Prenuptial agreements are on the rise in Abu Dhabi, with hundreds of couples already putting pen to paper at the emirate's civil family court this year.
One legal expert said “ultra-high net worth” residents are increasingly signing up to safeguard their assets in the event of divorce, but he insisted the extra layer of marital protection should not be viewed as merely the preserve of the super-rich.
The Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court was established in December 2021 to hear all cases related to marriage, custody, divorce, paternity, inheritance and personal status, under a non-Sharia process.
The court was at the heart of sweeping legal reforms introduced in Abu Dhabi and later replicated across the Emirates, to ensure the law provides for all of the country's residents, regardless of faith or background.
The prenup service – which is available to both residents and tourists – can be completed on the same day as a civil marriage.
About 250 of the agreements were made at the court in the first seven months of the year.
The National spoke to Byron James, partner at Abu Dhabi law firm Expatriate Law, to explain how prenups protect a couple.
“I've noticed an increasing trend in the last few months as we have done four ultra-high net worth premarital agreements in a couple of months,” he said.
“These were all residents of the UAE who would have got married somewhere else before the new Abu Dhabi family court regime.
“Having four ultra-high net worth people get married in a short space of time and register premarital agreements is actually quite significant.
“High net-worth people in the UAE are also looking to also protect their assets since they are getting married here now rather than in their home country or somewhere else.”
Ultra-high net worth people are those with investable income of more than $30 million.
The UAE is expected to attract 4,500 new millionaires this year, ranking second after Australia and placing above Singapore in a survey that tracked investment migration trends.
This places the Emirates in a bracket where people with a net worth of more than $1 million are making the UAE their home.
What is a prenup?
A prenuptial agreement helps protect assets, property and interests in an individual’s home country and other jurisdictions in case of a divorce, not just in the UAE.
“When people of different nationalities get married and neither of them are living in the country of their origin, there can be a number of jurisdictions that would apply to them if they got divorced,” Mr James said.
“The main focus is to be clear what is mine, what is available for sharing – that is the main objective in a marital agreement.
“If done correctly, it can provide a very powerful shield to any claim in the future.”
Residents and tourists, including Muslim expatriates from non-Muslim countries, can marry and get a prenup registered in the Abu Dhabi civil court. Emiratis are not permitted to get married in this court.
The first wedding took place in the court in December 2021.
This year the number of marriages has already passed 6,700 compared to the 6,000 weddings last year.
About 500 same-day express weddings have been registered in 2023 to date.
“The Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court offers a convenient service for people to get married that is efficient, reliable, and modern because it’s very easy for people to apply for the marriage license online,” Mr James said.
“People want to avail of this marriage service and also want to protect their assets not just from a divorce in Abu Dhabi but worldwide.
“Part of the service is the ability to register, notarise and attest a premarital agreement that deals with an appropriate outcome in case of a divorce that protects both parties.”
How does a prenup protect?
A prenuptial agreement deals with what properties should and should not be shared in case of a divorce.
It can anticipate financial claims in case of a divorce not just in Abu Dhabi but protect assets in other countries.
It can also separate money earned before marriage, for instance, inheritance or family property.
“For the majority of expats who are getting married, they will want to protect themselves in other jurisdictions as well,” Mr James said.
The prenup jurisdiction can cover the home countries of the wife and husband, the UAE where they are married, other cities they have lived in, own businesses in and countries they may move to in the future.
Why have a prenup?
However unromantic it sounds, the legal advice is for a couple to come to an agreement before the wedding.
“The best time to work out what to do in a divorce is not when you are separated and you are cross with each other,” Mr James said.
“The best time is when you can work together to see what is reasonable.
“It removes conflict because everyone, when they are in a good space, sees each other's assets and agree on what to do if a divorce ever happens in the future.
“When people say – it means you don't trust your husband or your wife – I reject that.
“A lot of the bad feeling in a divorce may come from the fact that people didn't discuss this before.”
Do I need to be rich for a prenup?
It can protect the interests of the partner who is not wealthy and does not own assets.
“This agreement is relevant to not just ultra-high net worth people,” Mr James said.
“The less financially able party, quite often that may be the wife, makes huge sacrifices to her career, to raise children and take care of the family
“This can make sure the children and they are OK.”
It can cover housing, financial maintenance for the spouse and child, school fees and visa coverage so they can continue to live in the same country with their children.
“This is reassuring for people living in a foreign country, where they don't have family or friends,” he said.
“The agreement would cover the level of housing that would be commensurate with the housing during the marriage.
“If there is a divorce, a visa should be covered or there should be a fund so the spouse can always make sure that she can continue to stay in the UAE if she is not working.”
How long can it take?
It could take a couple between two to four weeks to work on the first draft with a lawyer and about three months to finalise the agreement.
Each side should have sufficient time to consider the document without pressure.
In countries such as England, a prenup is signed 28 days before the marriage.
In Abu Dhabi, the couple signs the agreement one month before and before a court official when they get married.
For those who cannot afford a lawyer, the Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court website has a form that can be downloaded.
Couples should bring a passport and Emirates ID if they are UAE residents.
Additional reporting Shireena Al Nowais