SAWAL . SCHÜLLER . HANKE | German Family Law in a nutshell
Article about German Family Law. Introduction to German Custody Laws, Matrimonial Property and Divorce.
German Family Law Custody Divorce Pension Matrimonal Property
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German Family Law in a Nutshell

German Family Law in a Nutshell

At some point in life everyone has to do deal the law. Whether it is obtaining the correct documents for a marriage, the birth certificate for a child, the settlement of an automobile accident, other insurance issues, or the last will and testament (to name a few). For most of the people it means stress. It is is even more complicated and I guess more stressful if you have to deal not only with domestic law, but with foreign law. On the one hand, you probably don’t speak the language, and on the other hand, the legal system of a country is always an expression of its cultural understanding. German family law for example is based on the so called civil law system, whereas the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and other countries around the world base their understanding of the law on the common law system. As a family attorney practicing in Germany, but having been around and experiencing the understanding of law in other countries – mostly in the US, Canada and the UK – I can understand how challenging it must be to suddenly be confronted with a foreign legal system. I can still remember as a young lawyer trying to familiarize myself with U.S. family law. Not easy when you have studied German law for years. Knowing this challenge, this article is intended to provide an introduction to German family law. German family law deals with the universal problems of parental care/custody/responsibility, divorce and property settlement in all its facets. Let’s take a closer look at these three major sub-matters of family law .


a) Custody 

There are some unique elements regarding German family law. For instance, the German law has an interesting approach regarding the participation of (minor) children in custody/visitation proceedings (that is at least the feedback I got from many practitioners around the world). Unlike in other countries, the hearing of children plays a central role in the proceedings. In general, the court – the judges – must hear a child if it is older than three years. Now, many of you would say three years is a little young to express an autonomous will. But that’s the case law. A child is also – like in the US – represented by a guardian called „Verfahrensbeistand“. A guardian is basically the child’s attorney representing the child in the proceeding. This approach tempts parents to behave in a particular way, namely intensively influencing (some would call it manipulating) their children before a hearing. Not that this does not happen elsewhere, the central role of the „voice of the child“, increases the temptation. A custody proceedings starts with a written application and normally ends with a hearing. Other than in other countries a hearing normally lasts 1 – 4 hours depending on the specific circumstances. Evidentiary hearings that last for hours are among the absolute exceptions, and hearings that last for days are de facto non-existent. So coming from a law system like the US or Canada where hearings, cross-examinations etc. could last days if not weeks, the way a German hearing is held is probably a relief. The courts have a slightly different role than in the common law system as they have to investigate child matters themselves. It is the court which collects evidence by the involvement of the child welfare services, by appointing a guardian or an expert. The motion comes from one of the parties, in most cases one the parents, but the next steps are normally determined by the court including collecting evidence. That doesn’t mean that the parties of proceeding are exempt from presenting own evidence, it just means that the Court has extensive power in order to assess the children’s best interests. Child custody cases shall be expedited and a hearing of the parties involved shall normally be held within four weeks of the filing of the petition. If married, both parents have joint custody. If not, the mother has sole custody – the father can apply for joint custody via a simplified process. Another topic is the so called „Wechselmodell“ as a trending parenting schedule – each parent has 50% of the parenting time – but that is reserved for another article (coming soon!).

b) Divorce 

Divorce is a very formalized process. In principle, only the divorce itself and the pension equalization, i.e. the adjustment of pension benefits acquired during the course of the marriage, have to be settled as part of the divorce. All other ancillary matters have to be filed separately to be part of the divorce proceeding. The single requirement for a divorce is a separation of the spouses for more than a year (the famous „Trennungsjahr“). Of course a divorce, if ancillary matters as the the equalization of accrued gains are filed, can be a very lengthy, time- and cost-intensive matter. Divorce can be simpler (but also more complicated – if they have for example entered into such agreement in another country or if they have chosen foreign law to be applicable!) if the spouses have entered into a prenuptial/postnuptial agreement. But about this in a separate article. 

c) Division of Matrimonial Property

The default regime for dividing matrimonial property is the „Zugewinnausgleich“ (equalization of accrued gains). In theory this regime is quite simple. One compares the assets (of the spouses) at the time of marriage with those at the time of service of the divorce petition. The spouse who gained more during the marriage must compensate the other for half of the difference. The parties can – in a pre-nup or post-nup modify the property regime choose the regime of separate property (Gütertrennung) or they can modify the default regime by excluding certain assets (among other ways of modification). There is a lot more to say (or to write). Please check our website for more content.

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Dr. Andreas Hanke