We’re breaking up – what are my rights?

We're breaking up - what are my rights?
Ask The Local:I have been in a relationship with a Swedish guy for the past five years and moved here for him three years ago, but unfortunately we are now breaking up. I know nothing about Swedish law and am worried about getting a fair deal with regards to the division of our property etc as we weren't married. What should I expect?

Claire, Uppsala.

Whether it’s insurmountable cultural differences, the stress of moving to a completely new country, or just the natural demise of a relationship, many ‘love refugees’ find themselves confronted with the reality of a break-up with their Swedish partner.

As in Claire’s case, grappling with Swedish law may feel a daunting task, and the language barrier doesn’t make things easier.

If faced with a breakup in Sweden, the first thing to do is forget everything you know about how divorce works in your home country.

Johan Sarvik, a Malmö based lawyer specializing in international and Swedish family law, explains that foreign citizens’ preconceptions represent one of the greatest difficulties during the legal dissolution of a relationship:

“People’s perceptions and expectations about the law are often based on that of their home countries. However, these often do not correspond with Swedish law.”

Sarvik’s advice is to make sure you fully understand the issues you are dealing with:

“Educate yourself. Go and see someone who works in family law, particularly someone with a thorough understanding of international family law. It is really important to make sure you know how Swedish legislation will specifically affect you.”

Further to this advice, Sarvik recommends researching the law before even arriving in Sweden: “You need to know where you will stand if you do break up.”

Family law is complex and dependent on the precise circumstances of the case in hand. The first issue is to establish whether you and your ex were legally cohabitees (‘sambo’ in Swedish). According to Swedish law, the criterion for a cohabiting relationship is that two people live together on a permanent basis, as a couple and share a joint household.

To clarify, if deemed to be living together as a couple, it is inferred that sexual relations normally constitute an aspect of the partnership. A household is legally ‘joint’ when chores and expenses are shared and cohabitants cooperate in daily household activities.

Joint financial affairs also need to be proven, although this does not need to be as specific as a shared bank account – it can just be evidence of financial cooperation over household costs.

Once this has been established, the general rule is that property shared by the cohabitants is split equally between the two partners. However, there are some crucial points to remember.

For one, couples who are married or in a (same-sex) registered partnership have different rights to cohabitees.

For cohabitees, the law will only split property (your home and household goods) down the middle if it was purchased for joint use. The dwelling is still included in the division if only one cohabitee is on the contract, as long as joint usage is provable.

Secondly, legally divisible property only comprises the joint home shared with your partner and the goods within it. It does not include bank assets, cars and holiday homes, for example.

If you moved into your partner’s home, this means that the property was not “acquired for joint use” and cannot be drawn into the division of property, even if you have contributed to mortgage repayments and other costs.

A further difference between the law regarding married couples and cohabitants is maintenance. For couples who have legally cohabited, there is absolutely no maintenance obligation towards one another, regardless of whether you have been together for a year or many years.

If children are involved, Swedish cohabitation law runs contrary to marriage law in that only the mother of the child is automatically granted custody. For a child whose parents are not married, paternity must be established by special order.

Importantly, there is a time limit on any demand for the division of property and any request must be made no later than one year after the relationship has ended.

If you and your ex cannot agree on how the property should be divided, then you can turn to the district court (Tingsrätten) and ask for judicial assistance for the split.

If you find yourself in an acrimonious position or you feel insecure about your legal position, then it would be best to consult a lawyer. Many embassies in Sweden have a list of contacts on their websites.

Do you have a question about the practicalities of living in Sweden? Then drop us a line at [email protected]

Jennifer Heape