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More legal certainty for cross-border marriages - 24/03/2010

Man with arm over woman’s shoulder, walking in a crowd © EU

New rules in 10 EU countries would let international couples choose which country’s law applies to their divorces.

About 1 million couples file for divorce in the EU every year. But it isn’t always clear which country’s laws will apply to a divorce case – if, for example, the partners are from different countries. Or if they are from the same country but live abroad or if they are living apart in different countries. It can get very complicated.

Altogether ‘international couples’ account for 13% of divorces in the EU – the same share as for marriages. For these couples, the painful and messy business of dissolving a marriage is often aggravated by differences in national divorce laws – hardly surprising in a 27-nation bloc with diverse cultures and histories.

The new rules – to apply in 10 EU countries only - would allow international couples to choose which law applies to their divorce so they can avoid unfamiliar legal systems that are hard for them to understand.

Many EU countries already allow international couples to get divorced according to the laws of another country. The problem is that different countries have different rules for deciding which law applies. The uncertainty often leads to drawn-out and costly divorce proceedings, prolonging the ordeal for adults and children alike.

The new rules would also clarify which law applies in cases where the couple cannot agree on a legal system. The aim is to prevent spouses from taking advantage of the laws in one country to put their partner at an unfair disadvantage in divorce proceedings.

Similar EU proposals were put forward once before, in 2006, but they failed to win the unanimous support of all EU governments. Now 10 countries are going ahead alone, in the first use of the enhanced cooperation procedure.

Introduced in 1999, the procedure allows a large group of countries to adopt laws that apply only to itself – not the entire EU. Viviane Reding, commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, is introducing the legislation on behalf of Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.

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