When the word divorce was being voiced during rows with her husband, Rebecca Fletcher knew the cracks in her marriage could no longer be smoothed over.
That was in January 2014 – four years after she had married her architect husband at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi. The pair agreed to make the separation as harmonious as possible for the sake of their four-year-old daughter. “When I realised we’d have to split, I had no idea where to go or what to do. It was a scary time”, says Ms Fletcher, 38, whose name has been changed.
When considering a permanent split, a couple must separate their finances as well as their everyday lives.
Andrew Prince is a financial planner for deVere Acuma financial consultancy in Dubai, and someone who has also gone through the process himself.
“All’s fair in love and war, and if one party thinks they can get away with something, invariably they’ll try,” he says. “Therefore it’s wise to know from the outset where all the family’s money is held, so when financial details are disclosed later down the line you know you’re not being short-changed.”
Ms Fletcher’s first step was a visit to a British lawyer in Dubai.
“I was advised that from a woman’s perspective, in terms of settling the finances I would be better off going through the British courts. My lawyer arranged to have all the papers delivered to me here in Abu Dhabi to be signed off, so I didn’t ever have to touch down in the UK.”
Many UAE expatriate wives are under their husband’s sponsorship and can be dependent on the marriage and their spouse’s job to stay here. However, Sonny Patel, a lawyer at Expatriate Law, says women can stay independently of their ex if they work or set up a freezone company.
Ms Fletcher and her daughter had their own visas through her parents’ Abu Dhabi business, which gave her greater flexibility.
“I love my lifestyle here, and at no point did I consider moving back to the UK,” she says. “But I do appreciate that it’s harder for most expatriate women here to consider divorce as an option.”
When Rinaldo Francesca’s marriage hit rock bottom, he and his wife decided to postpone divorce proceedings until he completed his work contract this October, and they plan to return to their native Italy. This decision means his seven-year-old son and former partner can remain in the UAE on his visa.
“I had to move out of the family home,” says Mr Francesca, 57, who lives in Abu Dhabi and whose name has been changed. “It cost me Dh90,000 to rent a one-bedroom flat, which isn’t covered by my housing allowance. At least this way I see my son on the weekends, but I feel we are living in limbo,” he says.
For those who choose to proceed with divorce while in the UAE, the next stage is to settle the finances. “If you’re not working with a financial adviser, get one early on,” says Mr Prince. “With joint bank accounts it’s very easy to prove what the values are, but separate accounts can prove more difficult.”
As part of the divorce process, both parties may be required to provide financial statements listing their assets and liabilities. Importantly, this is likely to include any pension entitlement from current and previous employers. For those in senior positions, the pension pot can be significant and in some cases be worth in excess of £1 million (Dh5.7m), says Mr Prince.
“Very often, a housewife will get to keep the house until the children have flown the nest and the husband gets to keep his pension. Some lawyers are ignoring the fact that the husband might be accruing quite substantial pension benefits, which are worth much more than the value of the house.”
Mr Prince says a careful analysis is required to ascertain what the pension fund value is worth (actuarially calculated on an individual basis) and what the options are on how to share, split or account for this asset. The information can then be incorporated into the final settlement.
Another factor to consider is what happens if your ex, who is paying your rent and children’s school fees, suddenly dies. The source of much-needed financial support is then lost.
“Invariably we suggest a ‘life of another’ basis, where you arrange the coverage and the ex-spouse is the life assured,” advises Mr Prince. “This way you have peace of mind knowing that the premiums will be made on time and that in the event of death or critical illness the benefits are paid directly to you. If there are large sums of money involved, which could raise the potential for taxation issues, trusts can be used instead.”
In Ms Fletcher’s case, the family’s finances were all held in joint accounts. “We were able to sort through asset division ourselves without too much hassle, although I imagine using a financial adviser could be useful,” says the financial director.
Often, at least one of the affected parties has to find a new home. Both Ms Fletcher and her husband moved out of their four-bedroom villa, each relocating into a two-bedroom flat.
Ms Fletcher was advised midway through her divorce proceedings by her lawyer to make sure she had a financial agreement drafted up for her husband to sign, which meant he had no further access to her assets. “If I died, the assets would be given to my daughter and would have nothing to do with him.”
