Wide-ranging changes in civil family law have come into effect across the UAE as part of reforms that allow expatriates to feel more comfortable building a life in the country.
The revisions introduced in February now allow couples to marry in non-Sharia civil proceedings and have resulted in thousands of couples choosing to wed in the Emirates instead of travelling overseas or back to their home country.
The law covers a range of family matters including marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.
A simple civil procedure is now applicable for non-Muslim expatriates for marriage and divorce.
This gives expat couples peace of mind knowing that if a separation takes place, the process will be in line with international practices and conform with what they were familiar with in their home country.
The amendments are part of measures that reflect how the country values talented people who have moved to the UAE to work and set up home.
Here, The National breaks down what newcomers to the Emirates can expect if they need to approach the courts.
A guardian or a family member’s consent and male Muslim witnesses are no longer required for a couple to get married.
Previously under federal law, a woman of any age required the consent of a guardian to marry, making it difficult for expatriates whose parents and guardians were overseas.
Non-Muslim couples can now marry “based on the will of both the husband and wife” in registry offices.
A court official will guide the couple through the legal process, they sign the documents affirming they are husband and wife and rings are exchanged.
In Abu Dhabi’s family court, proceedings are closer to what you would find in a registry marriage office in Europe or the UK.
This year the number of marriages at the Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court has passed 6,700 compared to 6,000 last year.
About 500 same-day express weddings have been registered and 250 prenuptial agreements signed this year until July.
The legal changes place the Abu Dhabi court in a unique position.
The court conducts civil marriages for residents and tourists, including non-Muslims and Muslim expatriates from countries that do not primarily follow Sharia. Emiratis are not permitted to get married in this court.
Couples can marry and get prenups registered on the same day.
A prenup agreement helps protect the assets, property and interests in a person’s home country and other jurisdictions, not just in the UAE, in case of a divorce.
Before the legal reforms, residents from non-Sharia countries sought to have disputes resolved in their home country, as the process in a local court significantly differed from their home country.
The changes allow couples to seek redressal in the UAE instead of returning home.
From the first divorce hearing, either spouse can ask for a divorce without the need to prove harm or justify reasons for separation.
This means that divorce can be granted at a first hearing.
There is no longer a requirement of previously mandatory mediation sessions or family guidance counselling that could delay divorce proceedings.
The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department has said the aim was to ensure divorces could take place in a “swift manner in order to reduce quarrels and discord between spouses especially if the couple has children”.
Proceedings could be completed within 30 days to limit adverse impact on the children.
The new laws have dramatically altered child custody arrangements with judges granting joint and equal custody to both parents after a divorce.
Previously, the mother was given custody until children had reached puberty – classified as 11 for a daughter and 13 for a son. The father could claim custody only once the child had reached that age.
A woman would also lose custody if she remarried or if the court found her unfit to care for her children.
The father would be allowed supervised visits of his children depending on the judge’s decision.
Now both mother and father will jointly share the responsibility of raising their children after a divorce.
The Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court, in case of a custody dispute, can be asked to intervene.
The court this year granted an expatriate father full custody of his son, who was under 11, in what was described as a historic ruling.
This was unusual as mothers would be awarded full custody in most custody disputes in the UAE, and it was rare for a father to be granted full guardianship if the mother was present and submitted a request for sole custody.
This case upheld a vital non-discriminatory clause that gender would not be the deciding factor and the rights of both parent would be upheld.
The wife will receive alimony with the husband’s total assets taken into consideration.
Previously, alimony was paid monthly and depended on the spouse’s monthly salary.
The wife for the first time will be given a lump sum as compensation for leaving her job to care for the children.
In case of a dispute, the number of years the couple have been married, the spouse’s age and the extent to which one of them contributed to the breakdown of the marriage will be taken into account.
There was previously no law that compensated a spouse for leaving a career to take care of their children.
The changes also allow expatriate lawyers to represent cases at the Abu Dhabi family court, where previously only UAE citizens were permitted to act as counsel.
Sharia will only affect marriages involving Emiratis and Muslim citizens of countries that apply the law, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain.
An expatriate can draw up a will leaving their property to whomever they wish.
The legal reforms allow foreign residents to draw up wills based on laws in their home countries.
If no will has been written up, half of the estate will go to the surviving spouse and the other half will be distributed equally among the children.
In the Sharia-based local court system, a son would obtain the larger share of an inheritance.
If the deceased had no children, the property would go to the parents or may have been split between a surviving parent and the deceased’s siblings.
The changes in inheritance laws are aimed at boosting investment and encouraging people to make the UAE their home.