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An expensive lesson in foreign divorce

Daniel Wise warns Americans overseas to research to protect themselves in international court matters

By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 25, 2007

There’s a right way to hire a divorce lawyer in Germany, and there’s at least one wrong way.

Daniel Wise, an audio visual assistant at the training support center in Hanau, Germany, knows at least one wrong way.

All the usual things that are lost or endured in a divorce — money, time, grief — Wise knows from firsthand experience.

His ex-wife, he’ll tell you, had nothing to do with it.

His story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when an American, unfamiliar with an overseas legal system and its lawyers, doesn’t do his homework before jumping into foreign legal waters.

Wise’s first mistake happened more than six months ago. That’s when he picked a divorce attorney at random from an advertisement in Stars and Stripes.

In her ad, the lawyer, Konstanze Gerdien, advertised her 17 years of international law experience, and expertise in divorce, car accidents and malpractice suits. Wise thought he had found someone who would help quickly settle his simple, uncontested divorce.

But he was in for a world, and a wallet’s worth, of trouble.

“It’s almost like some reality TV drama,” he wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Wise hired Gerdien in May, and paid her half the 900 euros she’d asked for as a deposit. He immediately forwarded her all the documents she wanted.

He’d already endured the mandatory cooling-off period required before divorce in Germany, and was well on his way to a divorce he and his wife both wanted.

After Wise forwarded the money and paperwork to Gerdien, weeks passed without a word about his case. Concerned, he called and e-mailed the lawyer’s office more than a dozen times, he said. He endured the silence for three months before he tried a different tactic.

“This lawyer didn’t reply to any of my e-mails, didn’t return any of my phone calls, and the secretary always told me she wasn’t in the office,” Wise wrote on Aug. 10 in a letter to the editor of Stars and Stripes.

He also contacted the 1st Armored Division legal office in Wiesbaden, and Dirk Reinhard, a German lawyer and legal adviser, tried to contact Gerdien for him.

In a phone conversation on Aug. 13, Gerdien told Stars and Stripes the whole issue had been a misunderstanding and that she’d explained everything to Reinhard.

A day later, Wise heard from Gerdien.

“I saw that you have doubts,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Mr. [Reinhard] from the JAG office in Wiesbaden has called me and a reporter from the Stars and Stripes. To be able to give you more information I contacted the Hanau family court house.”

She gave him the case file number and the judge’s name, and said the court date hadn’t been set.

Gerdien told Stars and Stripes she’d prepared the case and sent it to the family courthouse in Hanau in June, and that the holdup wasn’t her fault. “The judge is out, so it’s delayed,” she said.

A clerk at the courthouse said that wasn’t the case. The court received the divorce paperwork from Gerdien on Aug. 14 — the same day she contacted Wise.

When asked about the clerk’s assertion, Gerdien canceled her advertising account with Stars and Stripes and asked that she not be contacted again.

She contended that she’d done nothing wrong and that it was not unusual for German lawyers to go three months or more without contacting their clients.

Reinhard disagreed. He advised Wise to get a new lawyer.

Gerdien made the decision easy for Wise. She e-mailed him, saying that the newspaper planned to run a story that could damage her reputation, and told him he was responsible for stopping it.

“If due to your action the article is published I see there is no basis to work for you and I will drop down the case,” she wrote.

Wise picked a new attorney from an Army-approved list of English-speaking lawyers and broke off his arrangement with Gerdien, who by then had secured a court date for Wise’s divorce. There had been no contract between them, he said. In hindsight, he realized this was a mistake.

Still, Wise was hopeful that he’d get most, if not all, of his money back from Gerdien. But because she had secured a court date, she was entitled to his money — more than $600 at May’s exchange rate — according to German law. It didn’t matter that she’d shelved his case for more than three months.

Gerdien even tried to bill Wise another 200 euros, at which he and Reinhard scoffed.

There was more bad news. Because he dropped Gerdien, Wise had to pay his new attorney to do all the work Gerdien was supposed to have done.

Wise paid another 877 euros — roughly $1,270 at early November’s exchange rate — for the new lawyer’s services.

If he’d known he’d have to start paying all over again, he said, he probably would have stuck with Gerdien.

About $1,800 in lawyer fees later, Wise got his day in court on Nov. 7. After 20 minutes in the judge’s chambers, Wise walked out single.

“I’m relieved,” he said of the ordeal. “I can finally move on with my life and future plans.”

But before moving on, he said he wanted others to know about what he’d gone through.

“When dealing with people on the Germany economy, Americans really need to protect themselves, know what to look for, and where to go for sound advice in certain matters,” he wrote.</p


Pros and cons for Americans getting divorced in Germany

Marriage is kind of like joining the military: It’s easy to get in, but if you want out before your commitment is up, it’ll cost you.

But it’s not impossible — even if you’re serving in Germany.

While the military doesn’t handle divorces, German courts will in many cases.

Getting divorced in Germany has its advantages and disadvantages, according to Joe Maiss, an attorney with Frankfurt’s Nickel law firm, which handles more than 100 American civilian and servicemember divorce cases a year.

Advantages for Americans:

  • U.S. personnel can retain all retirement benefits, and retirement will have to be dealt with in a different proceeding in the United States. It’s difficult for a German party to do because they will have to hire a U.S. attorney, he said. In nearly 24 years of service, he’s never seen that done.
  • Parties don’t have to go back to the States; they appear in the local court.
  • The status of forces agreement offers protections to servicemembers in cases with countersuits. This can also be a disadvantage for local nationals married to Americans.
  • Only one spouse has to sign off on the divorce — not two, as in many U.S. states.
  • “Almost any case that involves a local national and children, a U.S. court will not accept jurisdiction,” Maiss said. German courts will.
  • Any arrangement made — including those involving children — is enforceable in Germany and the States. “It’ll go as far as the involvement of U.S. Marshals to obtain child support through the state child support agencies,” he said.
  • Father’s rights aren’t ended or reduced when the servicemember leaves Germany. Rather, visitation rights are guaranteed, even across the Atlantic, and his right to see his children in the States and here can be enforced.
  • German courts and lawyers are generally more well-versed in international divorce (cases involving more than one nationality) than U.S. courts are.

Disadvantages for Americans:

  • The biggest problem is serving divorce papers. If one spouse is in the U.S. and the other is in Germany, service can take months. If one spouse is downrange, service is impossible unless the troop appoints a representative.
  • Court and lawyer fees are usually calculated in euros. An average divorce costs about 2,000 euros, which covers both court costs and lawyer fees.
  • Child support payments are made until the child is 18 and able to support himself, unless he goes to college, in which case support continues until he completes his studies.
  • Servicemembers married to Americans must be in the country a year before German courts have jurisdiction. There is also a mandatory one-year separation before a divorce can be finalized.