International Families and D.C. Divorce: Avoiding the Pitfalls

By Published On: October 16, 2015

Maria had lived in the U.S. for twenty-four years as the stay-at-home spouse of a high-ranking World Bank employee, both she and her husband having retained citizenship in their country of origin.  Her children were educated and out on their own, and Maria felt increasingly isolated as her marriage deteriorated.  She and her husband had largely socialized with employees of other international organizations at the Bretton Woods Country Club and in gatherings in private homes.  Most of the couple’s finances were handled outside of mainstream U.S. financial institutions since they banked and obtained car and mortgage loans exclusively through the Bank-Fund Staff Federal Credit Union and did not pay U.S. taxes.  Maria’s husband accumulated all of the couple’s retirement interests through the Staff Retirement Plan.

Maria’s husband repeatedly told her that if they divorced, he would not be sharing his retirement or any of the other assets titled in his sole name with her.  For her part, Maria was struggling with the deeply-embedded values of her culture – that she would bring shame upon herself and her entire family if she divorced.

Given Maria’s isolation and lack of information, what can she do?  Here are four suggestions for the spouse of the World Bank employee (or of the other international organizations located in Washington, D.C., such as the International Monetary Fund or Inter-American Development):

(1)  Understand that you and your spouse are subject to U.S. divorce laws and the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts, and  that you have rights.  This can be a difficult concept for a dependent spouse such as Maria to understand.  The totality of her experience in the U.S. has been largely separate and apart from American society, financial institutions, and governmental and judicial functions.  And Maria likely has no role models of other spouses of international organizations employees who have successfully accessed the U.S. judicial system in a divorce context.  So it is understandable that it is challenging for Maria to avoid relying on her husband’s view of her legal situation..

(2)  Take advantage of the resources available to you.  In recent years, the World Bank Group has significantly expanded the assistance it makes available to the spouses of its employees.  For example, there is a free, confidential counseling referral and case management service which is available to help spouses and other family members who feel they may be in an abusive relationship.   Spouses are also entitled to obtain certain basic information about the employee’s salary, retirement, and other benefits directly from the World Bank.  The World Bank also maintains a referral list of private attorneys experienced in helping international spouses in a divorce context. Using the available resources and obtaining the necessary information will empower you and your attorney to make informed and strategic decisions on how to best navigate separation and divorce.

(3)  Develop a plan.  Working with an experienced family law attorney, financial planner and other sources of support, develop a plan to address your unique needs in transitioning from marriage to separation and divorce.  Basic components of your plan should include identifying specific goals, gathering and analyzing the relevant information, and creating action steps to move forward.  When you develop a plan and then begin to work through its steps, you will increase your confidence that you will obtain a good result.

(4)  Don’t underestimate your own worth or the value of your contributions.  Divorce laws in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia all list the contributions of both parties to the well-being of the family (including the homemaker contributions of a stay-at-home spouse) as a factor to be considered in determining both alimony and property division.  So Maria’s contributions — in raising the parties’ children, preparing the meals, and maintaining the home — are as relevant and as important as her husband’s contributions in bringing home the pay check.

Partner Marina Barannik has extensive experience in working with international clients, including those affiliated with the World Bank Group and other international organizations.  The daughter of a foreign diplomat, Marina understands the challenging cross-cultural issues facing international families living in the Washington Metropolitan area.  Contact her at mbarannik@ftlf.com or (202) 466-8960.


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