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Interview: The Rise Of Transnational Marriages (And Divorces) Set To Continue

Harriet Davies

25 January 2013

As digital technology and accessible air travel combine to make communicating across borders easier, many people are taking the opportunity to live lives that make the most of global opportunities: in investments, colleges, the job market and - consequently - love. Indeed, transnational marriages are on the rise around the world.

“With globalization, it’s easy for to travel, so there are now a lot of transnational marriages,” says Evie Jeang, managing partner ofIdeal Legal Group, who is capitalizing on this in her practice.

While once the preserve of the financial elite , international marriages are now commonplace. While data on the trend is understandably scant, according to the Economist there are around 10 million cross-border marriages in wealthy countries alone.

A growing trend

Looking ahead, all the statistics point to a world in which there are many more transnational marriages. Of course one never knows what global event may occur to dramatically reverse such trends, but businesses are betting on ever more global citizens. Boeing predicts travel between the US and Asia-Pacific to average growth of around 4.8 per cent through 2031.

Wealthy individuals are at the forefront of this, tending to own properties in many countries and to want to give their children “the best education,” says Jeang. Particularly at issue are the links between the US and China – arguably now the joint epicenters of the global economy.

In the 2011/12 academic year, 194,029 students from China were studying in the US, up 23 per cent from the previous year, making the Asian giant the top place of origin for students coming to the US. Meanwhile, buyers of US real estate from Hong Kong and China are the second largest group after Canadians, accounting for $9 billion in sales in the 12 months to March 2012, according to the Financial Times. That, too, marks a 23 per cent increase year-on-year.

What’s more, the US government is encouraging immigration of wealthy foreign citizens under the EB-5 investment program, created by Congress in 1990 to stimulate job creation and capital investment – of which wealthy Chinese make up a hefty proportion.

What all this means

For Jeang, whose clients are predominantly Chinese, this is a boon to business. More broadly though, it is likely to mean more family disputes across borders. The difficulty with that is the absence of international family law, says Jeang. “Every country has different laws applicable only to itself.”

For wealth managers who have clients facing such issues, Jeang’s advice is first and foremost to consult with an attorney who knows the other jurisdiction in question. You also have to consider what your clients’ priorities are when it comes to filing in a jurisdiction, as cross-border HNW clients will often have a choice. In a divorce case, is the client’s priority custody or financial?

“In Japan they don’t have spousal support, but they’re really hot on child custody. In Canada child support can go back to when a child is born. There are all these little nuances,” says Jeang. Before making a decision, “a lot of the time we would consult an attorney to understand what the catch is.”

“Originally you have to consider what the law is in the other country, and then in the US you have to consider the state,” she says, as states differ over how often they uphold private party agreements, among other differences.

Smooth collaboration

Collaboration with a partner firm is often necessary; to keep the collaboration as smooth as possible Jeang advises taking time to understand cultural norms.

“In Japan men still have more power than women - for instance, you still have to bow. That’s just the culture,” she says. “In China the woman doesn’t have as many rights as the man; you have to be aware of it, especially as a female attorney.

“Do some research, do some studies. In Japan when I have lunch or dinner with a client you don’t finish all your food out of respect…but in China, that means you don’t like it,” she adds.

And while some people might struggle with such social tightrope walking, Jeang says it’s part of what keeps her interest in her job alive: “You meet new people, you learn about the culture.”

But she admits that some aspects are hard: “I go to Asia a lot. One of the difficulties for me is the time difference. We’re only human!”

Changing attitudes

The influx of wealthy Chinese – through universities, property and other investments – mean they are likely to want representation in the US. Jeang is banking on her background to grow her client base: “I’m Taiwanese, I came here when I was 12, and can read and write Chinese. Most of my clients are Chinese because they appreciate that background.”

However, she has noticed that these skills have traditionally been less appreciated in the US than in more regional cultures, such as in Europe and Asia – where you tend to get blocks of countries tied closely together. But this is slowly changing, as inward investment to the US rises and the need to learn skills to do business and compete in other regions becomes appreciated.

“I hope it’s going to but it’s not as much as in Europe,” says Jeang. “In the US it’s really hard for people to leave to live in another country...It’s starting to happen, now that we have a lot of foreign investors.”