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Practical Advice on Divorce and Child Arrangements in Finland

By on 07/01/2017

 

Like many foreigners in Finland I had the opportunity to try out the Divorce process. For the most part it went pretty well but there is some insight that can be shared from what I gleaned along the way.

If you have made a decision to get a Divorce in Finland the way forward is pretty straight forward. The process is fair and relatively cheap compared to other countries. Marriages here are conducted for free, but a divorce processed by your local municipal court will set you back around €100.

With a divorce rate over 50% there has been plenty of opportunity to streamline the process. Most couples in Finland are able to get along quite amicably after the divorce which is best especially where children are involved.

The Finnish Marriage Act  is the law that governs divorce and the responsibilities related to children after the dissolution of marriage . The Act is surprisingly  readable for the layman and outlines the principles that govern the process. In this article I will also try to highlight some of the more practical points of how the details are worked out.

Applying for the Divorce

You have to lodge a Divorce application with your local court. There is a no fault divorce system in Finland so you do not need to establish a reason why you want to get divorced. Either party or both can apply for the divorce.

Unless you have already been living separate for 2 years this will invoke a 6 month reconsideration period. After that 6 month period you make a final notification to the court and they grant  the divorce.

You will need to do a financial settlement which is advisable to do within the first 6 months but there is no deadline for it. If you have children it is best that you agree the living arrangements and maintenance payments as soon as possible and before the divorce is finalised.

How to formally agree Child Maintenance and Visitation

The easiest way to agree child maintenance and visitation is to make an appointment with your local Child Representative office (Lastenvalvoja). They have the responsibility to represent your children and see that what is agreed is in the interest of the child’s welfare. A staggering 90% of child maintenance agreements are settled here without ever needing court involvement which is pretty impressive.

Agreement with the Lastenvalvoja is completely voluntary but bear in mind, once agreed and signed, it is legally binding and you will need to go to court to change it if both parties cannot agree to changes in a future meetings with the Lastenvalvoja.

Escalating to the Court

If you and your ex cannot agree things with the Lastenvalvoja the next step is court mediation. It is applied for through your local municipal court. Both of you sit down with a judge and try to make a deal. This is the preferred option for the court and probably for you because statistics show it is a much more effective way to reach agreement rather than going to trial.

The court is generally very reasonable and the law for both parents is fair and equal. If you or your former spouse are requesting things that are unreasonable or not the common practice then both will usually be put in their place very quickly by the judge. The key is to be reasonable, rational and mature about how you approach the negotiation.

If things do move towards the court it’s important that you get the application to the court as quickly as possible because even though it may take some time to actually get a hearing, the decisions are always back dated to when they received the application. The application needs to be lodged in Finnish or Swedish with no exception.

If things do go down this road I recommend checking if you qualify for free legal aid. It is based on income assessment. These government lawyers are pretty keen to get the cases closed so they usually work together well to reach a resolution. Avoid going to trial at all costs as things things usually get pretty dirty with each party attacking the other’s character which is not a good road to be on when you have to still work together to raise children.

How Child Maintenance is determined

Kela establishes on a yearly basis what they believe the cost of raising a child is. For a 5-10 year old they estimate it to be somewhere around €350. It includes housing, food and clothing. As the child gets older, eats more and has more needs the cost go up. Kela’s estimates reflect this.

This amount is the starting point to work out how much money needs to be allocated to the child and how much each parent will pay towards the child. It is income based so whoever earns more money pays a higher percentage of the cost to the main parent that the children live with. The main parent is usually the one that Kela pays the basic child payment to.

Each party usually produces their pay slips for the last 12 months and a proposal is put forward on how much each party should contribute. If for example the mum is the main parent and earns €2000 a month and the dad who is the secondary parent earns €3000 a month then the mum might contribute €50 to the child’s costs (which she allocates from her own money) and the father would pay to the mother €300 a month.

There is a certain amount of protected income for the second parent but it is very low. Kela estimates that the second parent needs to be able to pay their housing costs, electricity, telephone and around €300 or so a month to live on. Car expenses, loans and other costs do not fall under the protected income. Anything over that amount is available to be allocated to the child in form of a payment to the main parent.

