Questions and Answers on International Family Law

International Family Law

What influence does International Family Law have on my divorce?

In the case of binational families, the legal relations of the parties involved are regularly governed not (only) by German law, but (also or exclusively) by the law of another state, which may impose stricter or milder conditions (for example, for divorce or parentage proceedings) or provide for other legal consequences (for example, in the case of property distribution and post-marital maintenance).
It is the task of the lawyer to check which legal system is applicable and to explain the underlying circumstances to the family court judge. This is often omitted with the result that German law is naturally assumed, although another legal system would be applicable, which might have provided more generous rules for the client.

In which country can I file for divorce?

International Family Law regulates for the divorce proceedings in which countries the international jurisdiction exists and according to which law the marriage is divorced. If spouses do not have the same nationality or live in different countries, it must first be determined whether the divorce application can be filed in Germany or the other country. In this examination, one must always bear in mind the moment of time, insofar as the other spouse can file his or her own divorce petition, which then, if international jurisdiction exists in the country in question, after lis pendens, will affect a further petition in another country. Contrary to popular belief, this question does not depend on where the spouses were married. If, for example, they were married in Denmark, there is no connection between the divorce proceedings and Denmark unless one or both of them live in Denmark or have Danish nationality. If both spouses live abroad and are of German nationality, the Amtsgericht Berlin-Schöneberg has special jurisdiction throughout Germany. In this case - as in most other constellations - there will also be the possibility of filing for divorce in the other state; depending on the circumstances, international jurisdiction may also exist in a third state. If two or more countries are available, the spouse wishing to divorce must consider in which country the procedure can be carried out in a particularly convenient and cost-saving manner and promises the best results. For the procedure itself, the local rules of procedure regularly apply. In the European Union, the rules on jurisdiction and applicable law have been unified in recent years by several regulations, the uniform implementation of which is monitored by the European Court of Justice; however, it should be noted that some member states have chosen not to participate in this unification at all or to participate fully (e.g. Denmark). In the other countries of the European Union, Regulation (EC) No. 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003 concerning jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in matrimonial matters (abbreviated EuEheVO) is applicable. Its personal scope of application extends not only to nationals of these EU states, but to all third countries. Thus, for the application of this regulation by a German court, it does not matter whether one of the spouses involved has German nationality or the nationality of an EU country, but it is also applicable to the nationals of third countries, e.g. Russia or Thailand. In determining international jurisdiction itself, the Regulation is not primarily based on the nationality of the parties involved, but on their last common place of residence and their current places of residence.

Zuständig sind danach die Gerichte desjenigen Staats:

  • in dem die Ehepartner beide aktuell leben oder
    in dem sie zuletzt gemeinsam gelebt haben, sofern einer von ihnen weiterhin dort lebt;
  • die internationale Zuständigkeit besteht auch in dem Land, in dem der eine Ehepartner jetzt lebt – für den Scheidungsantrag des anderen,
    in dem ein Ehepartner jetzt lebt , wenn beide gemeinsam den Scheidungsantrag einreichen. Damit ist in Deutschland die einverständliche Scheidung gemeint, bei der z.B. der in Deutschland lebende Ehepartner dem hier von dem im Ausland lebenden Ehepartner gestellten Scheidungsantrag zustimmt oder durch einen Rechtsanwalt einen eigenen Scheidungsantrag stellt;
  • die Zuständigkeit besteht auch in dem Land, in dem der antragsstellende Ehepartner seit mindestens einem Jahr lebt, wobei sich dieser Zeitraum auf ein halbes Jahr verkürzt, wenn er Staatsangehöriger dieses Landes ist. Für diese Variante spielt die Staatsangehörigkeit also doch eine – wenn auch nachgeordnete – Rolle.


If the wife wants to file for divorce in Germany after returning from Italy, she only has to wait six months if she has German nationality, or a whole year if she does not have German nationality. However, this time limit does not have to be met at the time the divorce petition is filed, but only when the court decides on the divorce. However, this application does not then block the other spouse's possibility to start their own divorce proceedings in another country. In this case, the principle of priority lis pendens only prevents a further application from being filed after the deadline has expired.

Which divorce law applies to my divorce?

Once the countries in which the divorce application can be filed have been determined, it must be clarified which substantive law the court will consider applicable locally. It should be noted that regions in many countries have their own legal systems, which differ considerably from each other. Examples are the states of the USA, the regions of Spain and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some countries always assume the applicability of the locally applicable substantive law, e.g. the states of the USA, while in most other countries, especially in continental Europe, there are separate rules of international family law for selecting the law applicable to divorce. For this area of regulation there is Council Regulation (EU) No. 1259/2010 on implementing enhanced cooperation in the area of the law applicable to divorce and legal separation - the so-called ROME III Regulation. The cumbersome name component ("enhanced cooperation") of this regulation indicates that several EU Member States were not prepared to participate in whole or in part in a uniform regulation on applicable law (e.g. the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Czech Republic); the Member States willing to unify therefore had to go the way of a so-called enhanced cooperation. In the participating EU states (apart from Germany, these are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Portugal), the Rome III Regulation again applies universally and also extends in its personal scope of application to the nationals of non-participating EU states and the nationals of so-called third countries (e.g. Russia, USA, Turkey). This can also mean that the German court applies the law of a third country, even if one of the spouses has German nationality or that of another EU state. For the decision on the law applicable to the divorce, the Rome III Regulation determines the priority of the agreement between the spouses by mutual consent. This can then also be the legal system of a third country. However, the scope for choosing a legal system by mutual consent is limited. Possible options are 

  • die Rechtsordnung des Staats, in dem beide Ehepartner ihren gewöhnlichen Aufenthalt haben – oder hatten, wenn einer von ihnen noch dort lebt, oder 
  • die Rechtsordnung des Staats, dessen Staatsangehörigkeiten einer von ihnen hat oder
  • die Rechtsordnung des Staats, in dem das Scheidungsverfahren geführt wird. 

