New family law for non-Muslim expats to further modernise UAE legal system

Civil law covers key family matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody

More expats are expected to tie the knot in the Emirates rather than travel home or abroad to wed. EPA
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Abu Dhabi’s civil family court system, which allows non-Muslim couples to divorce and marry in a non-Sharia legal process, will be replicated across the country under changes unveiled last week.

The federal law for non-Muslim expatriates, announced on Friday, covers key family matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.

It sets out to grant equal rights between men and women.

Previously, a couple seeking a divorce in a local court would follow a Sharia-based process. This differs significantly from what they may be used to in their home country. Many choose to marry, divorce or arrange a will abroad instead.

Officials tasked with overhauling the legal process told The National they want to ensure the law provides for all residents, regardless of faith or background.

Here, we look at the law's main provisions.


Non-Muslim couples can now marry “based on the will of both the husband and wife”, meaning consent from the wife’s father or guardian is no longer mandated.

The requirement to have several male Muslims as witnesses has also been removed.

In Abu Dhabi's family court, proceedings are closer to what you would find in a registry office wedding in the UK or Europe.


Abu Dhabi's Civil Family Court — in pictures


A single court official talks the couple through a secular legal process, the couple sign the legal documents making them husband and wife, the rings are presented and photos are taken.

At Abu Dhabi's Civil Family Court, 2,200 marriages were registered between January and August, equating to 25 per day. There is expected to be similar demand in the other emirates as the law comes into effect.


Under the new law, spouses have the right to divorce without needing to prove harm was done in the marriage. This is known as a “no fault divorce”.

Either spouse may now ask the court to end the marriage without the need to prove one party was at fault.

Divorce can be granted at the first hearing without the need to go through a process of family guidance counselling and mandatory mediation sessions.

Support payments, or alimony, and other subsequent requests will be submitted using a “post-divorce request form”.

In the case of a dispute regarding financial requests, several factors will be taken into account, including the length of the marriage, the age of the wife and the financial status of each spouse.

Joint custody

Joint and equal custody of children will be automatically granted to parents after divorce, with procedures in place to settle disputes.

In the event of a custody dispute, the court can be asked to intervene and make a decision on the matter. The primary consideration will always be the best interests of the child.

Previously, a mother was only given custody of her son until he reached the age of 11, and her daughter until she turned 13. The father could claim custody once the child reached those ages.


The new law ensures the right of a foreigner to draw up a will giving their property to whoever they wish.

In the absence of a will, half of a person’s estate will now go to the surviving spouse. The other half will be distributed between the deceased’s children equally.

In contrast, in the Sharia-based domestic court system, a son would obtain a larger share of the inheritance.

If the deceased has no children, the inheritance goes to their parents, or it may be split equally between one surviving parent and the deceased’s siblings.

Wills for non-Muslims should be registered during the signing of their marriage certificate.

Proof of paternity

The new law states that proof of paternity for non-Muslims will be based on marriage or the recognition of paternity.

DNA tests will be done if the parents are unknown.

Earlier this year, new rules allowed unmarried mothers to apply to get birth certificates for their babies. Prior to that, the presence or proof of a husband was required to legally register the child.

Updated: December 11, 2022, 6:41 AM