The minimum payment that can be paid to the main parent is about €150 per child per month. If the other parent cannot pay this then Kela will pay it to the main parent but the threshold to be exempt from paying Maintenance  is so low and based on pension contributions over previous years that pretty much no one is exempt from paying even if they don’t have any income. Kela will kindly raise a debt for the second parent which will be eagerly waiting for you when they find a job.

If one party is an entrepreneur then things can be a little more difficult. If the salary of the person with the company is less than what would be considered normal for someone in their industry then there is burden of proof on the party with the company to explain the disparity.  Companies can be complex and unfamiliar for the Lastenvalvoja office and I am sure there are many that abuse the system so I do understand their reservations.  The best way forward if there are questions is to get a letter from the company accountant giving some background.

If both parents are earning similar money they can agree to pay their own expenses, especially if they have the children for similar amounts of time but this is an agreement between the parents and the default is what is described above.

On top of this cost estimate for raising a child (€350 mentioned above) there is usually a discussion to add other costs. Say for example the child has private health insurance or hobbies then the main parent would ask for those to be added to the monthly payment.

Tips on negotiating child maintenance

The best course of action is to agree to pay your share of the Kela estimate but not to include any other costs like hobbies into that amount but to pay those separately. The reason for this is that once that monthly maintenance amount is agreed then it is set in stone. If circumstances change and your ex does not agree to change anything with the Lastenvalvoja then you will have to take it to court which is a long and difficult process.

Say for example your child has expensive piano lessons and then your ex stops the piano lessons. You will still be paying for piano lessons regardless in that fixed and indexed monthly payment. On the same token it is important to not be a jerk. Generally the courts see that hobbies are quite normal for kids and if they see that you can afford it but have not been paying those separately then they will quite quickly add those hobbies to the fixed monthly amount.

Agreeing to pay hobbies separately is a very good idea because it also gives you a say in what the hobbies should be. Also there is accountability that the money is actually spent on hobbies. If you just pay the flat amount in the monthly payment then it is just a blank cheque for your ex to use as they wish.

Also very important especially when negotiating the initial amount is not to be motivated by guilt to pay more than is suggested by the Lastenvalvoja. A lot of people feel guilty about getting a divorce and may willingly offer to pay a lot more than required.

This is bad because it is seldom used on the children and often creates a long term dependency on the money from the other party. What’s more it can be very burdensome later on when new relationships are established and new costs arise. If you feel guilty pay the money separately but keep it out of the contract.

Child maintenance payments are also supposed to include a portion of money for the person who receives the payment to buy clothing for the children. I am yet to see this working in practice and in my experience you will still need to buy clothes for your child usually for the time they spend with you. Your ex will often dress them in the small and hole ridden clothing hoping you get the hint to buy new clothes.

There is not much you can do about this but complain when you have your Lastenvalvoja meeting. At the end of the day you want your child to be dressed well and have what they need so just get over the frustration and buy the needed clothing. If you are tight on money second hand shops have some pretty good clothing for the price.

How Child visitation rights are worked out

As a starting point both parents have joint Custody and Guardianship of the child. A person has to screw up pretty bad to lose these rights, especially if that person is the child’s mother. The courts are very supportive of fathers playing an active role with their children.

The younger the children are the more the Lastenvalvoja or court will favour the child living with the main parent for a larger amount of time. Week on and week off with either parent is a bit hard for young children under 8. A better option is to see the children on closer intervals like once every 2 – 3 days and slowly work towards the week on and week off model.

The parents are quite free to agree arrangements between themselves and have it ratified by the Lastenvalvoja. Once again he/she has the responsibility to evaluate what is in the best interest of the child and will make appropriate recommendations. Finland is a very good country for getting extra support and input from child psychologists or other experts if needed. Ask your local municipality about it.

The most important thing is that the child feels they have frequent access to both parents. When my parents divorced I was 5 years old and my father disappeared from regular contact for what seemed like a long period of time. I remember feeling insecure that my mother would also disappear one day and this caused me a lot if stress.

I paid special attention with my own children that I was very active with them after the divorce. Sometimes this was just playing in the park with them for half an hour in the afternoon. Its about being active and present and not which house they sleep at on which night of the week.

The Financial Settlement

When it comes to dividing assets Finland is a very good place to get a divorce. Men and women get treated equally and the split is 50/50. In Finland the majority of women have their own careers and money so there is seen unnecessary to award a larger portion of the assets to the woman to compensate for diminished earning capacity. Alimony is also highly uncommon and only used if a lump sum financial payout is not a feasible option.

