Cross-national couples in China discuss how they manage their community property and finances

By Yang Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/21 5:03:40

Cross-national couples should take some time to think about how they will manage their community property before making any decisions that would hurt them in the future, Chinese divorce lawyers say. Photo: IC

Smith Miller (pseudonym), a Dutchman based in Beijing, does not regret signing a housing agreement with his wife before they got married.

In Chinese traditional wedding custom, the husband's side of the family should prepare a "wedding house." Following the tradition, Miller bought an apartment near the 2nd Ring Road in 2004 after he got engaged to his Chinese wife. 

Miller readily put both their names on the deed to the apartment, but with a condition. "I asked my wife to sign a receipt for a loan to me," he said. "The receipt explicated that she borrowed money from me to buy the house together. So, if we broke up before our wedding, the apartment wouldn't count as a dowry to her."

His wife and her parents couldn't understand his behavior. "They felt insulted. However, it's a normal thing in Western countries. I considered it a cultural difference toward community property between cross-national couples," he said.

The pending divorce of Chinese film star Wang Baoqiang recently triggered online discussion about how to manage community property, property held jointly by a husband and wife, among Chinese. Wang announced that he was going to divorce his wife, Ma Rong, on August 14. Within three days of his announcement, his finances took a turn for the worst.

According to an August 17 Beijing News report, within days of his pending divorce going public, Wang's six bank accounts were cleaned out by his wife, leaving him with only around 100,000 yuan ($15,076) in cash. The report also said that despite his having property cumulatively valued at about 100 million yuan, Wang currently can't even afford his 240,000 yuan legal fee, and had to borrow money from his friends.

According to a May 13, 2015 Forbes report, Wang earned 26 million yuan and ranked No.71 on the Forbes China Celebrity List that year.

Wang's predicament has shocked many Chinese Net users and prompted heated discussions online. How to manage community property became a trending hot topic.

In cross-national marriages, deciding what falls under community property and how it is managed is an inevitable issue as well.

The number of cross-national marriages in China has seen a noticeable increase over the past few years. Cross-national marriages in Beijing increase by more than 1,000 every year. From 1996 to 2002, over 21,000 cross-national marriages were registered in Shanghai alone, according to news portal on August 14, 2015.

Community property is a particularly sticky subject for married cross-national couples when one or both of the individuals own property in China and overseas. Also, the different cultural approaches to dealing with joint property sometimes may cause conflicts, arguments or even end up in a divorce.

Cross-national divorces are more difficult than other divorce cases in China and require more time and money to dissolve, according to legal experts. Photo: IC

Before you marry

"I wouldn't buy an apartment in China if I didn't plan to get married to my wife," said Miller, who met his wife in 2002.

"We chose the house and made the decision together," he said. 

In Miller's mind, the apartment he bought is community property.

"We got married in the Netherlands. Based on the Netherlands' marriage law, a couple owns their house half and half. However, when I put my wife's name on the deed for the house, we were not married. So, there was no legal restraint between us," he said.

Therefore, to protect himself and ease his worries, Miller decided to ask his wife to sign a private written promise.

"I didn't consult any lawyers or legal advisers. It was not a prenuptial agreement, just a private written promise to protect my legal right before we can legally share the house. It meant nothing after we got married since each spouse owns half of the community property," he said.

Miller's wife was initially uncomfortable with his request, viewing it as a sign of his lack of trust in her. But, after Miller explained, she finally understood and signed it.

"We have been married for around 10 years, and we don't have community property issues anymore. But I could tell that if I hadn't come up with the written promise, she would feel happier," said Miller, adding that he still thinks he did the right thing and has no regrets.

Shi Qingpan, a cross-national marriage lawyer from S&P Law Firm in Beijing, told Metropolitan that signing a prenuptial agreement is a safe and effective way to protect the interests of people who enter a cross-national marriage.

Shi noted that for couples who sign a private agreement and give a true statement in it, the agreement has legal validity even without legal consultation prior to the agreement.

"It's not easy for Chinese to accept signing a prenuptial agreement. But thorough consideration is necessary before getting married," Shi said.

He suggested that cross-national couples should figure out if they can accept the cultural differences regarding community property arrangements. Also, they need to consider what kind of attitude and style they will use to manage their assets.

"Every cross-national marriage has its own specific situation. They need to find a proper way to manage their property. However, no matter what, the most important thing is to manage it based on love, mutual trust, and understanding," said Shi.

Women in charge

Miller believes that a mutual understanding of the cultural differences related to community property is essential to a happy cross-national marriage.

It took several years for him to get accustomed to the traditional Chinese family culture in which the husband earns an income and turns it over to his wife, who uses it to run the household.

At the beginning of their marriage, Miller and his wife had separate bank accounts, which was fine for him. In his mind, couples should have separate bank accounts.

"Most of my friends in the Netherlands apply to this method, and each spouse is responsible for paying different kinds of bills. For example, one is responsible for paying the rent and the other is responsible for paying for their children's stuff," he said.

A few years into the marriage, Miller's wife said she wanted to follow the Chinese way and take charge of his bank account as well. It was difficult for Miller to accept at first, but he eventually cottoned to the idea.

According to Miller, giving his wife complete control over his finances was a pretty good idea.

"She started to be careful with money, and did not spend money needlessly," he said.

Miller said before, she had no idea about saving money because he would pay for most of the family's daily expenses. But now she has more specific ideas about how and where to spend the money since she is in charge of it.

Ben Brown, a 42-year-old American, shares the same outlook. He has been married to his Chinese wife for two years. They have a one-year-old son and recently made a down payment for a new apartment in Chongqing.

Like Miller, Brown gives his wife total control over the proverbial purse strings, and the new apartment is in both their names.

Brown runs his own business in Chongqing and does pretty well for himself. He regularly turns over the profits to his wife.

"I will keep a small amount of money as beer money from my income every month and give the rest to my wife," said Brown. "We save and make decisions about expenses together."

Splitting community property

According to 2014 statistics published by iRead Weekly in August 2015, China is now home to 47,000 married cross-national couples. There has also been an increase in the rate of divorce among that group.

"I have dealt with lots of cross-national divorce cases," said Shi. "Usually, when it comes to the community property part, it will take longer and involve a more complicated process than we expected."

In 2015, a Chinese woman named Li Ping (pseudonym) went to court wanting to dissolve her cross-national marriage to her then German husband Tom Davis (pseudonym). The obstacles Davis encountered when he tried to get his share of the community property made an impression on Shi.

David paid most of the money for an apartment they bought together in Beijing. But to skirt the rigmarole that comes into play when a foreigner tries to purchase property in the city, he only put Li's name on the deed.

When they were getting divorced, the couple agreed to split the house fifty-fifty and temporarily put the money from the sale into Li's bank account. Li withdrew all the money without notice and ran away.

Shi suggested that it would be better to put the names of both spouses on the deed for jointly purchased property. If they can't, then it would be better to save solid evidence to protect their legal rights.

Miller said that the best way to protect a couple's community property is love and trust.

 "The longer we stay together, the deeper the trust and understanding between us," he said. "I had overseas assets in my name before getting married. But in my mind, they belong to my family [in Beijing]."

Newspaper headline: Who holds the purse strings?

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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