A Practical Guide to International Divorce in the Foreign Service
BY ELIZABETH FITZSIMMONS AND RICHARD SEIPERT
iStock.com / Robert Hoetink
Regardless of how common divorce is in the Foreign Service, when you go through it you feel like the first person who has ever tried to navigate the bureaucracy of the State Department.
Dissolving your marriage while simultaneously being an effective diplomat or specialist, taking care of your kids, writing employee evaluation reports or bidding, and processing the emotional effects of this massive life change (whether the divorce was your idea or not, it is a huge adjustment) can feel absolutely overwhelming. The experience can also be intensely lonely.
We both know, because we’ve been there. We had naively imagined there was some State Department affinity group for divorcing FSOs. Instead, we began to utilize our own Foreign Service networks. “I heard you served with someone who shares custody internationally. Can you send me their e-mail? Didn’t your former boss go through a divorce trial in Virginia? Do you think I can call her?”
But we survived to tell the tale, and promised ourselves in the darkest hours of our divorce sagas that when we got to the end of that long and bumpy road, we would pay it forward by sharing the lessons we learned the hard way. Our hope is that we can save colleagues from the mistakes, delays and hassles that were the unfortunate effects of wandering blind down the dark alley of Foreign Service divorce.
Still, right off the bat we want to offer the caveat that this article is no substitute for legal advice or consultation with a financial planner. We’re not attorneys, and our advice may be wrong, so please don’t sue us!
That said, we do believe our 10-step guide can help smooth your path by offering some signposts about the issues unique to divorce in a profession where “home is where the State Department sends you.”
No matter how far away from retirement age you are, consult with the Retirement Office as soon as you begin the nitty-gritty of financial negotiations with your soon-to-be-former spouse.
Step 1: Realize that just like Foreign Service life, FS divorce is exponentially more complicated than “regular” divorce (whatever that is!). We don’t say this to scare you, but to warn that you will face issues that most divorce lawyers and family court judges have never considered. These same lawyers and judges will make generalizations about our profession, and the countries where we serve, that may simply reflect ignorance or misinformation but are nonetheless shocking.
We had one family court judge say to us that “Bangkok wouldn’t be a good assignment because your kids could get sold into the sex trade there.” We’re not disputing the existence of human trafficking issues in Southeast Asia, but I’m not aware that FS dependents are even remotely at risk. Yet this is the sort of “fact” that you will confront over and over again, and it takes lots of patience and diplomatic skill to educate those you will rely on in this process about the realities of overseas life.
Step 2: Prepare for life in the embassy fishbowl to feel even less private than it already does. Another hard truth, we know, but you need to be prepared. You will lose friends who view your personal situation as a professional liability, or worry your divorce is contagious. You will lose friends who don’t want your child to be around their children. (This one is particularly heartbreaking, but we’ve seen it happen—and not just to us.)
But you will also discover that a few people—maybe some you never expected—will be steadfast friends, standing by you through it all. That is one of the bright spots of this process, which we also want to highlight.
Step 3: Get organized and do your research. Even if you think you and your divorcing spouse agree on everything, you are embarking on the most paperwork-heavy process you have ever been through. And if you do disagree, no detail is too small to document now to protect yourself later.
Start a file and a log like you are going to be reporting to the Executive Secretariat on a weekly basis. Once you get going in the “divorce process,” you will be asked to recall details of your financial situation, your children’s school records and your Thrift Savings Plan balance that you can’t possibly imagine now.
If you have a good system for keeping track of everything as you discuss it, your life will be much easier when you need to supply information to your lawyers, your former spouse or (worst-case scenario) the court. You should also be in regular contact with the Family Liaison Office; get their divorce handbook for a start, and read every page like your life depends on it. (Because to a certain degree, it does.)
Trust us: There are considerations in FS divorce that you can’t foresee, and you need experts on your side. And that leads us to:
Step 4: Lawyer up! Even if your divorce is proceeding without a hiccup right now, and you are envisioning a peaceful post-divorce friendship a la Demi and Bruce, at some point things will take a turn for the worse. This process is just so complicated that even if you can discuss it all civilly with your former spouse, there are considerations you can’t know about unless you are a former family law attorney (in which case you should put this article down and go do something fun!).
For example, the judge in our divorce was unable to issue the decree at the conclusion of the trial because Virginia law requires proof you have been living separate and apart from the spouse you are divorcing for one year from the date of separation before the divorce can be granted. This requires either testimony in the U.S. court or an affidavit from another adult living in your residence—not items most of us can readily provide from an overseas environment.
