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Foreign marriage disputes increase

Updated: 2014-08-30 08:04
By Cao Yin (China Daily)

Courts are facing an increasing number of family dispute cases involving non-Chinese partners, and an awareness of foreign laws is becoming essential for Chinese residents marrying foreigners.

With rapid economic development, more Chinese have married foreigners and, as a result, disputes over money and children have risen, the Supreme People's Court said.

Courts handled 5,272 family cases involving foreigners in 2013, a 26 percent year-on-year increase, the court said.

The cases mainly concerned divorce, property rights and the upbringing of and access to children, the court said.

A basic awareness of foreign laws - especially those concerning a spouse's nationality - as well as potential cultural differences, would be of immense benefit, said Zhang Yongjian, chief judge of the civil department under the top court.

"After all, we have different cultures and legal systems from other countries," Zhang said, suggesting that pre-nuptial agreements or understandings over certain issues should be reached before the wedding day.

Han Mei, a judge in the department, said that in many Western countries, including the United States and Britain, the partner who is not granted custody of the children after a divorce is no longer the legal guardian, which is different from the situation in China.

"We often handle cases where divorced Chinese mothers who don't get custody of their children have brought the children back to China, but this isn't allowed or legal if their divorce is recognized in Western countries," Han said. "Foreign fathers can appeal to the courts, claiming that the mother abducted the children."

A basic understanding of the marital laws in force in a foreign spouse's country is essential, she said.

Liu Li, a judge at Beijing Chaoyang District People's Court, confirmed that the number of family disputes involving foreigners has risen, along with the value of property and assets in contention.

In a recent case, a Canadian man and Chinese woman appeared before the court contesting 5 billion yuan ($811 million) in assets, including property and stocks, Liu said.

In financial terms, it is the largest dispute handled by the court.

"Divorce cases involving foreigners are challenging for courts because many countries are not bound by Chinese law or verdicts," she said, adding that this can lead to delays in finalizing a divorce.

In one high-profile case, Li Yang, known for the Crazy English language-learning method, and his ex-wife Kim Lee, from the United States, took more than two years to break up and are still involved in sorting out property, she said.

"There is a problem in sending judicial documents to foreign litigants who are not in China or cannot provide accurate home addresses.

"Foreign divorce disputes may take a court half a year or even more to conclude, far longer than cases between two Chinese people," Liu said.

Cultural differences also play a role, she said, citing a case involving a Chinese woman and a man from the Middle East.

"The couple had a good relationship before they had a baby. The man's mother had different opinions from the Chinese mother on bringing up the child. Tension escalated and finally affected the marriage," Liu said.

Zhang Weibo, a lawyer specializing in foreign marriage cases, said some people do not live with their foreign partners after getting married, or there might be an age gap, which can lead to incompatibility.

Zhang handled a case involving a 68-year-old German, who was CEO of a small company. He divorced his younger Chinese wife because he could not get along with her friends.

But the woman was not given any property after they broke up, "as the German had drawn up a contract that stated he would not lose property if the marriage failed and Chinese courts found in his favor".

Zhang suggested pre-nuptial agreements as a way to protect both parties.

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