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European Commission moves to clarify international divorce laws

Ten EU states to adopt harmonised rules

The European Commission has proposed new rules which would permit 'international couples' to choose which country's law should apply to their divorce.

The Commission reckons that about one million couples file for divorce in the EU every year. But where the spouses are from different countries, living apart in different countries, or are from the same country but living abroad, then it may not be clear which country's law should apply to divorce proceedings. Such couples account for 13% of divorces in the EU.

New rules have been requested by, and will apply to, Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and Spain. Where one spouse of a divorcing couple has a connection with one of the listed countries, the couple can decide which country's laws should apply to their divorce. For example, a Swedish-Lithuanian couple living in Italy could ask an Italian court to apply Swedish or Lithuanian law. Courts would have a common formula for deciding which country's law applies when couples cannot agree themselves.

Couples would also be able to agree which law would apply to their divorce even when they do not plan to separate. This would give them more legal certainty, predictability and flexibility and would help to protect spouses and their children from complicated, drawn-out and painful procedures.

The proposals are also designed to protect weaker spouses from being put at an unfair disadvantage in divorce proceedings. At the moment, the Commission says, the partner who can afford travel costs and legal fees can "rush to court" in another country so that the case is governed by a law that safeguards his interests. For example, if one spouse from a Polish couple moves to Finland, he could ask for a divorce there after one year without the other spouse's consent. 

Similar EU proposals were put forward in 2006 but failed to win the unanimous support of all EU governments. Now 10 countries are going ahead alone, in the first use of the enhanced cooperation procedure.

Introduced in 1999, the procedure allows a large group of countries to adopt laws that apply only to itself and not the entire EU.

For more information, go to the European Commission website.