It is a very good idea to involve a lawyer in writing up a financial settlement. It is important that what is agreed is according to the law. If it is not then it will not be binding and can be easily appealed later on. Also where banks are involved they will usually be unwilling  process a settlement and transfer assets without seeing legal documents prepared by a Finnish lawyer.

Involving a Court appointed Executor

If there is disagreement on how assets are to be split, the best and cheapest course of action is to ask the court to appoint an Executor. This is a lawyer appointed by the court who will make binding decisions on how the assets are split. You may nominate an executor to the court and the other party will be asked in writing if they object. By law the lawyer must be able to act impartially and have no ties to either party.

This Executor will be paid for their time and the amount will usually be under €2000 if both parties can agree quickly. If the process is dragged out or the case is complicated the costs may be much more. The cost of the Executors time is split equally between the parties. Both parties may also have their own lawyers present but it is not mandatory and quite unnecessary.  If one of the parties has a lawyer and the other does not then the Executor will represent the interests of the party without the lawyer to ensure a fair playing ground. The fewer lawyers there the better and it can be advantageous to have the mediator representing your cause.

The first step is that both must prepare detailed information on Assets and Liabilities related to the marriage. Any information or assets are not disclosed this will have the same effect as having misled the court. The Executor will usually give both parties an opportunity to agree things themselves but will move things along if decisions are not forthcoming.

Financial Settlement can be started as soon as the parties separate. It has no bearing on the divorce being granted and may be completed after divorce, though it is a good idea to get it done as soon as possible to avoid complications.

Splitting Assets

According to the law, a person’s personal effects remain their personal property and the other party has no claim to them. Assets of value and liabilities are shared equally. When starting your financial settlement it is a good idea to list all the items that you agree are settled and just focus on the topics that still need to be agreed.

Liabilities are determined from the time of separation. This is usually when the request for a divorce is lodged. So if there was a shared personal loan and it was increased by one party after the separation then it would not impact the other party. Assets however are split from the date of settlement so if a financial settlement was done 10 years after a divorce then the value of a shared house would be based on its market value at the time of settlement.

In the case where no prenuptial agreement has been signed, Liabilities and Assets that a person comes into the marriage with remain theirs but the other party may have claim to financial remuneration related to assets, offset by the liabilities. (Example: Emma has a student loan of 30k and an apartment worth 50k from before she was married, Spouse John could claim a 10k share of the house). If the marriage has lasted shorter than 5 years an executor can limit the claim to assets accumulated prior to the marriage.

Generally speaking inheritance or royalties do not get split as they are seen as being personal but legal advice should be sought on the details. It is also possible in the case of inheritance for a person giving inheritance to specifically exclude a spouse that is not their legal child. This gives added protection in terms of guarding ones inheritance.

Generally speaking there is usually a payout of some sort. Provided you have a good credit record, banks in Finland can be quite reasonable about helping to finance the payout. This is a good option as it enables the matter to be closed and for things to move forward. There is a tendency of parties to try to put conditions on how the other party will spend the money paid out. Give up on this idea and just accept that it is their money and they can spend it how they like, even if it is spent in poor judgement.

Once the paper is signed you are one step closer to moving forward with your life.

Life after Divorce

Divorce is a very hard time emotionally but it is important that you be able to park emotions for the sake of the children and get along amicably with your ex. There is a process that you need to go through and it takes time. Reestablishing your social life is a good start to getting things back on track. Join activity groups and sign up for classes where you get to meet people in a meaningful way is a good step forward.

It may feel like a lot of fun and freedom in the beginning but there may come a time where you wish things had have been different, especially when children are involved. It is completely normal to feel depressed and to feel sorrow for how things turned out. Avoid blaming the other party because this is just denial of the role you played in things and a hinderance to your process of healing. There is no point spending excessive time looking back. Gather your lessons learnt and move on.

Its been 5 years for me since I got my divorce and it has been an interesting journey. I had a lot of disappointment and frustration that I had to work through but I am very much at peace with how things turned out. One big step forward for me was when I made a choice to be in Finland because I wanted to be here. No one was forcing me but I chose to be a part of my children’s life. Often times when we change our perspective we see the world in a different light.

Hang in there, be positive and good things will happen.