Within this framework, there is a free choice between the legal systems under consideration. It is important that the Regulation expressly provides for the possibility of making the choice of law by mutual consent during the divorce proceedings to the extent permitted by the legal system of the state in which the proceedings are conducted - this is the case for Germany, for example. Only if there is no joint choice of law is the following sequence of checks provided for determining the applicable law, which again depends primarily on the residence of both or one of the spouses, and only secondarily on the nationality. 

Das anzuwendende Recht bestimmt sich dann nach

a) Dem Recht des Staates in dem die Ehepartner zum Zeitpunkt der Anrufung des Gerichts beide ihren gewöhnlichen Aufenthalt haben, oder andernfalls 

b) dem Recht des Staates, in dem die Ehegatten zuletzt ihren gewöhnlichen Aufenthalt hatten, sofern dieser nicht vor mehr als einem Jahr vor Anrufung des Gerichts endete und einer der beiden Ehegatten zum Zeitpunkt der Anrufung des Gerichts dort noch seinen gewöhnlichen Aufenthalt hat, oder anderenfalls 

c) dem Recht des Staates dessen Staatsangehörigkeit beide Ehegatten zum Zeitpunkt der Anrufung des Gerichts besitzen, oder andernfalls 

d) dem Recht des Staates des angerufenen Gerichts.

It should be noted here that the test sequence must be strictly adhered to. So as soon as one of the conditions applies, the others are no longer to be tested and are not decisive. The aim is to ensure that the applicable law is clearly determined and to prevent each spouse from insisting on the application of the law that is favourable to him or her. It is certainly advisable to obtain competent legal advice at an early stage of the determination process in order to be able to influence the occurrence of one or the other condition in time.

Special features of the divorce law of different countries

The conditions for divorce are determined differently by different legal systems. The consequences of divorce also often differ greatly according to the preconditions and results. All legal systems under consideration should therefore be thoroughly examined. The following selection cannot replace this and makes no claim to completeness; it is only intended to provide a first overview.

Italian divorce law, which was previously particularly strict and provided for a separation period of at least three years, has been thoroughly reformed in recent years and the separation period for divorce by mutual consent has been reduced to six months. In the case of a divorce by mutual consent, the divorce can be applied for at the registry office.

Polish divorce law still provides for the determination of guilt, but it also provides for the possibility of divorce by mutual consent without a decree of guilt. The determination of guilt has a decisive influence on whether post-marital maintenance is to be granted. The neediness of the spouse, who demands spousal support, is then not of primary importance. 

Austrian divorce law offers the choice between divorce with a declaration of guilt and divorce after dissolution of the domestic community. If the fault of one of the spouses is established in the course of a divorce by fault, the spouse can no longer claim alimony - even if he or she is in need.

Like the legal systems of the other successor states of the former Soviet Union, the Russian divorce law allows for a comfortable and quick divorce if the marriage cannot be continued, for the determination of which it is not necessary to have a certain separation period. Without the wife's consent, the husband may not apply for divorce during her pregnancy and for a period of one year from the birth of the child.

Similar to the Russian and the legal systems of the other successor states of the former Soviet Union, Ukrainian divorce law does not provide for a special separation period as a precondition for divorce. What matters for divorce is the finding that the continuation of the spouses' common life and the maintenance of the marriage would be contrary to the interests of one of them and the essential interests of their children. If there are no underage children together, there is also a particularly inexpensive possibility of divorce by mutual consent at the registry office.

Does my nationality count for the pension rights settlement?

Der Versorgungsausgleich etwa ist bei Scheidungen nach deutschem Recht von Amts wegen durchzuführen, das heißt auch ohne ausdrücklichen Antrag der Ehegatten, wenn einer oder beide Ehegatten die deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit haben. Bei binationalen Ehen kann die Durchführung des Versorgungsausgleichs wegen der oft langwierigen Nachweisbeschaffung aus dem Ausland zu erheblichen Verzögerungen führen, die von den Beteiligten gerade bei kurzer Ehe oft als unverhältnismäßig belastend wahrgenommen werden. Richtet sich die Scheidung nach einem anderen Recht, ist der Versorgungsausgleich vielleicht gar nicht ohne entsprechenden Antrag durchzuführen, was von den Familiengerichten übersehen werden kann, wenn die Rechtsanwälte nicht ausdrücklich darauf hinweisen und die Umstände vortragen, aus denen sich die Anwendbarkeit der anderen Rechtsordnung ergibt.
International family law offers a wide range of options, which I would be happy to examine for you.