Prenuptials vital for marriages: experts
Dong Qinhua, a resident of Heihe, Heilongjiang province, married his Russian wife Irina 13 years ago. They are among many couples in the city, located near Russia, who have found love across borders. Qiu Qilong / For China Daily
A Canadian man and a Chinese woman recently appeared before a court in Beijing to contest 5 billion yuan ($811 million) in assets after their marriage dissolved, according to the People's Court of Chaoyang district in Beijing.
For Liu Li, a judge at the Chaoyang court, the case posed a major obstacle.
"Divorce cases involving foreigners are challenging for courts because many countries do not adhere to Chinese laws or verdicts," said Liu, who added that incongruous laws across borders likely lead to delays in divorce cases.
In recent years, Chinese courts have handled a growing number of cases involving foreigners in family disputes, specifically in matters over children and property. According to the Supreme People's Court, the highest court in the nation, there is a growing awareness of foreign laws in cases in which a Chinese citizen and resident marries a foreigner.
According to the Supreme People's Court, China's courts handled more than 5,000 family cases last year involving foreigners, up more than 20 percent from a year ago.
The cases mainly involved divorce, property rights and child custody issues.
"Understanding foreign laws, especially those concerning a spouse's nationality, and potential cultural differences would be of great help," said Zhang Yongjian, chief judge under the Supreme Court's No 4 civil tribunal, which specializes in foreigner-related cases.
Zhang said it's easier for a foreigner and a Chinese citizen to come to a prenuptial agreement before the wedding day.
Han Mei, a judge from the same tribunal, said in many Western countries, the parent who is not granted custody of the children after a divorce is no longer considered the legal guardian. In China, that is not the case.
"We often deal with cases in which divorced Chinese mothers who don't obtain custody of their children have brought the children back to China, but it's illegal if their divorce is recognized by courts in Western countries.
"In this case, foreign fathers can appeal to the courts, claiming that the mother abducted the children."
Liu, the Chaoyang court judge, said the number of family disputes involving foreigners - including divorce, child custody, and property and asset battles - have grown.
In the case of Li Yang, the founder of Crazy English education company, he and his ex-wife Kim Lee, who is from the United States, took more than two years to settle their divorce, with unresolved issues over property still lingering.
"There are problems in sending judicial documents to foreign litigants who are out of China or can't offer accurate addresses," Liu said. "Divorce disputes involving foreigners may take half a year or longer to settle, far longer than disputes between two Chinese people."
In many cases, cultural differences lead to divorce, Liu said, citing a case involving a Chinese woman and a Middle Eastern man.
"The couple had a good relationship before they had a baby. But the man's mother had a different opinion as to how to raise the child, so tensions escalated and finally resulted in divorce," she said.
Zhang Weibo, a Beijing lawyer who specializes in divorce cases involving foreigners, said gaps in age and cultural differences often lead to divorce.
Zhang handled a case involving a 68-year-old German who was the CEO of a small company in Beijing. He divorced his younger Chinese wife because he couldn't get along with her friends. The woman didn't receive any property after they ended the marriage.
"The German man signed a contract with the woman before their wedding, stating that he wouldn't lose his properties if the marriage failed. The Chinese court issued the verdict in support of him."
Zhang advised couples to get prenuptial agreements, calling them "essential to protect the legitimate rights of both parties".
Cao Yin contributed to this story.