What the brand new UAE legal guidelines say on marriage, divorce and little one custody for non-Muslim residents

On Wednesday (February 1), new family laws dubbed the “Federal Personal Status Laws” came into force for non-Muslims residing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These laws apply to non-Muslim expatriates or foreigners living in the UAE and cover various aspects of family law such as marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, wills and paternity.

Although the laws came into force on February 1, 2023, on November 27, 2021 the reforms were approved by the late President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who made amendments to over 40 different laws in the UAE, making it one of them made the most important legislative reforms in the country.

Why was the need for these laws felt?

The new reforms to the UAE’s judicial system stem from Abu Dhabi’s civil family court system, which allows non-Muslim couples to divorce or marry without following Sharia law, similar to the civil registry offices in the UK and Europe or even by complying with their home country’s registry office laws.

While Abu Dhabi introduced this practice in November 2021, this year the civil status laws will extend to all seven emirates, including Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah.

What was the situation before the new laws?

Former expatriates or non-Muslims residing in the UAE had to abide by the Sharia legal system when filing for divorce in a local UAE court, even if it differed from that of their home country, leading to more people on resorting to conducting a divorce or matrimonial proceedings outside the UAE.

In addition, previous consensual relationships between two adults or cohabiting couples were criminalized. However, it was not until 2020 that the United Arab Emirates decriminalized live relationships and extramarital pregnancy, relaxing restrictions on many personal aspects.

According to the UAE’s state-run news agency WAM, the purpose behind the passage of the new laws is to “regulate marriage, conditions and procedures for concluding and documenting the marriage before the competent courts”, thereby allowing non-Muslims to to marry or divorce through a non-Shariah process, legally.

What are the most important legal provisions?

A marriage: Non-Muslim couples aged 21 and over can now marry without the consent of the woman’s father or guardian. Marriage used to have to have multiple male witnesses, but now that requirement has been scrapped to say a marriage can only take place based on the “will of the husband and wife,” who must first fill out a declaration form from a judge.

B) Divorce: can now be initiated by mutual consent of both parties or even by one spouse alone. Articles 6, 7 and 8 of Abu Dhabi Laws have further clarified the aspect of “no-fault divorce”, whereby spouses can apply for divorce without having to prove that their partner is at fault or caused damage during the marriage. The previous requirement for mediation and family counseling no longer applies. The divorce can now be pronounced in a timely and efficient manner at the first hearing.

A new post-divorce application form has also been created for alimony, alimony, alimony, or other family claims. In the event of disagreements over financial issues such as alimony, the court will take into account the length of the marriage, the financial situation of both spouses and the age of the wife.

C) Testimonies: In matters requiring witnesses, women have been given equal opportunity, meaning that a woman’s testimony is now equal to a man’s. Furthermore, this equality was also extended to matters such as property, inheritance and divorce.

D) Custody: After a divorce, both parents are granted joint custody unless one of them objects. Joint custody is the default norm until the child is of legal age or 18, after which they can decide for themselves. In the event of a dispute, the court decides in the best interests of the child.

In the past, however, custody was mandatory for the mother and extended up to the age of 13 for the daughter and up to the age of 11 for the son. The father cannot claim custody until his children are over the legal age.

4) Inheritance: A11: Foreign non-Muslims can now donate their property to anyone under a will. If the ex-pat dies intestate or without a will, their property and assets will be divided equally between their living spouse and children. If there are no children, the property is divided equally between the surviving siblings and the parents.

Under previous Sharia law, most of the deceased’s inheritance would pass to his son without a will. However, if a person dies without a will, both son and daughter are now equally entitled to inherit

5) Paternity: The new laws also deal with paternity, for which marriage or the declaration of the father or mother are the main indicators. If the parent is unknown, the law allows a DNA test to be performed. Previously, only married couples could apply for a birth certificate of an unborn child, now unmarried mothers can also apply.

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