'Are your kids safe?' The challenges of an expat career on family life
Van Hilten de Vries van Ruitenbeek Advocaten & Mediators (HVR) is a law firm specialising in family law and general practice. Based in The Hague, HVR also has a meeting point in Amsterdam.
"Are your kids safe?" This is what I texted my client last August 21 at midnight, after I realised that her girls of 17 and 12 had been on the Thalys train that had been the subject of an attempted terrorist attack near Arras in France that very evening.
The girls had been on their way to visit their father in Paris, based on a visiting schedule arranged between their separated parents, after their father had moved back to the French capital.
The effect of expat life on families
This episode shows the often-overlooked downsides of international life. It reminded me that expat families travel frequently, sometimes large distances, which can create strain and vulnerabilities, especially for children.
As a family lawyer I know that expat families are often unaware of the challenges that accompany an international career. It is important to be aware of such challenges, especially in situations that could split a family between countries.
The lack of awareness about the effect of an international career on a failing marriage or relationship can be quite astonishing. Especially when children are involved.
In expat situations, almost one in two relationships breaks down, meaning this issue deserves more attention.
Understanding family law
For instance, if the parents of a baby born in the Netherlands are living together, but not married, most of them do not know that if they separate the father will not automatically be awarded parental responsibility or custody. Even if he recognises the child as his own before or after birth.
The consequence might well be that the mother can move to another country without the consent of the father.
Many parents who do have joint parental responsibility, due to marriage or otherwise, are often unaware that the only courts with jurisdiction over the children are those of the country where they have habitual residence. Therefore that country’s own (international) private law is applied in a case of conflict.
Very often the resulting consequence is that the children must stay in the same country. This is something that Dutch parents on an assignment abroad need to realise; that repatriation of children to the Netherlands is no right as such.
Expat children can therefore easily get stuck in the middle if there is a conflict between their parents. They can even be used by their parents to push the divorce to a higher level. The damage done to the children can then only be guessed at.
I therefore always advise clients never to forget to act as parents and that the children have rights of their own. Among these is the right of the child to live with both parents, or to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, in addition to the right to leisure and time to rest.
Families in two countries
Sometimes it is inevitable that parents live in two different countries - especially when they both have international careers. Sometimes, however, parents do have the option of continuing to live in the same country. They should realise that it is worth doing some real research on all available options.
In one of my mediations, two divorcing parents, each with a career, even decided to return to the Netherlands for eight years (two assignments) to make it possible for their children to grow up with both of them.
Finding an international balance
When parents decide to live in two different cities and/or countries after separation or divorce, it means that the children will have less day-to-day contact with one parent, which is why some compensation during holidays can be a reasonable option.
Never ever, though, should it be forgotten that the children themselves cannot be expected to travel like adults.
The latter is not seldom an issue when parents live in The Hague and London for instance. Or in The Hague and Paris, as was the case at the start of this article.
In this case the father had moved back to Paris and expected his two teenage daughters to travel to Paris one weekend every month from Friday night till Sunday night, with the Thalys train.
Luckily for the girls, although it had been a unilateral decision of the father to move (back) to Paris several years after the divorce, the parents were able to work out a visiting scheme with an adjusted frequency and some compensation during the holidays.
I realised again, however, on Friday August 21, that travelling these distances on a regular basis raises the risks of stress and other detrimental effects on children of separated or divorced expat parents.
Creating an expat parenting plan
As a divorce lawyer and mediator with an international practice, I deal with expats quite often. When children are involved, I always try to make the divorcing spouses think as parents when making a future parenting plan.
In most cases I convince parents that they should make an effort to mediate, or at least to negotiate, in the interest of the children. Unless, of course, it is a case where there is a behavioural disorder with one of the parents.
A smooth transition
After all, expats are experts in moving when a new assignment comes up and in ensuring a transition that is as smooth as possible for their children. So why should they not be able to act the same for a divorce or separation?
Edith van Ruitenbeek is a lawyer/mediator and partner of HVR. For more advice on divorce:
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