It took a year for the couple to get their divorce finalised, at a total cost to Ms Fletcher of about Dh10,000. “It was less expensive because we didn’t actually end up in court over any disputes. Had I been in the UK when we divorced, it would have been cheaper. But I wanted to use a lawyer here who had experience with expatriates and who understood both the UAE courts and the UK courts in the event that I had needed either.”
Ms Fletcher now has an amicable joint custody arrangement with her ex. She acknowledges that had he delved into divorce procedures in both the UK and the UAE more closely, he may have chosen to divorce in the UAE, as men can fare better financially. “But I was in charge of how it all went,” adds Ms Fletcher. “I was also the one in more of a financially stable situation. It was relatively smooth for me, as far as divorce can go.”
But even after the final divorce papers have been signed, finances that were undisclosed at the time of the divorce can still be claimed back by the other party at any time, says Mr Prince. “Expatriates in particular might have money held offshore in bank accounts that weren’t properly disclosed. “One of my clients in the UK claimed back £6m years after she divorced.”
UAE system favours divorced husbands’ property rights
Imman Ahmed, 40, a Canadian Muslim whose name has been changed, has spent the past seven years going through divorce proceedings in Abu Dhabi.
Ms Ahmed’s husband filed for divorce to end their 13-year marriage (unbeknown to her at the time) when she was pregnant with their fourth child.
“My husband had another partner and I refused to terminate our baby, which aggrieved him. I was disappointed that his Sharia rights were given to him to get a divorce in 30 minutes, but no provisions were put in place for child maintenance, accommodation, schooling and medical coverage. I have now spent the past seven years trying to obtain my rights and those of my children, as travel bans have prevented us from exiting the country for as many years.”
Whatever property a person owns remains theirs after they divorce, says Diana Hamade, a Dubai-based Emirati lawyer for International Advocate Legal Services. Ms Hamade suggests women without children divorce abroad, as they are entitled to nothing in the UAE except what they already own.
“I had this case of a wife with no children. The minute she knew what she was going to get out of a Dubai divorce, she almost screamed. Her husband had a property in London so she immediately went there to file for divorce.”
However, in the case of a wealthy working mother divorcing a less affluent man, the UAE’s system can work in her favour because a divorced mother does not have to feed, house, educate or spend any of her own income on her children, regardless of her wealth.
“The financial capacity of a woman is very independent of her marriage”, says Ms Hamade. “The father is also obligated to provide a housemaid to help look after his children. For working mothers who might not be able to get a housemaid in their home country, it can be more convenient to divorce here.”
But the majority of mothers, who are not the main breadwinners in their marriage, can end up worse off after divorce because the father only has to provide for maintenance of his children, not his ex-wife. And during divorce proceedings, temporary maintenance payments for the wife and children are usually between Dh500 and Dh3,000 per month.
“A mother with three kids usually finds it hard to live on that amount”, says Ms Hamade. “It’s something we rebel against, but the courts are not listening yet.”
Women only get alimony during a three-month period after the divorce – “iddah” in Arabic – during which a woman is not allowed to remarry.
They may seek a nominal caretaker’s allowance as a part of child maintenance, but there is no substantive ongoing spousal maintenance. “For housewives used to a very lavish way of life, it becomes dramatically different to live in the UAE when their ex suddenly limits the cash flow,” says Ms Hamade.
For Ms Ahmed, maintaining her lifestyle is a struggle.
“I get a monthly Dh1,000 allowance to look after the children,” she says. “That doesn’t include the perks a maid is entitled to, such as a visa (I have to do monthly visa runs), health insurance, Fridays off, free food, one month a year off to rest and airline tickets for me to go home to see my family. I also am not permitted to know where my husband has been living for the past seven years, which makes it hard to issue divorce papers or enforce his responsibilities.”
Ms Ahmed acted as her own lawyer in 70 per cent of her court cases. So far, she has spent Dh70,000 in legal and court fees, of which Dh20,000 went to translation of documents into Arabic.
Her ex has yet to pay school fees, even though he is obligated to do so. “I’ve been in court so many times trying to chase alimony, accommodation and medical expenses from him. It’s a standard joke between divorced women in the courts that we are ‘waiting half our lives here’.”
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