South African expatriates and South African Family Law – What do they need to know?

South African Expatriates Divorce - Custody - Maintenance

What all South African expatriates (expats) should know when it comes to family law matters connected to their homeland – Divorce – Custody – Maintenance

In most countries around the world, you would find South African expatriates. They are either living in another country due to work, or other family responsibilities. Whatever the reason being for living abroad, they still consider themselves South Africans, and South Africa is their home.

When someone leaves South Africa to work in another country, he or she may still have a very strong connection with South Africa from a family legal point of view. He or she may have children or a spouse still living in South Africa.  Due to the connection to South Africa, various legal issues may arise. One of those issues could possibly be wanting to divorce the spouse living in South Africa or to have more visitation or access rights to the child living in South Africa. Then there is the possibility of wishing to claim maintenance from a spouse living in South Africa while the child is living abroad with the expatriate parent.

The scope of this article in relation to South African expatriates

This article will deal with three important legal aspects, the first is that of a divorce, the second is that of child custody or guardianship disputes, and the third is that of claiming maintenance from a parent in South Africa.

Knowing your rights and the law when it comes to marriage, children and divorce

Not all expatriates of South Africa know their rights in relation to family law relevant to South Africa. He or she may not know how to divorce a spouse living in South Africa or how to claim maintenance from a parent who still lives in South Africa.  The South African expatriate may then decide not to do anything and wait until he or she returns to South Africa. This may be fine if it only relates to the issue of a divorce. But it may be problematic should it relate to issues regarding child contact and child maintenance.

Family legal issues for South African expatriates

If the spouse who expatriates to a distant country wishes to marry someone else there while still being married to somebody in South Africa, such a second marriage cannot take place. The obvious reason for that is that he or she is still married to somebody in South Africa. Therefore, he or she needs to look into the possibility of getting divorced from the spouse living in South Africa while he or she is still an expatriate in a different country.

Divorcing someone living in South Africa while you are living abroad

For a South African Court to divorce a couple, it has to have jurisdiction over the matter or one of the spouses. Not to complicate matters, basically one of the spouses has to be living in its area of jurisdiction for the divorce court to divorce a couple.  Therefore, notwithstanding a spouse living abroad, he or she may still Institute divorce proceedings if the other spouse lives in South Africa. The opposite also applies. For example, if a spouse lives in South Africa and wishes to divorce his or her spouse who lives abroad, the divorce court in South Africa can still divorce the couple.

Uncontested divorces are best when it comes to expatriates

It would be advisable that the parties agree on getting divorced before instituting divorce proceedings. The reason for saying so is that if the divorce becomes contested and both parties are living in different countries, things can become messy for both, and very expensive for the expatriate. However, if the parties cannot come to an agreement regarding the divorce, one of them have to institute divorce proceedings. As stated, such proceedings may be instituted in South Africa notwithstanding the other spouse living abroad.

The edictal citation for international divorces

If a spouse who lives in South Africa wishes to Institute divorce proceedings against a spouse living abroad, he or she will have to approach the divorce court first for consent to serve the documentation on the other spouse through a process called edictal citation. In other words, the court documents would have to be served in a manner other than the usual manner of serving legal documents. That is through the South African Sheriff. For expatriates, the court may order that the document may be served via email or through an attorney or sheriff in the foreign country.  Now we can move on to the issue of child custody and guardianship disputes.

Child custody and guardianship disputes where expatriates are involved

Child custody and guardianship disputes where one of the parents are expatriates of South Africa often occurs when one of the parents would leave South Africa for work.  Should there be a parent who wishes to leave on his or her own to work overseas; no consent would be required from the other parent to do so.

Consent for relocation of minor children

However, should a parent wish to relocate to another country or visit another country and take the minor child with temporarily for a year or two while he or she is working there, then under those circumstances, the consent of the other parent is required. This would be the case if both parents are holders of parental rights and responsibilities of guardianship over the minor child. In such a case both parents have to consent for the removal of the minor child from the Republic of South Africa. The same applies to an application for a passport for the minor child. If the father does not have guardianship rights, then his consent would not be required.

Consent for passport Applications for minor children

Although a minor child has a right to a passport as entrenched in our Constitution, if an application is made for the minor child’s passport, both parents who have parental rights and responsibilities of guardianship over the minor child has to consent to such an application.

If a parent is an expatriate in another country and he or she now wishes to have the minor child travel with him or her to his or her country of work, and the other parent does not wish to give consent for such travel,  then an application would have to be made to the court for the necessary consent. Such an application can still be made while the one parent is living abroad and the minor child is living in South Africa. Communications between the parent living abroad and the lawyers assisting that parent in South Africa can be done via email telephone or video conferencing. At the end of the day, the court will decide whether or not to send the minor child to the country where the expatriate resides based on whether or not it is in the minor child’s best interest.

Child maintenance claims by expatriates

It often happens that only one parent moves abroad with the minor child and the other parent remains in South Africa. With the current cost of living, a parent may find it hard to survive abroad without financial support from the other parent. If the parent living in South Africa does not want to contribute a reasonable sum of child maintenance, then the expatriated parent may approach the relevant authorities in the country to start the legal process of claiming maintenance from the parent in South Africa.

Reciprocal enforcement agreements between countries (the REMO Act)

South Africa is a signatory to international agreements with various other countries. In terms of these agreements, countries would work together in enforcing maintenance orders in foreign countries. The relevant legislation in South Africa is the Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Orders Act (the REMO Act).  This act is applied in South Africa should an expatriate wish to claim maintenance from a parent living in South Africa. The opposite also applies. Should a parent living in South Africa wish to claim maintenance from a parent living abroad in one of the signatory countries, he or she would make use of the REMO Act.

A list of the proclaimed countries or territories are as follows:

  • Australia

Capital Territory – New South Wales – Northern Territory – State of Queensland

South Australia – Tasmania – State of Victoria – Western Australia

  • Botswana
  • Canada

Alberta – British Columbia – Province of Manitoba – North West Territories – Province of Ontario

  • Cocoa (Keeling) Islands
  • Cyprus
  • Fiji
  • Germany
  • Guernsey (Bailiwick of)
  • Hong Kong
  • Isle of Jersey
  • Isle of Man
  • Kenya
  • Lesotho
  • Malawi
  • Mauritius
  • Namibia
  • New Zealand
  • Nigeria
  • Norfolk Island
  • Sarawak
  • Singapore
  • St Helena
  • Swaziland
  • United Kingdom

England – Northern Ireland – Scotland – Wales

  • United States of America

California – Florida

  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe


Are you an expatriate of South Africa and require advice or assistance on any of the issues mentioned above? Get in contact with us.

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About the Author

Advocate South Africa

Legal Advisor for Our Lawyer (Pty) Ltd
Call 0211110090
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One thought on “South African expatriates and South African Family Law – What do they need to know?

  1. I have moved to Vietnam to work and live and have my birth children with me.One is 21 and working here and the ither is 10.The father gives nothing mire thanR1000 for maintenance for the last 8yrs upon divorce.This isn’t enough and he refuses to help with more. Please help me.We both are SA citizens
    He has a side business and is a teacher and earns very well .He lives alone.

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