DUBAI // The personal affairs law can seem confusing for those seeking divorce and custody, but it puts the needs of children first, experts say.
Divorce cases cannot be heard until the moral and family guidance section at Dubai Courts has examined them. Only after a committee there deems reconciliation is unlikely can a couple file with the court.
A husband may file for any reason but if he does so without a legitimate grievance he must compensate his wife according to Sharia, and the judge sets the amount.
But a woman can file for divorce only if she is suffering personal harm or her husband has abandoned her. If those conditions do not apply, she can make a settlement to be granted a divorce. The payment may be no larger than the dowry.
Expatriates seeking divorce can choose to use the laws of their home country. But the personal affairs law applies if the couple fail to agree on their country's law, if they fail to provide an attested copy of that law to the court, or if there is no provision in the foreign law related to litigation. Under the personal affairs law, children are placed in the mother's care until a certain age when custody is transferred to the father.
"The law lays the framework that the son stays with the mother until the age of 11 and the daughter until the age of 13 but that is not final," said Mohammad Al Redha, of Al Redha and Co Advocates and Legal Consultants. "The judge can determine whether it should be extended until the age of puberty for a boy and for a girl until she gets married."
The father must support the children and provide a standard of living similar to what they had when they were living with him.
"Child support includes clothes, food, medical costs, accommodation and schooling. If the mother owns the home she lives in, then the father may be exempt from paying for housing," Mr Al Redha said. "As time progresses … if the mother finds that child support is not enough as education and food costs rise, she can ask for an increase and the judge will look into her request."
The father has certain rights, including visiting. "It is mandatory for the husband to always provide the alimony for children as long as he is able to do so, until his daughters marry or when they can earn enough, and until his sons reach the age of 15 and are able to earn enough, except if the son is still pursuing his education successfully," said Musalam Tawfiq Al Khazraji, of Zayed Al Shamsi Advocates and Legal Consultants.
"The ultimate objective of the custody is to benefit the children under guardianship, even if this contradicts the interests of the father."
Bahy Al Gandy, a legal consultant at International Advocate Legal Services, cited a recent case of an Egyptian couple with two children - a boy, 8, and a girl, 10.
"The father had a drinking problem and used to have relationships outside of his marriage," Mr Al Gandy said. "His wife filed for divorce based on personal harm and the court ruled in favour of the mother and gave her custody of the children. If the father does not request custody for six months after the child has reached the legal age, then he waives his rights to custody."
A woman may lose custody of a child if she remarries, if she is prosecuted for a crime or neglects her children. But exceptions can be made if she marries a foreign man and the child is still young enough to need their mother, Mr Al Khazraji said.
* With additional reporting from Vesela Todorova