Do your research on lawyers. Just because someone says they “know about the Foreign Service” doesn’t mean they really do. We are still dealing with the fallout from an ill-informed attorney who did not include the State Department-required language in our property settlement on retirement payments. And this was someone from the FLO list! So be sure to get some references from actual FS folks they have represented.
Step 5: Clear your schedule. If you can possibly avoid bidding on it, this isn’t the time to take that 90-hour a week “dream” job. Getting divorced will be like a 40-hour-a-week job in itself. We managed to do this in a very busy embassy, thanks to the practical and emotional support of colleagues and a tremendous supervisor, but you can’t count on that. So minimize as many external pressures as you can.
Step 6: Get your team briefed up and loop in your human resources office right away. You and your estranged spouse both have rights and responsibilities in this process, and you need to know what those are. The State Department may pay for things (like a shipment from post for the departing spouse and plane tickets) that you won’t think of right away, but that will take tremendous logistical hassles off your plate. Your HR office should have someone who is an expert on FS divorce; if they don’t, they’ll be able to reach back to Main State and get the answers for you.
Step 7: Think long-term (as in retirement). It sounds crazy, we know, since you may be decades from leaving the work force, but you need to consult the Retirement Office as soon as you begin the nitty-gritty of financial negotiations with your soon-to-be-former spouse.
State’s basic perspective is that your former spouse is entitled to half of your pension and a full share of your survivor’s benefits unless and until he or she expressly waives that right and that waiver is accepted by the relevant team in the Retirement Office. You should also make sure to change the beneficiary designations on all of your accounts (Thrift Savings Plan, life insurance, etc.), but none of those steps by itself is sufficient to cover your retirement benefits. So consult early with the retirement team in the Bureau of Human Resources.
As more FS families stay overseas during and after divorce, it becomes even more vital to get your kids all the resources their school can muster.
This, too, is a lesson we learned the hard way. So learn from our mistakes and make sure to e-mail the divorce decree to the folks in Retirement when you begin the discussion of a property settlement, to ensure that your final divorce decree is acceptable to them. They will then issue you a determination letter, making that one fewer thing to worry about when you finally leave federal service.
Step 8: Don’t wait. It doesn’t get easier. We mean this in both the macro sense (the issues that are leading you to the decision to divorce won’t miraculously disappear at the next post) and from a practical perspective. If you think it is hard to agree now, just wait until you can no longer rely on the legal bond of marriage to get you to a consensus.
You may be tempted to put off some decisions, since you will face so many complicated issues in so short a time, but we urge you to confront and resolve everything possible during the divorce. We know it seems easier to say, “Well, we’re not living in the house in Arlington now, so he can sell it later and get me off the mortgage then.” But let us assure you that you’ll regret not sorting that out now.
Even if your divorce decree mandates a time by which the house must be sold, that verbiage is pretty toothless without a court date, and with any luck you’ll be on to a whole new (happier) chapter by the time that deadline arrives. The last thing you’ll want to do then is to revisit this issue. So resolve whatever the outstanding issue is now so that you can both close this chapter and move on.
Step 9: Bring school(s) into the loop. You should let your children’s teachers and the school administration know as soon as possible about the massive seismic shift that is coming in your kids’ lives. They can offer support, counseling for kids who need a safe place to process their feelings, and a sense of normalcy for family members who may not feel it anywhere else.
This isn’t always an easy thing to talk about. One school in a city with a large expat community told us it had never had a case where the kids stayed at post after a divorce. But despite a lack of familiarity with the process, that school really stepped up for us, as I think most responsible teachers and administrators will do. And as more families stay overseas during and after divorce, it will become even more vital to get your kids all the resources their school can muster.
You should also consider looping in the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Children’s Issues if you think disagreements with your estranged spouse put your children at risk of parental child abduction. CA can assist with a hold on passport applications for your child while you get a court order detailing custody, which is a huge weight off your shoulders.
Step 10: Believe that the end is in sight and that it will all be OK. This is the hardest part. One of us took more than three years to reach agreement on a framework for sharing custody internationally, and there were times when we literally thought we’d be embroiled in the divorce struggle forever. But it will end, you will move on, and your kids will be fine—and so will you.
Like so many things in life, if we knew then what we know now, we would have had faith. So I hope we can pay it forward now by offering some reassurance. We are happily remarried, as is one of our former spouses, and the other is happily pursuing the career of their dreams.
As we told ourselves in our darkest hours, “everyone will be happier eventually,” and that has turned out to be truer than we ever realized. Our kids look at this as another variation of the “third culture kid” life that was already familiar, and they are thriving, despite our worst fears.
We wish each of you luck, and whatever peace you can find in an inherently stressful process, and extend our hope that the future will be better and happier for everyone involved.