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How the law works now

Child custody in the UAE is governed by the Personal Status Law of 2005.

Child custody in the UAE is governed by the Personal Status Law of 2005.

After a divorce, mothers take custody of boys under 11 and girls under 13. The law transfers custody to the father when the children reach that age, although judges have the discretion to give more time, says the lawyer Yousuf Al Sharif.

Typically, the mother's custody can be extended until a son reaches puberty and until a daughter marries.

In a major decision, the Federal Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that a judge should look into the child's best interest before deciding custody, regardless of age.

"The flexibility is always given to the judge," said lawyer Jouslin Khairallah.

The issue of custody after remarriage is more slippery.

There is no legal impact on custody if a father remarries, Ms Khairallah said, but the mother could lose custody if she remarried.

In Sharia, this is intended to protect the children in case the new husband proves an unfit stepfather.

"The point is, they don't want to expose them to a foreign man, a man who is not related to them," said lawyer Diana Hamade.

In other Middle East countries, custody passes to a maternal relative if the mother remarries, Ms Hamade and Mr Al Sharif said.

But the UAE shifts the typical application of Sharia, passing custody to the father instead, they said.

If a woman remarries, her former husband can bring a custody case to court within six months of discovering the marriage, or later if he believes the situation is bad for the children, Mr Al Sharif said. Judges still had discretionary power.

"The court will check which place will be better for the child," Ms Khairallah said. "He will compare the full situation: in the mother's custody, or with the father."

Mr Al Sharif said judges tended to award custody to the father.

The law applies to citizens and expatriates, unless expats ask to apply the law of their home country.

* Vivian Nereim

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