from another country. It could even be any combination of these situations.

Any time more than one country is involved with the family, divorce laws can get even more complicated than usual. This is also true where other family law issues arise in an international context, such as preparation of a prenuptial agreement, or child custody, child relocation, or child support. Even post-divorce issues, such as modification or enforcement of a court order, get complicated across borders.

Some people are surprised to learn that filing for divorce in the United States is not as simple as they anticipated, especially if they have been living outside the country or come from another country. Others living in the U.S. may need to protect their rights upon discovering that a non-citizen spouse could return to their home country and be eligible to file for divorce there.

Whatever the precise circumstances, international divorce matters require sensitivity to cultural and language differences and an understanding of the practices and protocols of foreign courts, along with knowledge of applicable divorce law.

Clients frequently seek the help of Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield because of our extensive experience in international divorce and other international family law issues. We are recognized for our ability to untangle—or cut through—the red tape involved in these cases, and to strategize effectively through the maze of complexity. We have spent years building relationships with top family law attorneys in other countries and gaining experience working with them to solve problems for our clients.

Complex Issues in an International Divorce

Almost every international family law matter has at least two legal questions from the start: what court can make the decisions (known as “jurisdiction”) and which country’s law will govern the decisions (known as “choice of law”). One of the first hurdles to clear in an international divorce matter is that of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction here refers to the power or authority or a court to hear and decide a certain case, or specific issues within a case. Frequently in the international situation more than one court might have jurisdiction over some or all of the decisions that have to be made in a case. And at times, the court in one country can only decide some of the issues in a divorce, and has no jurisdiction to decide the others.

Some of the situations in which jurisdiction may be an issue include:

  • American spouses residing outside of the United States
  • Non-citizen spouses residing in the United States
  • A non-citizen spouse outside of the United States who has an American spouse living in the United States (or even vice versa!)
  • One spouse is an American with dual citizenship
  • One spouse is an American who is living abroad and married to a foreign national

The question of which court has jurisdiction can have a profound impact on both the proceedings and the outcome in a divorce case. Where two (or more) countries have jurisdiction, filing for divorce may become a race to the courthouse—or in some cases to the final decision. Sometimes, a divorce will be decided in the court in which the proceedings were first initiated. Other times the divorce case might proceed in two countries at the same time, and will be decided in the court that rules first. And in still others, even where a court has jurisdiction, it might decide that the court in a different country is better suited to decide the case. If one spouse might be able to file for divorce outside the United States, it can be critical to act swiftly and get good advice on a strategy that addresses all the possible options.

Equally important is knowing which country’s law the court will use in hearing the case, and related to that, which country’s law is better for the client. For instance, the laws of marital property division, or alimony, or child custody may be very different in a foreign country than in the United States. And just to make it more complicated, the “choice of law” rules of the country that hears a divorce might require its judges to apply the law of a foreign country in some situations.

Yet another complicating aspect of international divorce law is the large number of treaties and conventions that might apply. Some of these are near universal, while others affect only a few countries. An example of a broad treaty is the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Even this convention, though widely in force, does not bind all the countries in the world. Some treaties cover broad topics, while others are more focused. An example of a focused treaty is the 1961 Hague Convention that addresses only the authentication of foreign public documents. Knowing what countries are covered by what treaties, and even subtleties in the law of treaties, can be critical to an international family law case. And even purely domestic laws, such as tax treatment of non-residents or immigration laws, can have a big consequence in the family law setting.

Essential Partners in an International Divorce

A divorce can do more than simply terminate a marriage: it divides property, determines the parties’ rights to alimony and child support, and establishes custody of the parties’ minor children. The laws governing these issues vary from country to country and case to case. These laws often are specialized and complex. Our family law team has extensive experience with international divorce matters, including those involving litigation in two countries. Clients appreciate our grasp of the complex issues involved in these cases and our ability to clearly identify, analyze, and explain potential issues, options, and likely outcomes.

The attorneys of Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield have decades of experience serving clients in the internationally diverse Metropolitan Washington D.C. region, including working with legal counsel in other countries to achieve resolution. In addition to representing divorcing parties, we also offer consultation and expert witness services to other attorneys grappling with the complexity of international divorce matters.

Given the possible jurisdictional and choice of law issues in an international divorce matter, the earlier in the process our attorneys become involved, the more likely they will be able to deliver a favorable and cost-effective result in the case. We invite you to contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation to discuss your individual situation and learn how we can help you with your international divorce concerns.