The UAE Family Law- An Overview

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A ready reference about family courts, marriage, divorce, inheritance, and the rights of women and children in the UAE.

The UAE is a country with a unique legal system that combines both civil and Islamic laws. The UAE has a well-developed and comprehensive legal framework governing family matters. The family law of the UAE covers a wide range of aspects, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

In 2005, the UAE government introduced Federal Law No. 28 of 2005 (Personal Status Law) establishing specialized family courts to handle matters relating to personal status.  The 2005 law was amended by Federal Decree No. 8 of 2018. It addresses a wide range of subjects, including inheritance distribution based on Sharia principles, with male relatives often getting the decedent’s assets, the legal age for marriage, the right for both spouses to initiate a divorce, and child custody arrangements.

In 2022, Federal Decree-Law No. 41 of 2022 on Personal Status for Non-Muslims (new law) was passed, giving a more secular approach to family law matters for non-Muslim residents. The new law attempts to harmonize the legal framework with the different backgrounds of people living in the UAE.

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Marriage Laws in the UAE

In the UAE, marriage necessitates that both individuals possess mental and physical competence, express their agreement, and adhere to Islamic principles. The rights and responsibilities of married couples differ. Husbands bear the responsibility of financially supporting their wives and children, leading the family, and retaining the right to initiate divorce. On the other hand, wives are accountable for household management, raising children, and are entitled to financial support from their husbands, along with the right to initiate divorce.

The marriage contract holds significant importance in UAE family law as it serves as a vital legal document that outlines the rights, obligations, and financial arrangements of the married couple. To establish legal recognition of marriage, the contract must be officially registered with the Ministry of Justice, thereby providing concrete evidence of the marital union.

Divorce in the UAE: Cost, duration, and more

Divorce can be initiated by either the husband or the wife and is subject to the authority of a court. Two types of divorce are recognized: (1) talaq, which the husband initiates, and (2) khul’, which the wife initiates in exchange for giving up her financial rights. The divorce process comprises submitting a petition, trying reconciliation, attending court sessions, and finally getting a final judgment from the court.

The duration for obtaining a divorce decree can differ with a mutual or no-fault divorce typically taking less than a month, while contested divorce may take longer than a month.

Furthermore, the average cost can vary from AED 8000 to AED 25000. During the divorce proceedings, the court considers various factors such as (a) the grounds for divorce, (b) the choices of any children involved, and (c) the couple’s financial status. The court carefully evaluates these factors to reach a fair and reasonable decision.

The new law allows couples to opt for no-fault divorce and skip the mandatory mediation process and proceed directly to court if they decide to end their marriage. It eliminates the need for couples to provide justifications for divorce, enabling them to dissolve their marriage without proving wrongdoing by the other spouse.

The new law also provides clearer guidelines on asset division and child custody arrangements. Additionally, it grants both parents equal rights to custody of their children, irrespective of gender.

Child custody and inheritance in the UAE: Equal rights and obligations

The fundamental criterion for the judge for determining custody is the child’s best interests, as established in the Personal Status Law. The law emphasizes the importance of choosing the best caretaker for the child. Custody awarded to mothers normally ends when a male child reaches the age of 11 and a female child reaches the age of 13 unless the court decides to prolong the custody term. The custody term can be extended until the male child achieves the age of majority (21 years old) or the female child marries. It is vital to remember that if a father does not request custody within six months of the child reaching the legal age of 11 or 13, he forfeits his claim to custody.

The new law establishes joint custody, providing both parents equal rights and obligations. In the event of a parental rights dispute, either parent may approach the court and submit an application to exclude the other parent, requesting sole custody of the children. Mutual custody is permitted between the father and mother until the child reaches the age of 18. However, once the child reaches the age of 18, he or she has the right to decide which parent to live with. During the period of shared custody, if one parent can establish to the court that the other parent is not qualified or fit for custody, grounds such as legal capacity or the potential risks of sharing custody with that person, or if the custodian fails to satisfy their obligations, they may be given sole custody upon application.

UAE’s Inheritance law: Primary heirs, secondary heirs, and the role of a will

In the UAE, inheritance is governed by Sharia law, with assets divided among lawful successors. Primary heirs, such as spouses, parents, and children, receive particular portions depending on the criteria of division. If there are no primary heirs, secondary and distant heirs, such as brothers and cousins, may inherit.

A non-Muslim expatriate has the option to create a will specifying their desired beneficiary for their assets, subject to applicable regulations. If no will is in place, the assets will be divided between the surviving spouse and children, regardless of their gender. In the absence of a spouse or children, alternative default distribution rules will come into effect, that is, the asset will be shared with parents, siblings and others.

Rights of women and children, and the new law for non-Muslims in the UAE

UAE family law comprises a number of rules and regulations that protect the rights of women and children. These legal protections provide women with the right to marry, divorce, possess property, and work outside the house. Similarly, children have a right to care and protection from their parents.

The recent introduction of a new law for non-Muslims represents a significant advancement in granting equal rights and protections to non-Muslim couples in the UAE. It is a significant step towards non-Muslim rights in the UAE by the introduction of no-fault divorce, civil marriage options for non-Muslims, and joint custody of children, etc. It offers more flexibility and legal protection in questions of personal status, as well as a fairer framework for resolving disputes.
In conclusion, the family law system in the UAE is a complex and evolving framework that incorporates principles from Shariah law, civil law, and local customs. It serves as a vital mechanism for protecting the rights of family members and promoting harmony and stability within families. With its multifaceted nature, the UAE’s family law system strives to strike a balance between cultural traditions and legal principles, ensuring the well-being and welfare of individuals and families in society.

About ATB Legal

ATB Legal is a full-service legal consultancy in the UAE providing services in dispute resolution (DIFC Courts, ADGM Courts, mainland litigation management and Arbitrations), corporate and commercial matters, IP, business set up and UAE taxation. We also have a personal law department providing advice on marriage, divorce and wills & estate planning for expats. Please feel free to reach out to us at office@atblegal.com for a non-obligatory initial consultation.

by Lakshmi Omanakuttan Leela

Lakshmi is a legal consultant with the Dispute Resolution department of ATB Legal and writes about legal matters in related domains. She is a law graduate from Calicut University and is enrolled with the Bar Council of Kerala.

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