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Separation for international couples: ending the headache - 21/03/2011

A man and a woman with their backs to each other © iStock

New European rules on property rights will simplify legal aspects of separation, divorce and death for couples with different nationalities and couples living in different countries.

More and more Europeans have a spouse or partner of a different nationality. Even if both partners are of the same nationality, many couples now live abroad — sometimes in two different countries. International couples like this accounted for 13% of EU marriages in 2007.

In the event of divorce, separation or the death of one partner, it can be a legal nightmare to divide up property which may be located in several countries. Which laws apply? Laws in the country of residence? Or in the country of origin? Or the law where the property is situated? And which courts deal with which cases? The complex procedures cost €1.15bn every year.

New rules proposed by the Commission will clarify the situation, reduce costs and prevent one person from taking advantage of the laws in one country to put their partner at an unfair disadvantage.

The rules concern married couples and registered partnerships , which exist in 13 EU countries. In 2007, almost 41 000 partnerships registered in the EU were between international couples.

Divorcing couples will soon be able to choose which country's laws apply to the division of property, and which country's courts deal with the case. If they disagree, the decision will be made on the basis of criteria determining which country the couple has closest links with. When a registered partnership is dissolved, the laws that apply will be those of the country where the partnership was registered. The couple can decide which courts have jurisdiction. Here too, a set of criteria will allow a choice to be made if the partners cannot agree.

Last year, the EU adopted legislation allowing international couples to choose which country's laws should apply to their divorce proceedings (not including property issues). Fourteen EU countries approved the text. 

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