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Marriage and Divorce in Thailand: When Love Turns Deadly
by Mark Beales

4 June 2010

Challenges facing Thai-foreign couples

The majority of marriages in Thailand do not end in divorce, and obviously very few end with murder. The nation’s divorce rate is relatively low, at around 0.58 per 1,000 people, compared to 4.95 for the United States and 3.08 for the United Kingdom. There are no clear statistics for how many Thai/foreign marriages last, although in 2007 in the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen 142 divorce cases were filed from Thais married to foreigners in just three months, far more than the norm. At the time a leading official said it seemed that the Thai women had become disillusioned with their relationships.

While the divorce rate may not be particularly high, Thailand makes headlines as when things go wrong, they can go wrong in spectacular fashion. Most couples quietly go their separate ways, but in Thailand some wives go to extreme lengths to get what they want, creating dramatic and sometimes deadly separations.

Whatever the reasons for the break-ups, mixed marriages come with obvious obstacles. Few Thais speak fluent English and few foreigners speak perfect Thai, so language barriers can be an issue. Cultural hurdles are arguably even greater. Thais value their family above all else. If relatives need help, help is usually given at any cost.

Thailand is a non-confrontational society so Thais may look to hide problems, such as debt or family issues, from their spouse rather than address them head-on, which can lead to tension once the issue comes to light.

It is as difficult to generalize about Thai/foreign marriages as it is to talk about any couple. Yet perhaps Thai/foreign couples tend to attract more headlines as some, but certainly not all, couples meet in a bar. Thailand has a reputation for its licentious nightlife that is generally deserved. Resorts such as Pattaya and Phuket are home to hundreds of bars offering companionship and more. Many of the women who work in the bars come from poor, rural, backgrounds. When they ask a man to ‘take care’ of them, they mean financially more than emotionally. Coupled with laws that make it hard for foreigners to take ownership of property and there is plenty of potential for conflict.

How to protect valuable assets

Before a foreigner even gets married, it’s traditional to give a dowry (sin sot) to the bride’s family. This is based on the woman’s education, previous marriages, children, and general social status. Thai grooms also pay this, although it is often merely for show and returned afterwards. The dowry can range from some jewelry and gold up to millions of baht in the case of high society couples. Some foreign grooms see the dowry as anachronistic, but to refuse to give one can lead to tension with the in-laws even before the wedding day. It’s usually possible to negotiate; if a woman has been married before, has children and did not attend university the dowry would be fairly modest.

Prior to the wedding day there are several other things the couple should consider. Firstly, deciding where to live is not as easy as just buying a house and moving in. Thailand has strict laws preventing foreigners from owning land, and so many foreigners put their property in their wife’s name. If they separate the wife will generally retain ownership of the land, and the foreigner will have no claim to it. When property is purchased in this manner, the foreigner has to go to the Land Department and sign a declaration that says any money used to buy the land belongs completely to the Thai person involved.

Nevertheless, there are options available to foreigners for Thailand asset protection, including the creation of wills that are valid in Thailand.  It is possible to own condominiums freehold, and it’s also possible to secure 30-year or more leases on property that guarantees the foreigner’s right of abode. Doing this doesn’t equate to ownership, but leases of up to 90 years ensure some security.

One of the more popular options is to register a business in Thailand and place any home in the company’s name. Such a practice can be risky as technically such businesses need to turn a profit and employ people.

What to do if things go wrong

Once the accommodation is arranged, marriage in Thailand is the easy part, it just involves signing some paperwork; divorce in Thailand, on the other hand, can be more complicated. If both parties agree, things can be settled quickly. If there are disputes about custody of children or property, things can take much longer. That makes it a ‘contested’ case and will probably end up in a courtroom.

A contested divorce can also occur if one party simply does not want to split up. In that case, the other side would have to give reasons for a separation. There are several ways of showing justifiable reasons for a divorce. These include a lack of support, physical or mental abuse, the wife’s adultery or if the husband has found a new wife, desertion for more than a year, three years’ separation or insanity. Other factors could be imprisonment, unreasonable behavior, or an incurable communicable disease.

When it comes to dividing up property, in most cases what belonged to one party before the marriage generally stays with that party. Anything acquired during the marriage is thought to be jointly owned and so is often jointly divided up. In the same fashion, any debts that mounted up during the marriage are also the responsibility of both parties. This area of Thai law is complex though, and so there are often exceptions. It’s a brave person who predicts how Thai courts will come to a judgment.

Do prenuptials carry any weight?

An obvious way to avoid complications is to draw up a Thailand prenuptial agreement. These are normally accepted in court, as long as they are signed by both parties, two witnesses and were handed to a district office. Naturally, any prenuptial agreement would still prevent a foreigner from owning land in Thailand, so such documents need to be carefully worked out with a lawyer experienced with Thailand-international prenuptial agreements.

The strength of a prenuptial agreement is that it allows each side to agree exactly how assets would be divided if a divorce ever occurs. For such agreements to be valid it is important that they are reasonable; one that is too harsh could simply be disregarded by a judge. Better to decide on equitable terms than to leave such decisions to the courts.

Prenuptials in Thailand must follow certain procedures in order for it to hold up in court. A case from Australia illustrates this point: A pregnant Thai wife was told to sign a prenup just three days before the wedding. The wife, who had no legal representation, claimed she was not told about some of her future husband’s property. The court heard that the husband presented his wife with the agreement days before the marriage, and said the wedding would be cancelled if she did not sign it. Reluctantly, she agreed. The wife initially tried to use a false signature but the husband forced her to sign the documents again. The woman said she was keen to marry as she was due to return home to Thailand and did not want the stigma of being an unmarried mother.

The judge cancelled the agreement as the husband did not fully disclose his finances, did not properly explain the effects of the agreement to his wife and because the agreement was signed under duress.

Nobody likes to consider a marriage failing before it’s even started, but it’s a simple fact that anyone considering marriage in Thailand should also consider the ‘what if?’ factor. Many foreigners are tempted to sell up everything and enter into arrangements they would not countenance back home as the appeal of Thailand often outweighs logical thought.

Ian Beeston and Toby Charnaud are tragic cases. Their violent deaths grabbed the headlines and strengthened the cliché that foreign/Thai weddings are based more around wealth than love. They seem to represent a lost dream of life in an exotic land; an escape from reality in a land of smiles. That may or may not be true, but it’s undoubtedly wise to take some kind of reality check before entering any kind of marriage, especially one in a foreign land.

Far better for potential husbands to remove the rose-tinted glasses and see things objectively than to discover some unpleasant truths when it’s too late.   

Related Articles:

Defrauded in Thailand

Considerations for International Prenuptial Agreements

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