When Evie Jeang was 12, she moved with her mother from Taiwan to the Los Angeles area. Her mother, who had divorced from Jeang's father a few years earlier, worked two jobs to send Jeang to a private school, but the hard work paid off when Jeang earned a J.D. from Southwestern Law School.
Today, she believes her transnational upbringing, with parents living about as far apart as two people can, put Jeang in good stead for the work she found for herself -- international divorce.
As the world has grown smaller, especially through social media, marriages between citizens of different nations have become more common -- and so have divorces. Family lawyers like Jeang increasingly find themselves representing clients splitting from spouses in foreign lands. It is a complicated business, involving clashing cultures, inconsistent legal systems, and scant guidance about which country's laws control. Most practitioners work in small firms or as solos.
"We call it the Wild West Frontier of practice areas," said Jeang, managing partner of Ideal Legal Group, a four-attorney, minority-owned firm in Los Angeles. About 25 percent of the divorce cases she handles involve transnational marriages. Most clients arrive by word of mouth, she said, and through her ties in the Asian community in Southern California. She generally charges about $350 an hour plus a $5,000 retainer.
The U.S. government does not specifically track international marriages, much less divorces, but several indicators suggest they are on the rise. In 2000, 196,405 people obtained permanent resident status as spouses of U.S. citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2011, the number was 258,320. The divorce rate in the United States is around 3.4 per 1,000 people.
"There's no question that international divorce is on the increase," said Marsha Garrison, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and secretary-general of the International Society of Family Law. "You get more international marriages, and you get more international divorces."
In Europe, the increase in international divorces has prompted lawmakers in some of the countries in the European Union to standardize divorce laws. The new rules, for example, allow couples to decide which country's laws they want to control the proceedings. And in China, the homeland of a growing number of Jeang's family law clients, the divorce rate shot up by nearly 15 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to China's Ministry of Civil Affairs. It climbed by more than 7.3 percent between 2010 and 2011.
Jeang has handled cases involving divorce laws in China, Taiwan, Brazil, Canada and elsewhere. Her most common cases echo her own background -- the wife has moved to the United States so her children can attend school while the husband has remained in their native country, where he may own a business or property. Sometimes the parties resolve their disputes with little court intervention. But contested cases can move excruciatingly slowly, with simple matters dragging on for months.
"A lot of countries aren't computer-savvy," Jeang said. "Even getting a document [from the courts] can take weeks."